Is Avoiding a Tan a Subversive Beauty Act?

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Apparently it's socially awkward to eschew the sun like it's high-fructose corn syrup. Here's why.

Pale skin on the beach


Coco Chanel came back bronzed from a holiday in Cannes in the 1920s and tanning has been glamorous since. Although these days, a growing number of New York women are following the lead of fair celebs like Cate Blanchett, Kirsten Dunst, and Gwen Stefani and saying merci but non to the burnt sienna look, for both vanity and wellness reasons. Though there seems to be a lot of explaining going on about their choice.

Dispensing with the "healthy glow" concept

For some, stepping off the tan train has to do with seeing that there's nothing healthy about that "healthy" glow.

"Tanning and exposure to the sun is known to cause DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer," says Mollie McKillop, a pharmaceutical data analyst in New York who stays out of the sun and religiously applies sunscreen. Some may think she takes it all a little too seriously. But she's adamant. "As someone who works in the health industry, I think it’s hypocritical to not try to be as healthy as possible."

Almost 30, she can already tell her discipline is paying off, appearance-wise. "When I started my current job, my coworkers thought I was an undergraduate intern!"

I, myself, have always shunned the suntan thanks to red hair and an alabaster complexion that meant I was the rare kid growing up in New Mexico in the '70s whose mother slathered her with sunscreen. Once it became my own choice, I continued to steer clear of the sun, swayed by the fact that both of my parents were diagnosed with skin cancer, as well praise from my dermatologists and facialists. I'll never forget the wise Eastern European who explained the sun's damaging rays: "UVB means 'you vill burn,' and UVA means 'you vill age.'"

The subversively "un-tanned" woman

The big surprise is that despite everything we know about the risks of tanning (and despite the fact that designers are finally turning out cute, non-skimpy beachwear), it can still seem downright subversive for women to openly—gasp!—love their fair look.

Casey Hamilton, also almost 30, has naturally pale, Swedish skin that doesn't tan easily. After dabbling in tanning beds in college, she now follows the lead of family members who have amazing skin they attribute directly to staying out of the sun. But she still meets resistance.

Gwen Stefani
Gwen Stefani looks glam, but protected. (Photo:

"My friends made fun of me on the beach in San Juan for insisting on having an umbrella set up," Hamilton says. "As the sun shifted so did my friends—away from me, so the sun didn’t affect their tanning."

Doctors are seeing sun-avoidant patients, just not enough of them

New York City dermatologist-psychiatrist Amy Wechsler, MD, says she'd love to see more of her patients embracing their paleness. "I am seeing more patients who are avoiding the sun and tanning, or at the very least taking precautionary measures to avoid UV damage, but many people are still major sun worshippers," she says. "We have made headway in educating the general public...but we still have a long way to go."

Because the risks are real: The surgeon general recently issued a report finding that nearly 5 million Americans are treated for skin cancer each year. About 9,000 people die each year of melanoma, and that number is rising.

As for vitamin D, an issue that's sometimes raised by the pro-tan crowd, the Vitamin D Council says it takes as little as 15 minutes for a fair-skinned person to meet her needs. In the winter, when there's not enough sunlight for the body to produce vitamin D, the proudly pale can simply take supplements.

Personally, I'm over the social awkwardness of not tanning or glowing or even bronzing. Sure, self-tanners and airbrush treatments have gotten better, but I’ve never considered that road. I embrace my pallor, and even enjoy shopping for long-sleeve cover-ups and rash guards, wide-brim hats, and broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Because here's the thing: I'm 40, but routinely told that I pass for 28. Call it good health or vanity, both are paying off. —Ann Abel

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