Sunbeds: Are they simply an 'irrational' compulsion?

It’s 2017, and according to health officials and the media (the main informers of the British public), Sunbeds are BAD - an ‘irrational’ form of consumption.

Nowadays, the ‘rational-thinking’ individual should associate sunbed consumption with their negative effects…
  • Redness, burning, peeling and blistering of the skin – risking skin cancer (melanoma) in the long-run
  • An unsustainable dependence on shallow compliments for self-esteem.
  • Costly maintenance, inconvenient/awkward secrecies, and time wasted travelling.
  • An undesirable association with a ‘Tanorexic’ identity. The stigma attached to ‘obvious’ sunbed users is not favourable. Katie Price? Kat from EastEnders? Not to mention many politicians …. And in horror films a ‘Tanorexic’ habit may result in being cremated alive …   
With such stigma in mind, how has this industry, worth millions of pounds, both persisted and thrived for over thirty years? And why do over 3 million Britons continue using them every year? The popularity of the industry has drastically declined in many European countries. In comparison, the yearly rates of sunbed consumption have remained fairly constant in the UK.

My thesis will explore the interweaving factors leading to the industry’s success since the 1980s. But over time this early popularity was shadowed by anxiety and fear - sunbeds became ‘an irrational’ and ‘self-destructive’ consumption.1 From my research (and from the viewpoint of many informants who discreetly or apologetically use sunbeds) this negative perception of sunbeds remains. This post will complicate this dominant perspective, promoted by many health officials and broadcast via current medias, by offering an unusual and more empathetic interpretation. I will illustrate how sunbeds could be understood as both a ‘rational’ and ‘empowering’ form of consumption (at least on the surface), providing an explanation for their persistence.

First, we are bound by sociocultural pressures and expectations. Ian James Kidd remarks that during the last few decades the representative ‘beautiful (western) body’ is located in a smooth, trimmed, tanned, toned body, cosmeticized and sexualised, obedient to the demands of the beauty industry. In academic discussions, the persistence of this ‘tanned’ element of ‘beauty’ is often acknowledged. But compared to other ‘beauty criterions’, the phenomenon has not been explored in-depth. Sunbed manufacturers and purveyors are a significant sector in the beauty industry; however, the historical and sociocultural reasons why people routinely use this publicly stigmatized technology, and consequently feel that they are both ‘empowering’ and ‘liberating’, is not debated.

Second, building on sociocultural ideas of what is thought enjoyable, it is widely accepted that we are indulgent and instinctive consumers, especially when it comes to quick, easy, convenient and cheap (but not too cheap) short-term sensual pleasures. Regardless of how we wish to interpret ourselves, we do struggle to visualise the health risks and emotional costs of our long-term actions and decisions. In other words, it is hard for us to accept that what may appear ‘rational’ in the short term -- for instance, consumption of goods and services that offer sensual and ‘body liberating’ pleasures -- may be ‘irrational’ in the long term, with damaging health and emotional consequences. Generally, we are not long-term rational consumers.

‘The significance of a suntan. An invisible purchase into a status symbol everyone could see.'
Since the early twentieth century, a tanned complexion has been increasingly admired and desired by pale-skinned populations of Northern European descent – a method of ‘beautifying … which no cosmetic [can] equal’.2 Moreover, since a tanned body required maximum skin exposure, a bronzed complexion marked a rebellious rejection of Victorian morals –  a ‘symbol of modernity’, with an exotic and erotic ‘charm’.3 Even at the end of the twentieth-century, this golden indication of ‘sexual empowerment’; admirable ‘deviancy’, and ‘liberation’ did not disappear.4 In 2004, The Times announced that ‘no matter how often we’re told that the pale and interesting look is in, we still prefer bronzed skin’.5

As consumers, we are aware (consciously or subconsciously) of how skin colour determines our position in cultural hierarchies – influencing how we are treated in social interactions.6 And a natural tan is still regarded as a representation of ‘health, happiness… and beauty’. Perhaps it is even still associated with a ‘middle-to-upper class status’ in Britain.7 Consequently, sunbed users have received compliments because of their tans - ‘boosting self-esteem’ and ‘rebuilding confidence’.8 Has this social advantage ‘rationally’ inspired both women and men to desire and maintain a bronzed complexion in contemporary society, despite the potential long-term health risks? Or might pleasure-seeking in itself be considered a rational behaviour for consumers?

