Monday, June 22, 2009

The Price of Perfect Skin

Since yesterday was the official First Day of Summer and since many people will be soon headed to beaches, pools, and backyards for work or play, I decided to write today about an especially pertinent topic: skin cancer. Skin cancer is a disease whose onset mimics that of cigarette smoking, since both frequently manifest themselves much later in life. When we overdo both, we experience a few day's discomfort---sensitive, reddened, painfully peeling skin or a congested hacking cough and sore throat. To reiterate, the short-term damage to our quality of life created by both of these actions is nothing compared to the long-term danger. What complicates prevention of both of these highly preventable diseases is that young people are among the worst offenders. In our youth, we are consumed with enjoying our lives. As we age, we are increasingly consumed with prolonging it.

Adolescents do not often understand the long-term consequences of their actions, instead often impulsively compelled to follow the latest fashion trend. Thus they are the most susceptible to fads, in particular the frequent usage of tanning beds and a desire bordering on obsessive to achieve a perfectly tanned body. Tanning beds, in particular, have been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer and skin damage in later life. It nearly goes without saying that any tan, strictly speaking, is a protective measure adopted by the body as a means to prevent sun damage caused by UV radiation. Though sun tanning in moderation, particularly in combination with the use of sun screen greatly cuts down on the possibility of developing skin cancer, many teens and pre-teens neglect to use suntan lotion or use it infrequently.

Tanned skin has been popular now for around the past decade in the United States, but it hasn't been until recently that our often-nonsensical popular culture has set its sights on the 'tween set. A press release put out by a Dermatological group underscores that parents are well aware of the problem presented by frequent tanning and overwhelming disapproving of the practice. In addition, two states have banned tanning bed use altogether for those under the age of fourteen. That boys and girls who have barely reached puberty are compelled to emulate their older peers in the pursuit of a perfect body should give us all reason to take pause. Once childhood was seen as a respite from the inevitable stress of adult, or even teenage concerns. Now we as a society seem to be caught squarely in between two extremes in this regard. To me, the effect produced looks like the five-year-old girl wearing her mother's oversized high-heeled shoes, having slathered lipstick haphazardly across her face in the process.

What this underlines is a much greater problem. Our increasingly looks-driven society has been progressively pushing back the minimum age at which it is socially acceptable for young people to dress suggestively or to display overt sexuality. Even in the past few years, 'tweeners have progressed from dressing like girls to dressing suggestively in the mold of Hannah Montana.

In the same mold as the commercialization that gave rise to Hannah Montana is the is the sad fact that tanning beds have become an industry, and a lucrative one at that, which makes billions of dollars per year. One can't help but notice that our collective pursuit of perfection is disproportionately slanted towards females and often demands adherence to practices, like tanning, that are harmful to the body. What concerns me most is that the minimum age by which young women are instructed to resort to near-fanatical means to perfect their appearance also seems to be steadily moving backward, year by year. It should be noted that young men also are also at risk. Many are tanning bed devotees, as well, though out of a fear of seeming effeminate they are often much less inclined to be honest in reporting the behavior.

In a very real sense, we are all bombarded with mixed messages regarding body image. Each of us ends up grappling with a kind of disconcerting, paradoxical doublethink when we contemplate personal appearance. Regarding tanning, though in one hand we might conclude that someone with a paler complexion is healthier, on the other hand we don't wish to seem out of place, either, and may opt towards tanning as a way to not seem out of step with others. Regarding our children and young adults, it cannot be overstressed that they are, ultimately, a reflection of who we are. The image staring back at us is worth contemplating since their conduct and their behavior frequently mirrors our own strengths and weaknesses. From time to time, we all can act like children, but when it comes down to a matter of preventative health and good sense, we simply cannot afford to be.

No comments: