Sunday, March 25, 2012

Well, duh: Young women tan despite health risks

I don't want to call out any one sorority,
so I'm leaving this purposefully vague :)
All this week my Facebook feed has been blowing up with links to a new study that was presented at the American Academy of Dermatology annual meeting. Key points of the study:

- Two thirds of sorority members at a Midwestern university used tanning beds.
- 93% intentionally tanned outdoors.
- 40% had no plans on using sunscreen.
- To give perspective, 81% of young women in the U.S. (not just sorority chicks) tan outdoors and 32% have used tanning beds in the past year.

While these numbers are sobering, I can't help but to think: well, duh. I love Rich from Hotel Melanoma's reaction to the study, which he titled "The Folly of Youth":
"My initial reaction to this story was to get uppity, shake my head, and dismiss these young women as vain and vapid airheads. But then I remembered some of the high-risk behaviors I engaged in as a college student in the early 70’s, knowing they were risky but thinking I was bulletproof. I once read that the male brain doesn’t reach maturity until we reach the age of 25 or so, and until then we aren’t fully capable of rationally evaluating the potential risks and consequences of our actions. If I’m representative of my species and gender, I don’t doubt this one bit."
Whether you're male or female, Rich is right. If you're still in your teens and possibly early twenties, you can probably blame your prefrontal cortex for some of your impulsive behavior. A book I finished recently about the prefrontal cortex and decision making says:
"Brain areas that are relatively recent biological inventions--such as the frontal lobes--don't finish growing until the teenage years are over. This developmental process holds the key to understanding the behavior of adolescents, who are much more likely than adults to engage in risky, impulsive behavior. More than 50 percent of U.S. high school students have experimented with illicit drugs. Half of all reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases occur in teenagers. Car accidents are the leading cause of death for those under the age of twenty-one. These bleak statistics are symptoms of minds that can't restrain themselves." -Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide
We've all done stupid shit. When I was pledging my sorority, I did particularly stupid shit. Truth be told: if one of my sorority sisters had asked me to jump off a bridge--I would have (especially if they prepped me with a shot of SoCo and lime and told me I'd have a date for winter formal waiting for me at the bottom). College is a really tricky period of time in life. You're not a kid anymore, but you're definitely not an adult, and you're far from living in reality. For me, this was exacerbated by the fact that I want to a small, private East coast school that was heavily Greek. Everyone knew everyone else and we were all up in each others' business. Sorority girls aren't necessarily "vain and vapid airheads." Quite the opposite, actually. Some of the smartest, most intelligent women I know have been Greek, but there's a tremendous amount of peer pressure that goes on inside a sorority. Consequently, you have premeds graduating magna cum laude with eating disorders, binge drinking problems, and a propensity to line up for the tanning salon before heading to Cabo for spring break.

I think the only real way we'll be able to decrease the number of tanning bed users will be to change our perception of what's attractive. Simply knowing that tanning is dangerous will not stop sorority girls--or anyone--from sunbathing. It actually took about a year or so after I had my run-in with melanoma that I started to realize, maybe pale really is prettier after all. Friends still poke fun at me sometimes, telling me that maybe I should go outside and get some vitamin D. Six months or so after my surgery, I remember being at the lake with a group of friends, literally fuming with jealousy that they all got to lay there, soaking in the sun, returning home with tan lines and flushed cheeks. Right in front of me. Even having known me, seen my scar, and heard me complain to death about how evil the tanning salon industry is, a number of friends and acquaintances still tan. They know what can happen to them, and yet they still do it. So, really, I want to just ask everyone, what is it about the fake 'n bake that's really all that attractive? Because as long as ya'll love the Jersey Shore look, we're going to continue to see a rise in melanoma in young people.

Image: Papermag


  1. Hi Katie, you said it far better than me. (BTW, speaking as one old guy I think a woman's natural skin tone is prettiest.) Keep getting your message out.

  2. I love, love, LOVE this post, Katie! It is so well written! I look back of pictures of me pre-melanoma and I cringe. Not only do I look unhealthy, I look OLD! Keep doin' what you're doing! XO

  3. Love this post! You speak so well about this topic, and I agree that we need to change people's perception about what is beautiful. I grew up on Cape Cod and spent a lot of time in the sun when I was younger (but did wear sunscreen). I'm lucky as I would rarely burn, but I am much more careful now. My skin is very fair and I'd rather use lots of sunscreen as I want to be safe, and don't want more wrinkles later on in life.

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