Real Life: The British way to burn: It's unhealthy, but our obsession with tanned flesh continues. Geraldine Bedell on sunbathing

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
THE SUN shone last week, and the British took off their clothes. Labourers laboured in short shorts; office-workers emerged to display red cellulite and pudgy flesh round shoulder straps. Sunbathing is a national obsession: according to a survey in this month's Good Housekeeping magazine, only 5 per cent of British women would rather be pale and healthy, and more than a fifth admitted to sunbathing at any possible moment.

This is not rational. Tanning is something you are supposed to do to leather: do it to skin, and old leather is what you get. Lying in the sun makes you sweaty and uncomfortable, and afterwards your T-shirt rasps. Yet year after year, millions of Britons push past the pain barrier, getting second degree burns and all shivery in the evenings.

There was a time when the British liked skin pale, when fair was a synonym for beautiful. Eighteenth-century beauties powdered their noses white - admittedly with toxic chemicals which ate into the nervous system. Edwardians went to the beach to swim: when they came out, they sat under parasols in their usual generous amount of clothing, not forgetting shoes. Sunbathing as a leisure activity, as a competitive sport, even as a philosophy, is a late 20th-century phenomenon.

Coco Chanel is said to be the culprit, having supposedly returned from the Cote d'Azur between the wars with a suntan (although flappers were actually already at it at the Cote's 'tanneries'). Going for the burn became high fashion, coinciding neatly with new medical fashions for free limbs, and bodies exposed to the elements (hence the enthusiasm for hiking and youth hostelling, which reached its apogee, we militant pale people like to note, with the Nazis).

The cosmetics companies quickly became alert to the massive potential market in preparations to allow people to stay longer in the sun, then mitigate the painful after effects when they had. Only arms and legs were affected at first, but by the Sixties, with mass tourism to the Mediterranean, sexual freedom, and the bikini, whole bodies were being laid out on the sand like drying squid.

Back in the days when pale was preferred, brown skin was stigmatised as a sign of outdoor work and low social status. But when wage-slaves began to work in offices rather than fields, a tan came to mean money, something pop- stars had, and those who could afford foreign holidays. Tanning became a competitive business. At my school we used to spend hours comparing the colour of our forearms (pointlessly: the people with most pigment always won). A Bergasol advertisement of the Eighties had two women sitting side-by-side at the edge of a pool, one with a brown back, saying 'I wouldn't dream of paying pounds 4 for a suntan,' and the other, with an incredibly brown back, retorting 'I can see that.'

And this childish competitiveness has not abated, despite dire warnings about skin cancer and a perceptible shift in jetset attitudes. Lucy Ferry and Jerry Hall now fly into Paris for the Spring fashion shows from the Caribbean looking as though they have spent Christmas in Bognor. Older women in this crowd have been forbidden by their cosmetic surgeons ever to tan again; younger ones, determined to minimise their need for nips, tucks and smoothings, are beginning to give pallor back its snob value, now that any old bimbo can get a tan on the Costa del Sol.

Disdain for sunshine is, however, all very well for those for whom getting to the Caribbean is only a question of finding a spare month in the diary. But for most Brits, deprived of bright light and warmth for most of the year, soaking up as much sun as possible in the brief time it is on offer remains irresistible. Jennifer Eastwood of the Seasonally Affective Disorder (SAD) Association, for people who are exceptionally depressed by bad weather, believes that 'everyone feels better when the sun shines, and this is not just psychological, but physiological, to do with light speeding the activity of neurotransmitters to the brain.'

When I went to work in the Gulf, where I lived for five years, people told me I would get fed up with waking up to blue skies and sunshine every day. It was simply not true. Blue skies and sunshine make getting up in the morning 100 per cent easier, even 350 days in a row. I loved it.

'Tanning is an addiction, because you have to keep topping up, so it's actually quite a relief when winter comes,' admits Louisa Campbell, 24, a television production secretary. 'I did plan to be careful this year, but then I got to Egypt and it was 90 degrees, and I was sunbathing without sunscreen. I hurtle out as soon as the sun shines: this week I've been out in my bikini top, with my shorts up to my bottom. I do think about ageing; I do think that in 30 years my skin may shrivel up. But 30 years is a long way off.'