Rationalising sunbed consumption?
Imagine it is May. You’re walking through your local town and beautiful bronzed bodies are appearing more frequently. You feel this underlining tension about this EXTREMELY important social event coming up in a few weeks’ time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have that golden glow? Being THE envy of your friends? Showered in compliments wherever you turn – ‘what lovely healthy skin you have!’ Sunbathing over the weekend in your back garden is an option. But we’re in England. It will rain, and the sun is too weak to sustain a long-term tan so early in the year.

A holiday? A whole week by the pool in Spain. But that’s expensive, and you can’t miss work. Plus, you’re exhausted already just thinking about the restless hours spent wriggling, twisting, sweating, melting - trying to get that EVEN body tan. And within a few days you’ll be back home your pale and frumpy self again.

Fake tan or a spray tan!? But that stench of mouldy biscuits. Still - it’s apparently ‘healthier’. So, a quick google search of the best fake tan reveals … £37.50!!!! Extortionate. And it’s a gradual self-tan, needing an application '3x a week for 2 to 3 weeks' – how long is that tiny bottle going to last! A well-reviewed spray tan is just as expensive – if not more when you acknowledge the necessary weekly top-up. How much would you have to spend on fake tan all summer to maintain a risky ‘fake’ bronzed complexion? £100s!?!?! And what happens if you apply when rushing in dodgy lighting. Or if you put it on the night before and it’s hot so you sweat whilst sleeping. THE (semi-permanent) ORANGE STREAKS OF DOOM will be radiating from your body for everyone to see for days! 

A sneaky secret visit to a sunbed shop could work? If you register an account with the new Tanning Shop in town you get a FREE SESSION. And a hefty discount on a ‘100-minute package’. Shame you’re not a student anymore – pretty much half price! But, if you ‘refer a friend’ you can claim £10 worth of free sessions. Maybe call Colin from work? He was complaining about being pasty today, and stressing about upcoming night outs with his mates who have natural tans from working outside all day – but he didn’t want to go to a sunbed shop on his own.

Memories from last year’s tanning sessions flood your mind. The refreshing coconut aroma when you walk in (okay, okay – probably masking the faint smell of burning skin). The calming palm tree themes and the vibrant tropical colours. Invest in wonderfully scented lotions? Watermelon lemonade OR toasted coconut and marshmallows. And slowly slather it all over before a session. Not only does it make your skin super soft but it’s written that it will both protect your skin and increase the melatonin release - speeding up the darkening process. So, you’ll only need to go on twice a week! And besides, you’ve read that sunbed tans are natural protection: great for your upcoming sunny holiday in September.

The woman at the counter makes you feel so cared for. Last time she advised a safe number of minutes for your skin type to avoid going red. Goggles were provided for free – she assured you that absolutely no damage would be done. Wearing a light top and shorts to work tomorrow will allow you to easily and quickly undress when you get to the salon. Jump into the stand-up sunbed, jiggle and dance to the exciting adrenaline pumping music, breathe in the refreshing blasts of fresh air from the fan and embrace the sensual warmth, like when you’re lying on a beach, and maybe stretch a little – warming and relaxing your tense muscles. All of this without a drip of sweat. No passer-by will ever know your strategic tanning secret as you walk home. You’ll wake up in the morning, beautifully golden and refreshed. Naturally looking more toned in your reflection. Hey! You feel so great – you may be able to skip a gym session.

Your parents might disapprove. They’ve read all the ridiculous stories from the Daily Mail – ‘TANOREXIC – AGE 30 – DIES – SUNBEDS ARE ADDICTIVE LIKE HEROIN’. But you’re not one of those neurotic fools. Bright orange. Crudely spoken. And those anti-sunbed campaigns are so over-dramatic. Apparently, the statistics are exaggerations and lies anyway. If sunbeds were that bad the government would have completely banned them by now.9 And your friends said their GPs recommended sunbeds to cure all kinds of skin conditions. Makes senses. Your skin is much silkier - clear of spots and smooth after a session! No financial detriment either - 6 minute sessions costing 50p a minute. Cheaper than a large coffee from Costa.

