Dying for A Tan

Lexie at her first appointment at Huntsman Cancer Institute on Sept. 9, 2014. Yuck.

Two years ago, we at Beauty Redefined published a popular post arguing that the soaring increase in the number of young women with skin cancer is a beauty issue above all else. It has to do with young, light-skinned women believing tanned skin is equivalent to looking more beautiful, thin and “radiant.” We acknowledged there are a few causes worth dying for, but having a “bronzed, healthy glow” is NOT one of them. In a startling turn of events, I (Lexie), was diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. On Sept. 24, 2014, I had surgery to remove a large chunk of my thigh and three lymph nodes that could spread cancer throughout my body. And I can 100% confirm that tan skin is not worth dying for.

Friends, before years of research into how harmful unattainable beauty ideals can be and before forming Beauty Redefined, I was a light-skinned girl that bought the lie sold to us at every turn that tan skin was most beautiful. I’ve stepped foot in a tanning bed at least 15 times throughout my life. I laid out at the pool without reapplying sunscreen more times than I can count. And I would *beg* my younger self to do things differently. I would shout to her what I shout to the world now – You are more than a decoration for the world! Don’t buy the lie that your value and power are dependent upon your looks! Our lives are valuable, and that is abundantly clear after receiving a skin cancer diagnosis at age 28.

Crazy enough, skin cancer statistics demonstrate that we ladies really do believe a “healthy glow” is worth dying for, or at least worth having large areas of skin removed and tested for the rest of our lives. The incidence of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) in young adults is sky-high, with a six-fold increase in the past 40 years. Most interesting to us is the fact that the rise is BY FAR most noteworthy in young women ages 18-39, where the incidence of melanoma increased eight-fold from 1970-2009, while it increased four-fold for men.

This is a significant gender-specific finding. There are lots of factors to be taken into consideration in this soaring number of skin cancer diagnoses, but we’re ready to argue that this is, above all, a beauty issue. This isn’t an issue of ignorance or lack of education on the harmful effects of sun exposure or indoor tanning. This isn’t an issue of young white females just absolutely loving UV rays more than their white male counterparts. This isn’t an issue of girls desperately seeking more vitamin D while boys are less interested. This is an issue of Caucasian girls and women being totally convinced that having tanned skin is equivalent to looking more beautiful, and that beauty is worth every risk. “Having tan skin makes you look thinner,” “Having tan skin gives you a radiant healthy glow,” “Having tan skin gives you confidence.” Yes, confidence that you look beautiful, because if you’re not tan, you’re “pasty white,” “ghostly,” “pale” or – if you’re a famous actress but not a regular shorts-wearing high school girl – “a peaches and cream complexion.”

Where did we get this idea that fair skin is embarrassing, unflattering or a flaw in need of fixing by desperate means? By “desperate means,” we’re referring to baking in an indoor cancer coffin (a.k.a. tanning bed), lying unclothed in the blinding sun on a lava-hot lawn chair/trampoline/beach (a.k.a, sun bathing), paying good money to get hosed down with orangey-brown skin dye that sheds off in patches within 5-10 days (a.k.a. spray tanning), or slathering yourself in smelly orangey-brown solutions at home twice a day for two weeks while not touching any fabric or light walls for an hour because you will leave a distinctly “sun-kissed” look on everything (a.k.a. self-tanners).

I know what you’re thinking. “No one uses those sun reflectors anymore!” (And I hope you’re right.) And also, “You’ve obviously never tried [insert favorite brand] tanning lotion/spray/skin suit! Pasty skin problems solved!” But that’s all beside the point. The point is that tan skin is a manufactured beauty ideal, and people are literally paying for it with their lives, or at least with huge areas of skin and debilitating treatments. When Coco Chanel made the game-changing statement in 1929 that “a girl simply has to be tanned,” it began to turn tan skin from a sign of low socio-economic status (from outdoor labor) to a chic and glamorous characteristic of recently-vacationing white women. Just like the brand new fashion trend of the time that prized tall, thin, flapper-esque bodies for women, the tan skin trend hasn’t gone away (now with added boob jobs)! But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it started making the beauty industry LOTS of money. Turning women from pasty and pathetic to bronzed and beautiful became a brand new market for the U.S. and spawned a nationwide influx of indoor tanning salons that saw a revenue of $5 billion in 2012.

Fun facts that make tanning a distinctly young, white, female, deadly problem:

  • Nearly 70 percent of tanning salon patrons are Caucasian girls and women, primarily aged 16 to 29 years.
  • The US Department of Health and Human Services and the WHO’s International Agency of Research on Cancer panel has declared ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a known carcinogens (cancer-causing substances).
  • Based on 7 worldwide studies, people who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 87 percent. (Source)

The indoor tanning people have fought back ferociously against the completely true and inarguable findings connecting tanning and skin cancer, but experts agree that there is no such thing as a “healthy tan” when it comes from UV rays. Their advice? “The number one thing – stop going to tanning beds,” says dermatologist and researcher Dr. Jerry Brewer. “All correlations point toward that as the reason for the [melanoma] increase.”

