To Tan or Not to Tan

By Daylina Miller



TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 27, 2010)  - Ask a young woman to pick between her health, her appearance and her self-esteem, and she’ll pick her looks most of the time - even when the pursuit of beauty brings with it serious health risks.


The question was posed by USF psychologist Jamie Goldenberg in a recent study on warnings about the danger of tanning. When college-age women were warned about the potential cancer risks of extreme sun exposure, they were more likely to tan because it made them feel attractive and good about themselves, the study said.


Conversely, those who were told that paler skin was attractive in conjunction with the health warning were more likely to use proper precautions, such as sun screen.


The study comes as the Food and Drug Administration begins considering stricter regulations on tanning beds due to the carcinogenic risks. The study raises new questions on whether warnings aimed at the prime customers of tanning beds – young, white women – would have the deterrent effect regulators intend.


Our study suggests that if warnings highlight health risks that they may backfire to the extent that the people receiving the message derive self-esteem from being tan,” Goldenberg said. “We wouldn't have anything specific to say about the difference between tanning indoors or outdoors; it's the desire to be tan that our theory relates to.” 


Goldenberg, a USF associate professor who has been at the university since 2005, has long studied why women will risk their health for the sake of their appearance. Her studies have focused on women because they are more likely than men to report basing their self-esteem on their appearance, she said.


In the study, “Bronze is Beautiful but Pale Can Be Pretty - The Effects of Appearance Standards and Mortality Salience on Sun-Tanning Outcomes,” Goldenberg worked with North Dakota State University professor Clay Routledge, University of Missouri professor Jamie Arndt and grad students Matthew Vess and Cathy Cox, and USF grad student Douglas Cooper.


The group found that young women who believe tan skin is attractive are more likely to tan when they are told it can hurt their health - a counterintuitive finding.


“This research suggests that when people are made aware of their mortality they will cling to sources of their value,” said Goldenberg. “They’re going to do what’s good for their self-esteem, not their health.”


The National Institutes of Health has found that indoor tanning rates are highest among those who are young, white, and female.


The researchers interviewed 53 college-aged young women at a South Florida beach and 101 Midwestern university students in a psychology class. They showed the women magazine articles about tans being attractive and featuring actresses Jennifer Lopez and Jennifer Anniston or pale skin being beautiful, featuring actresses Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman.


The women were then asked questions about their mortality or a neutral topic and whether they planned to tan and whether they would use sunscreen.


At the university, the study demonstrated that an awareness of mortality made those who read the tan article more likely to tan and those who read the pale article less likely to tan. At the beach, after reminders of death, beachgoers reported a higher preference for sun screen only after reading about the attractiveness of paler skin tones.


This could mean that health promotion campaigns that try to scare people into taking care of their health could have the opposite effect of what’s intended.


The study makes use of the terror management health model, proposed by Goldenberg and Arndt, which predicts that people are motivated by outcomes that increase their self-esteem over behaviors that lead to good health, particularly when thoughts of their mortality loom in their consciousness.


Routledge theorizes that tanning is a psychological cure for death.


“We all know we will one day die, but gain psychological security from feeling as if the social and cultural groups we belong to will continue to thrive long after we die,” Routledge said.


Cooper supervised the research assistants who traversed the beach scouring for willing participants in the survey and said he found it fascinating that the framing of messages about beauty could alter people’s decision on what sun precautions to take. The women said they would spend less time tanning or would use sunscreen, however none eschewed the sun.


“The pale article did produce changed behavior,” Cooper said. “Social standards and norms have a powerful effect on how we behave and when those standards shift, behavior can shift as well.”


The University of South Florida is one of the nation's top 63 public research universities and one of only 25 public research universities nationwide with very high research activity that is designated as community engaged by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  USF was awarded $380.4 million in research contracts and grants in FY 2008/2009. The university offers 232 degree programs at the undergraduate, graduate, specialist and doctoral levels, including the doctor of medicine. The USF System has a $1.8 billion annual budget, an annual economic impact of $3.2 billion, and serves more than 47,000 students on institutions/campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota-Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.