Why we still think bronzing is tan-tastic
Pale might be interesting but Irish women still want to live in the bronze age, writes Susan Daly
Critics of Big Brother have never been convinced that the reality TV show has any merit as a social experiment. Yet, as the final series draws to a close, it can be credited with teaching us one thing -- people love to tan.
While the design of the house, the challenges and the levels of mental stability among housemates have varied wildly across its 11 series, the sunbathing in the garden has remained a constant. The sight of the contestants lounging around the outdoor area in bikinis and boxers has become as familiar an image of summer as newspaper pics of children eating ice-cream cones.
The 'hot or not' style barometers in women's magazines will occasionally declare that the tanned look is over and that pale is the holy grail of high fashion.
Porcelain-skinned model Agyness Deyn graced the cover of the July edition of British Vogue under the headline 'White Heat'. In the same high-summer month last year, famously pale actress Julianne Moore was the magazine's cover girl.
On the ground, and in our back gardens, it is a different story. A tan has most certainly not fallen out of favour. There is probably a heightened awareness of the dangers of excessive sun, but the market for sunless tanning is steady.
One of the success stories of the last series of entrepreneurial TV show Dragon's Den was TanOrganic, an organic self-tan lotion developed in Ireland. Its creator, Noelle O'Connor, was confident there was a market here, despite the recession. "Irish women are the biggest users of fake tan per capita in the world," she said.
Friends Donna Ledwidge (see panel) and Frances Brennan recently launched another new Irish self-tanner, Wow Brown, directly as the result of a demand from customers for a take-home version of the one they created for their Dublin salon.
"Putting on your tan has become as regular as putting on your make-up," says Donna.
Last week, two of the (male) contestants in the Big Brother house didn't think twice about spending the evening applying fake tan to each other. Pale might be interesting but many seem to prefer living in the bronze age.
What is it about a golden glow that makes us feel better about ourselves? Fans of the tan will claim that it makes them look thinner and more toned. Rosemary Scott, senior health promotion advisor with the Irish Cancer Society, says the celebrity influence is also very strong.
"You do see the presentation of certain 'pale' celebrities like Nicole Kidman and the girl from Girls Aloud but for the most part, celebrities are still very tanned," she says. "The message overall is that the tan is still important."
Certain high-profile fake tan brands believe that capitalising on this starry association boosts sales. How else would we be aware that Vita Liberate is the fake tan of choice for X-Factor contestants; that Britney Spears and Paris Hilton are fans of Fake Bake; or that Victoria Beckham had a St Tropez spray tan booth installed in her home?
It's not that this generation is particularly susceptible to celebrity. High fashion icon Coco Chanel is credited with making the tan fashionable in the 1920s and the appearance of a deeply-bronzed Brigitte Bardot in 1956's And God Created Woman popularised the trend.
Some scientists argue that our positive thoughts about tanned skin are as much about how we feel as how we look. Sunshine stimulates the pineal gland to produce mood-improving chemicals. Research has shown that stock markets rise on sunny days because investors mistake their happiness for confidence in the stocks. On cloudy days, sales of chocolate, cigarettes, coffee and alcohol go up as we try to elevate our mood.
Behavioural psychologists at Monmouth University in the US say that we are more likely to be generous on sunny days. Bellhops in gamblers' paradise Atlantic City found that when they told hotel customers in windowless rooms that it was sunny outside they earned higher tips than when they told them it was grey. Even the promise of sunshine makes us nicer.
In this way, the popularity of the tan is partly a byproduct of the popularity of the sun. Despite the sunsafe campaigns of recent years, the fact that we don't always fake it to make it was written in scaldmarks all over the crowds who flocked to parks and beaches to roast in last month's hot spell.
We know it's not good for us to burn -- but the dangers are pushed away in favour of the short-term gratification. Cases of melanoma skin cancer in Ireland rose by 92pc between 1998 and 2008, from 393 diagnoses to 756. This reflects the damage done decades ago when we were pretty much ignorant of any fallout from baring our goosepimpled, white, Irish skin to the sun.
"People are getting the message," says Rosemary Scott, "even so, you do need to keep saying it and saying it. In the 15-44 years age group, it is still the third biggest cancer. People should know that even though the sun is gone, 80pc of harmful UV radiation can get through cloud cover."
The Department of Health's proposal to ban the use of sunbeds to the under-18s is welcomed by cancer specialists -- but the fact that such a ban had to be brought in at all reflects their ongoing popularity.
David Treacy of Tanzone solariums says that the use of sunbeds has decreased but that there is still a strong seasonal clientele of people -- he estimates around 80pc are women -- coming in to get a 'base' colour for their holidays.
Treacy is adamant that "with sunbeds, if you don't burn, you're not increasing the risk of getting skin cancer".
On the opposite side is the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which last month recommended tanning machines be moved to the "highest cancer risk category" alongside cigarettes and asbestos. The question is, where do the rest of us sit on the question?
Do we believe that any tan is merely a sign of skin damage, or do we still secretly believe in a moderate "healthy" glow?
The answer might lie in our reaction to the term "tanorexic", often used to poke fun at mahogany-tanned celebs like Katie Price and Victoria Beckham. It's bandied about in the same way as someone might say they are a chocoholic, as in a habit that's silly and indulgent but ultimately not that harmful.
Hypnotherapist Katie-Jane Goldin says that, on the contrary, excessive tanning can be the outward manifestation of a very serious addiction.
Researchers at the University of New York this year published a study that found a small proportion of "indoor tanners" were hooked on their tanning sessions in the same way others are dependent on alcohol or drugs.
"They can be addicted to fake tan or sunbeds," says Katie-Jane. "Parents have brought in their teenage daughters who were practically luminescent from fake tan. They don't see what everyone else sees -- in essence, it's a form of body dysmorphia."
Katie-Jane notes that the 'Twilight effect' of teen heart-throb vampire Robert Pattinson has taken a bite out of the popularity of the tan.
"Saying that, the tan has been popular for so long, and we're so invested in it, that it has become an automatic way of thinking."
It may take more than a pair of wan-faced teens to change that.