Tanning Changes Your Brain -- And Your Body Image

Why do we do so many unhealthy things in our quest for good health?

I'm one of those people who tends to go into heavy denial at the end of summer. I wear flip-flops long past Labor Day. And I also admit to getting a bit anxious about my forthcoming pastiness. My DNA does not hail from a sunny climate. Fishbelly white is our natural hue. And sadly, skin cancer prone is our natural state. But if I had lived in a different time -- say the 1960s, when my grandmother used to coat herself in baby oil -- I would certainly have spent my summers baking like a potato chip. And as it is, I'm already sad at the prospect of losing the mildly golden tone -- call it toasted fishbelly -- that I pick up by this point in the season, repeated sunscreen applications be damned.

All of which has me thinking about why we love tanned skin so much. One new study, published in the journal Addiction Biology, suggests we love  tanning because UV light hits our brains like a glass of wine or a line of coke, actually changing our brain chemistry in ways that mimic drug addiction. This builds on earlier research, which found that many sunbathers met the psychiatric definition of a substance abuse disorder, based on their answers to a variation of a test often used to help diagnose alcohol addiction.

Put this way, tanned skin seems more like a raging hangover or the stringy hair and teeth problems you see on hardcore drug addicts -- it's a hallmark of skin damage and in extreme forms, perhaps mental illness. But across the board, most of us still continue to prize moderately tanned skin as beautiful. We even consider it an emblem of health and talk about how "a healthy glow" implies you're active or athletic.

This is hardly the first beauty standard to be bad for our health; being heroin chic skinny, and getting plastic surgery all carry well-established health risks. But tanning is interesting because it's one of those beauty standards that is simultaneously bad for your health and yet prized because it makes you look "healthy." Whereas natural, untanned (read: healthy!) skin is often described as sickly.

I've been thinking a lot this week about how health and beauty get tangled up -- since our current beauty standard for thinness is so entertwined with our inaccurate belief that being fat is automatically bad for you. Tanning has stayed popular, despite everything we now know about skin cancer, in part because the industry manages to keep these myths about its healthfulness alive. And this impacts our body image, because it's hard to feel great about your body when you think you look unhealthy -- the pimples, the wrinkles and the cellulite all seem to come into sharper focus on a paler canvas. But maybe, the more we separate our ideas of what's healthy and what's pretty, the less stigma these tiny imperfections will carry.

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