As the evils of indoor tanning, or “fake baking” as it is traditionally known, have come to light in the last several years, another brand new tanning industry was born! Sales of U.S.-produced self-tanning products increased more than 18% in 2012 to make it a $609 million industry. According to the industry itself, self-tanning “has grown furiously for more than a decade, and the economic downturn failed to slow it down.” (source) These self-tanners are largely marketed by beauty-related companies, which means, guess who the target audience is?! Us, women! We need so much help to fix our pasty messes! Thank goodness for these products. But just in case you don’t want to slather the tanning goo on your glowing white bodies yourselves, now a stranger can do it for you! The spray-tan industry popped up in the early 2000s to hose down nude or mostly-nude women with the perfect shade of “burnt sienna” or “blood orange” (thanks to “Bride Wars,” for warning us what can happen when this all goes terribly, terribly wrong).**

Still, despite the many millions of dollars we U.S. ladies are spending on these new-fangled indoor tanning solutions each year, our incidence of skin cancer is at an all-time high. Rather than advocating trading sunbathing for spray tanning – or arguing about the merits of either – we want to question our culture’s unflinching allegiance to the idea that girls and women must be tan. That tan skin is most beautiful*. That tan skin looks most “healthy” – regardless of one’s natural skin tone or how much damage gets done to it by tanning.

We see scary similarities to the worldwide skin-lightening industry that is set to rake in $10 billion globally by 2015 by convincing women of color from the U.S. and China to Nigeria and India that fair skin is most beautiful, most feminine, most desirable – and alternatively, that dark skin is ugly, shameful and unworthy of love. A full two-thirds of India’s dermatological industry is dominated by skin-whitening products, including totally mainstream companies with names like “Fair and Lovely.” Ew.

Though the skin-darkening and skin-lightening movements might appear to be opposites, they’re extremely similar. The U.S. tanning industry has got nothing on the world’s “fairness cream” and “skin lightening” industry in terms of revenue (and shockingly degrading messages), but they use similar tactics to incite appearance anxiety in women and then capitalize on that body shame by selling products to “fix” the flaw. In many cases, those so-called “solutions” to our skin tone problems are extremely dangerous to our health – whether it’s burning your face with hydroquinone to get a lighter complexion or burning your whole body with UVA/UVB rays to get a darker complexion. Both have proven to be deadly.
This vicious cycle of “never quite good enough” is fantastic for a consumer culture supporting $100+ billion beauty product and weight loss industries, but it is certainly not conducive to real progress as individuals or as a culture. Join with us in pushing back against the skin tone ideals that have been manufactured for us and used against us. Let’s own our skin tones. Please commit with us to no more fake baking and spreading on the sunscreen when we’re out in the sun. We want to live long, healthy, cancer-free lives with you and your beautiful-as-it-is skin!

To decrease your chances of getting skin cancer, dermatologists recommend:

Wearing hats (big, floppy, bright-colored ones are highly recommended by me) and other protective clothing when out in the sun

Staying in the shade or bring an umbrella when possible

Applying lots of broad-spectrum sunscreen often

Avoiding sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever using tanning beds

Check your skin every month. Here is all the info you need.

Beauty Redefined recommends:

Believing that you are capable of much more than looking hot

Trying out these strategies for recognizing and rejecting harmful messages and kicking bad body image habits

Offering to slather sunscreen liberally and often on friends, lovers and nice-seeming strangers

Joining our awesome community on Facebook for extra help to love your skin color and avoid tanning when you’re feeling especially weak

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

* What the tanning oil and tanning bed people want us to forget (or at least disregard for the moment) is that what they advertise as a “bronzed, sun-kissed look” right now will very likely become a “leathery, sun-shriveled look” later. If we’re so motivated to improve our appearances, let’s let the vanity-based consequences of our sun worship help us kick the tanning addiction!
** Lots of people are questioning the health implications of these faux-tanning products, but at only about 15 years old, the industry is new enough that long-term complications haven’t been proven.

Starving and Stifled: Women are Counting Calories Instead of Changing the World

By Vanessa Garcia (Originally published Sept. 5, 2014 in the Washington Post)

I was lying in bed in my New York City apartment when the world went black. My breathing had gotten sluggish, and my heart felt like it was slowing down. I didn’t feel pressure in my chest, and I didn’t feel pain, just an overwhelming sense of tiredness and fatigue. A complete depletion of energy and the absolute inability to move. And then: black.

I hadn’t eaten anything but gum and coffee for three days. Even before that, I’d been eating very little for weeks, months, even years. I was 24 years old and a full-fledged anorexic-bulimic.

It was 2003, and I was trying to launch my career as a writer. I had dreamed of publishing my first novel by then. Instead, between the ages of 15 and 29, I suffered from numerous bouts of anorexia and bulimia. I wasted my most promising years and what little energy I had obsessing over my weight.

