Bringing Sexy Back

by Quinn O'Neill V2

One of my windows overlooks a large grassy field that's shared among residents of my building. On sunny days, it's often strewn with young bikini-clad women, irradiating their flesh in order to achieve a darker complexion. Some people surely would appreciate the view; but being of the wrong sexual persuasion, having studied pathology, and having had a few friends who've had skin cancer, I can think only of the risks associated with their behavior.

Cancer is arguably the most serious consequence of excessive sun exposure. Worldwide, skin cancers comprise a third of diagnosed malignancies and most are attributable to over-exposure to UV radiation. Skin cancer comes in a number of varieties, the most common types being squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and melanoma. These vary widely in their appearance, but all arise when cells within the epidermis – the outermost layer of the skin – proliferate in an unregulated fashion and invade the underlying tissue. They can kill either through extension to adjacent vital structures or by metastasizing to other organs.

Despite the risks associated with UV radiation, almost 28 million Americans visit sunbeds every year, with 70% of these being white women between the ages of 16 and 29 – the same demographic that turns up on the grass outside my window on sunny days. By their standards, the typical person affected by skin cancer might be considered old, but their own age group is not invulnerable. I've personally known a few people who've developed melanoma – the most deadly kind of skin cancer – close to or before the age of 30. I grew up in a town with a large population of pale Celtic descendents, so my experience isn't reflective of risk in the general population; however, it probably does reflect an increased risk of skin cancers among lighter complected people. Unfortunately, very fair people at high risk may also be the most likely to feel unacceptably pale and take to the lawn in a bikini.

In addition to cancer, sun exposure may contribute to the development of wrinkles and “sun spots”, conferring an aged appearance to the skin. This would seem a minor problem compared to potentially lethal cancers, but it ought to deter those who tan for the purpose of improving their appearances. The bronze complexion of today's young sun worshipper may foreshadow a not-too-distant future in which she looks like an old leather boot.

A pale Caucasian myself, I understand the pressure to be tanned in the summertime. On occasions when I've worn shorts or sundresses, I've had people tell me directly, “my god, you have got to get a tan”. I've also used sunless tanning products, which sometimes left me looking more like a beta carotene-rich vegetable than a tanned human, and I've felt self-conscious about my pallor in a variety of social settings.

As the aim of tanning, presumably, is to improve one's attractiveness, we might ask ourselves why we consider a tanned Caucasian to be more attractive than a pale one. Our perception of sexy is undoubtedly shaped by a host of complex factors. In this video, philosopher Daniel Dennett explains how evolution can influence our perception of sexiness, among other things:

In the distant past when food was scarce and medical science undeveloped, pallor may have been a reliable sign of malnutrition or illness. Those who were attracted to such correlates of poor health might be expected to leave behind fewer offspring than those attracted to markers of health and fertility. Consequently, genes contributing to attraction to pale people would become relatively rare in the population. In the current circumstances of western society, however, an aversion to pale skin may be less adaptive. Rather than a tan complexion being an indicator of health, fertility, and longevity, it's now more suggestive of ignorance of the risks of UV radiation and elevated skin cancer risk.

What we perceive as sexy is also heavily influenced by culture. In some societies where darker skin shades predominate, lighter skin is considered more beautiful. India, for example, has a booming skin-lightening industry.

Within a given culture, perceptions of beauty can change over time. Alabaster skin was considered attractive in Victorian England but a tanned complexion has been preferred in modern times, with sunbeds gaining such popularity in the UK that legislation was passed in 2010 to ban under-18s from their use. In the US, the pale Caucasian is similarly unfashionable, as evinced by the popularity of tanning beds, sunless tanning products, and the half-naked women on my lawn.

Perhaps with the celebrity of pale movie stars like Anne Hathaway and Nicole Kidman, alabaster skin will once again be in vogue. But our inability to shed our current skins in favor of this season's hottest shade should give us pause. Perhaps skin color is not the sort of thing that ought to go in or out of fashion.

To the extent that we can decide for ourselves what consitutes sexy, it would behoove us to choose standards that won't destroy our health in the long term. Industry cultivates a false perception of attractiveness in order to make money. It's the sort of attractiveness that can be bought as sessions in a tanning booth or expensive creams to be squeezed out of a bottle. It's fake and it's dangerous. To be truly sexy is to be healthy, happy, and comfortable in your own skin, whatever color it may be.

photo credit: “Venus in the Mirrors”, author Nevit Dilmen, Wikimedia Commons

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