And even as the sun blazes, serious tanners take to sunbeds. Angela Lenci, director of Burlingtons, a beauty salon with five sunbeds in central London, says she has no difficulty getting booked up between May and August. Her customers seemed more than averagely clued up about cancer and ageing, about their UVA and UVB risk (Ultraviolet A is thought to be responsible for ageing; UVB, not transmitted by sunbeds, is implicated in skin cancer). However, they weren't necessarily having a great time. 'I don't enjoy it at all; I'm glad to come off,' said Sarah Sedley, 35, a photographic librarian. 'I don't like lying on the electric bars, and I don't pull the lid right down because I feel claustrophobic. But I'm going to a couple of weddings and I thought I was a bit pale.'

Linda Austin, 45, a trade union officer, came out of her session, well, bright red. Suffering now, she explained, meant not having to suffer on holiday. 'I have about six sessions before I go away, and, despite what all the research says to the contrary, I do find it stops me burning so easily in the sun. I will use a factor 15-20 sunscreen on holiday, working down to a factor eight at the end. I only want a light tan - not that I could ever get any other sort.'

Increasingly, a light tan, a 'healthy glow,' is the thing to have. Deep tans are associated with white slingbacks, ankle chains, vulgarity. But one person who will not be after even a light tan this year is Rachel Pengelly, 27, a technical support worker in computers for an insurance company, who developed a mole on her thigh when she was 18. The mole 'bled, itched, and had skin peeling off it all the time,' she says. 'It had undefined boundaries; a colourless liquid came out when I knocked it; and it changed shape in the sun.'

Rachel's GP sent her to a skin specialist who diagnosed malignant melanoma, removed the mole, and then ordered a radical excision of an 11cm circle of tissue from her groin. The operations were successful, 'but I was very aware of the implications if the cancer had had time to set up a network. I was never a sun-worshipper, but now I cover up even on a hazy day. I wear factor 15-plus sunscreen, with protection against UVA. There are still a lot of theories about what causes skin cancer, but the way I look at it, you wouldn't stick your hand in a flame without a fireproof glove, so why do the equivalent to your body in the sun?'

There has been a 108 per cent increase in the most dangerous form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, in Britain since 1974; there are some 34,000 new cases of skin cancer here a year. In Australia, where all three types of skin cancer are 10 times more prevalent than in Northern Europe, health professionals patrol all the major beaches warning people to cover up, and schoolchildren are issued with hats: habits have changed and skin cancer rates have stabilised.

British sun is not safe: dermatologist Rona MacKie of Glasgow University says one-third of the melanoma patients she sees have never been abroad. Fair-skinned, blue- or green-eyed people who burn easily are far more at risk. The two less dangerous forms of skin cancer are commonest among fair- skinned people living towards the equator, whose exposure to the sun is constant and cumulative. Malignant melanoma, by contrast, attacks office workers whose exposure comes in short, intense bursts.

Some recent American research has suggested that sunscreens may not actually prevent malignant melanoma, as the cosmetics industry claims; and indeed, that by giving a false sense of security, they may encourage people to stay in the sun and absorb much higher doses of UVA than are good for their health. The traditionalists point out that in Australia, increased use of sunscreen has, at the very least, been part of a wider campaign to cover up and stay in the shade, which seems to have been successful.

There are always fake tans. The women using sunbeds last week believed that fakes were streaky and expensive; Greg Snow, a writer who recently bought his own sunbed, said that keeping his whole body fake- tanned 'would be like painting the Forth Bridge. And anyway, doesn't fake tan make the sheets go orange?' But the days of fake tans in vilely unrealistic hues, which were streaky and made you smell like a chocolate factory, are gone - at least if you are prepared to pay a lot of money.

Better than slopping on the fake tan, however, might be coming out as a militant pale person. Walk around white. In a multicoloured society, why should fair people pretend to be some other colour than the one they were born? Pale is pretty. And think of all the fun with the hats.

(Photograph omitted)