An ode to paleness

It’s about time being pale was in style.

by Bronwyn Miller


Since we’ll all soon be showing more skin as the weather gets warmer, I might as well get this off my chest now. When it comes to paleness, I’m the fairest of them all. The mirror, mirror on the wall can confirm.

Bronwyn, a Welsh name, literally means “white breast.” I never had a chance.

I’ve gotten used to being the token Casper at all warm-weather gatherings. We don’t need to put our arms out and compare who’s tanner. You win.

Believe it or not, I’m fully responsible for my own condition. My skin is actually quite capable of a tan, but I wear SPF 70 every day — rain or shine, winter or summer. I think I’m the only person who studied abroad in South America for a year and still managed to be the palest one in Minnesota when I came back in July.

Although I committed to this practice a long time ago, it still stings to hear the lifestyle I’ve embraced be discussed in not-so-euphemistic terms like “pasty,” “sickly,” “ghostly” and my favorite, “You look translucent.”

Our culture promotes the “sun-kissed glow” as associated with being active, adventurous, fit and beautiful. Alternatively, one of the mainstays to the nerd stereotype is paleness. It’s a pretty clear message. But our internalization of the idea that tan is healthy is ironic, given that any tan is in fact just a sign of skin damage. Experts agree: a “healthy tan” from ultraviolet rays does not exist.

Most of us already know the facts. UV radiation from the sun and artificial sources is listed as a known carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. The WHO’s group one classification puts tanning beds right up there with tobacco. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is the most common cancer among ages 25 to 29, and a 2012 Mayo Clinic study found that melanoma rates among women ages 18 to 39 increased eight-fold between 1970 and 2009.

The study, conducted in an area that is 85 percent white, clearly conveys a major risk group. And yet almost 70 percent of tanning salon patrons are Caucasian women, generally between ages 16 and 29.  The revenue of indoor tanning salons in the U.S. was $5 billion in 2012. The quest to fit society’s standard of beauty is powerful enough to override even the most glaring statistics.

Beauty magazines have shaped up a little in recent years, promoting sunscreen use and highlighting tanning’s risks, but the ideal they promote remains; the method is all that has changed. Now, instead of sunbathing, we are instructed on how to achieve the ever-coveted “bronze babe” look through expensive, complicated — and underperforming — lotions, sprays and other self-tanning products.

Sadly, the “grass is always greener” phenomenon is definitely at play here. While tan is the standard constantly fed to us as desirable, people in other countries hear the opposite. Fairer skin is equated with wealth and beauty, among other attractive qualities. The worldwide skin-lightening industry will be worth $10 billion by 2015, according to Global Industry Analysts.

But just as with tanning, this practice carries hazardous health consequences. Many of the products most sought after for their effectiveness contain mercury and hydroquinone.

The issues behind both these practices run deep and, to be sure, are quite complicated. But change can begin with us. Instead of constantly chasing manufactured ideals, we desperately need to embrace a “natural skin” movement that celebrates the look we were born with — no matter what shade that is. If the health risks aren’t enough, think of it this way: That “sun-kissed” look will be the “leather handbag” look in a decade or so.