My problem reached the extreme, but these kinds of unhealthy relationships with food are hardly uncommon for women. At every turn we see them: a woman counting calories, a woman dieting despite her normal weight, a woman cutting carbs or pretending she’s allergic to gluten so she doesn’t have to eat that slice of pizza at the office party. I have friends who spend three hours at the gym and run marathons on a diet of bananas. This isn’t an exaggeration. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 25 percent of college-aged women binge and purge as a form of weight-control.

College-educated women are leaning closer to the toilet bowl than to Sheryl Sandberg’s boardroom table. In the past several years, women have been speaking louder about gender discrepancies in the workplace, unfair pay and the paradoxes that arise out of trying to “have it all.” On the surface, 21st-century feminism seems to be booming. But even as writer Hanna Rosin proclaimed “The End of Men” in 2010, women were really the ones disappearing. Quite literally. According to a 2009 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

Women are starving themselves. They’re spending more time thinking about their calorie intake than how to change the world. It’s not just the severe disorders that we have to be wary of. In a 2008 survey by SELF magazine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 75 percent of women reported disordered eating patterns, 37 percent regularly skipped meals to lose weight, and 26 percent cut out entire food groups. The report concluded that “eating habits that women think are normal — such as banishing carbohydrates, skipping meals and in some cases extreme dieting — may actually be symptoms of disordered eating.”

The drivers of this illness are all around us. Models weigh as much as 30 percent less than their recommended weight and plus-size models are often as small as a size 6. The press tells us that Victoria Beckham lost her “baby weight” with the Five Hands Diet, which means she ate five fistfuls of food a day. And there are actresses such as Elizabeth Hurley, who notoriously told Allure magazine that she’s always “thought Marilyn Monroe looked fabulous, but I’d kill myself if I was that fat.” Monroe was about 5 feet 5 inches tall and fluctuated between 118 and 140 pounds.

Even now, when songs like “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor hit the pop charts, I have to wonder if they are the solution or the problem. The song, touted as a healthy-sized woman’s anthem, is actually pretty demeaning considering that the only reason Trainor gives for being happy with her curves is that guys like them: “Yeah, my mama she told me don’t worry about your size/She says boys like a little more booty to hold at night.” 

Women have to take their bodies back. We can’t close gender gaps when we spend endless hours counting calories instead of cracking glass ceilings. We can’t gain self-assurance when body dysmorphia is so abundant. It takes a whole lot of strength, fuel and energy to push all of inequity’s baggage off of us.

I know exactly the kind of life that weight obsession leads to. I was shaken out of my blackout by an enormous push on my back, a big jolt and something — perhaps my inner voice – whispering, “You have too much left to do.” I realized that I was alone and that I could very likely die that way. I could waste away, along with my brain, my thoughts and everything I could possibly become. I put on my coat, went outside and bought a wrap. I tried to ingest it. It was painful, both physically and emotionally, but I wanted to live. This was the beginning of my recovery. Back then, I was 5 feet 5 inches tall and 100 pounds with a winter coat, sweaters, long underwear and boots on. (I only weighed myself fully dressed in winter, so if I weighed too much, I could blame it on the extra clothes.) It took five years from that moment — two of those in weekly therapy — for me to truly gain normalcy in my eating patterns. 

All I can think now is: What a waste of life. I think about the missed opportunities and the unmet goals I sacrificed because of the time and energy I wasted on cutting my weight. If I could talk to my 25-year-old self, I’d tell her,

“Your time is precious. Get help. Do it now. You have too many important things to do.”

Vanessa Garcia is a writer, playwright, and journalist. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of California Irvine. 

Amen, Vanessa. When girls and women are constantly fixated on calories, carbs, weight, shape and appearance, they are stunted in every other thought process or pursuit. Our health, happiness, relationships, education and contributions to the world are damaged and stifled when we are dedicating a steady, invisible stream of mental and physical energy to monitoring and controlling our appearances. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can take our power back by recognizing the forces that push us to fixate on our bodies and recognizing the amount of time and energy we often unwittingly devote to these distractions. Once we recognize how unnatural and stifling it is to prioritize the look of our bodies above all else, we can reject those messages, beliefs, and actions that keep us in those chains. We can fulfill the potential each of us have to contribute good to a world that needs our unique awesomeness.

You can use your pain — your dark, unhappy, hurtful thoughts and experiences relating to your body — as a platform to grow stronger. You can see more about yourself and the world, and be more than you could be without that pain. Not in spite of those hard experiences, but because of those hard experiences. This process is called Body Image Resilience, and it is within anyone’s reach who is willing to face body image problems head-on rather than coping with them through harmful means like disordered eating, cutting, abusing alcohol, or any other means of attempting to hide or fix our bodies.

Need more help developing body image resilience that can help you overcome your self-consciousness and be more powerful than ever before? Learn how to recognize harmful ideals, redefine beauty and health, and resist what holds you back from happiness, health, and real empowerment with the Beauty Redefined Body Image Program for girls and women 14+. It is an online, anonymous therapeutic tool that can change your life, designed by Lexie & Lindsay Kite, with PhDs in body image and media.

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