Overall, sunbeds are straight-forward and reminiscent of spa therapy. Obviously, an experience producing health and vitality. We’ve all read that ultraviolet radiation increases healthy levels of Vitamin D - releasing ‘serotonin’ and ‘endorphins’. Chemicals that relieve pain and generate uplifting sensations of happiness and strength.10 It is a euphoric experience - boosting confidence and self-worth. You’ll be investing in yourself. Feeling Empowered. More attractive. Sunbeds allow you to expose and liberate your body. How can they be an irrational consumption?

All the above are fragments heard from conversations with masses of people; anecdotes from newspapers and magazines, or advertising pitches to sell sunbeds. If the consumer of sunbed services feels and is tempted by sensations of relief, exhilaration, empathy or comforting indulgence, it suggests that we are not instinctively ‘long-term rational and health abiding consumers’.  Moreover, in our culture, we take pride in marking our bodies by our consumptive practices, and we increasingly use our skin as a canvas for expression – signalling a desired portrayal of an identity. Our appearance represents an externally portrayed individuality that indicates to others how we would like to be perceived and treated.

Consequently, when it comes to tanning and health, what we unconsciously understand as ‘looking and feeling healthy’ can be extremely different to BEING healthy, presenting complex and blurred boundaries. In 2017, a tan still ‘feels and looks healthy’. But ‘Sunbeds are Bad’. Regardless, as a tan ‘looks and feels healthy’ sunbed consumption can be rationalised as an empowering and sensual consumption. Illustrating why individuals continue to use them AND why the sunbed industry remains popular.

[Moreover, to complicate matters further, what I’ve written is just one interpretation. For an extended and more complex analysis, exploring the powers at play within the sunbed industry, please check out my most recent post on my personal blog, called ‘Bronzed and beautiful’ … BUT docile bodies?’.]
If you can empathise with the ‘rationalising sunbeds’ passage, and it sounds like you or a friend? Or if you strongly disagree and think differently about sunbed sessions, please feel free to share your thoughts or tell me more:

Fabiola Creed (History of Medicine PhD, Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick, Wellcome Trust funded). My thesis is provisionally titled ‘Advertising, Stereotypes and Health Advice: Understanding Sunbed Consumption in Contemporary Britain, 1978-2016’. I am interested in the changing visual culture of sunbeds, investigating how sunbeds were presented first as ‘healthy’, then ‘addictive’ and finally ‘life-threatening’ over the last few decades. An oral history element will also explore why sunbeds became superabundant in Liverpool compared to other regions. I also write about topics relating to Addictions, Bodies, Drugs, 'Excessive' Consumptions, Gender …. and SUNBEDS.
1. C. Harrington, T. Beswick, ‘Addictive-like behaviours to ultraviolet light among frequent indoor tanners’, Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, Vol.36, Issue.1, (2010), pp.33-34.
2. T. Woloshyn, ‘’Kissed by the Sun’: Tanning the Skin of the Sick with Light Therapeutics, c. 1890-1930’ in J. Reinarz, Medical History of Skin (Pickering & Chatto, 2013), p.192.
3. D. Atchison, ‘Shades of Change: Suntanning and the Interwar Years’, from C. Warsh, D. Malleck, Consuming Modernity: Gendered Behaviour and Consumerism before the Baby Boom (UBC Press, 2013), p.163, p.168.
4. J. Batsleer, Youth working with girls and women in community settings: A feminist perspective (Surrey: Ashgate Pub., 2013), p.85; S. Connor, The Book of Skin (Cornell University Press, 2004), p.64.
5. ‘Body and Soul’, The Times, 25 June 2004.
6. C. Benthien, Skin: on the cultural borders between self and the world (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p.11.
7. Atchison, ‘Shades of Change’, p.173.
8. M. Cliff, ‘Tanning addict who wants to quit the habit reveals she goes on sunbeds six times a week’, Daily Mail, 18 June 2015.
9. Debbie Johnson, ‘Bad word, bad World’, Liverpool Echo, 29 May 2004.
10. M. Kaur, et al., ‘Indoor tanning relieves pain’, Photodermatology Photoimmunology Photomedicine, Vol.21, (2005), p.278.


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