Dear “Powder”: It’s okay to be pale

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Have you seen this video yet? What a great message! Wouldn’t we all like to have a word with our 16-year-old self? Hindsight is 20/20, right?  This is a clever campaign called “Dear 16-year-old me” created by the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund that’s picking up a lot of steam for skin cancer prevention–a cause I can really get behind as a former tanning addict during my teen years…

I vividly remember the first time I got a “bad” sunburn. It was around 1994/1995. I was an impressionable, insecure 14-year-old high school freshman who desperately wanted to shed my nickname, “Powder.” Remember that movie about an albino boy with special powers? It debuted around this time. Thanks Hollywood…your timing was impeccable! Give a group of emotionally immature pre-teens a timely pop culture reference and the sky is the limit for teasing….

For a blonde, fair-skinned (let’s be honest, my skin almost qualified as translucent) teenager who just made the cheerleading squad, I was told I needed some “color.” So what did I do? I took to my black-top trampoline with a bottle of baby oil and baked in the sun. The dark color mixed with the high sheen of the oil is like a magnet for the sun’s most dangerous rays. Perfect! I’ll be tan in no time. Wrong. As expected, I developed a sunburn that in some places could have passed for shades of purple. As if the nickname and teasing wasn’t hurtful enough, nothing compares to the pain of charred skin. Aloe vera? Please. I needed a local anesthetic.

As most girls can attest, having a good tan during your teen years is like a date to the prom–it’s highly coveted. My friends and I religiously flocked to the “sun beds,” as we called them in Louisiana, paid our $25 monthly fee and cooked under the ultraviolet rays for about 30 minutes a day–everyday. I remember owning my own pair of protective eye wear (this resulted in “racoon eyes”) and a roll of stickers in the shape of  hearts that I placed on my hip to measure the progress of my tan. Tanning beds were like CliffsNotes–a shortcut that seems brilliant at the time, but will eventually catch up with you.

But unfortunately, like smoking, there’s no going back when it comes to sun damage. Sure, you can decrease your risk for cancer by stopping the behavior, but most of the damage has already been done. What I wouldn’t give now to jump in a plutonium-powered DeLorean with Doc Brown, find my teenage self and say “stop the madness!” But alas, that’s not possible. Punishment for this shortcut will probably come in the form of early wrinkles…if that’s all I get then I consider myself lucky.

Thankfully, I haven’t had any skin cancer scares, but I guess only time will tell. Truth be told, it’s actually one of my biggest fears. I can’t tell you the last time I actually “laid out”–without a generous coat of sunscreen at least–and I certainly don’t remember my last session at a tanning salon. At some point in my life, I decided to finally kick the habit and give up my lifelong quest to be tan. It’s not meant to be…and that’s okay. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing tans all together, I just don’t think it’s a good idea for naturally fair-skinned people to try to speed up the process.

So what would I tell the 16-year-old me now that I’m 30 and much wiser? It would go a little something like this:

“Being tan won’t matter 15 years from now. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you should too. If they jumped off a bridge, would you? Embrace your alabaster skin and protect it. Not only will it possibly save your life, but when you’re middle-aged, you’ll thank me because you won’t be spending a small fortune on anti-aging regimens. Not to mention you’ll spend the rest of your life worried about your risk of developing skin cancer. Is looking good in a cheerleading uniform really worth the hassle of casually checking your skin every few months for signs of suspicious moles? I should hope not, young lady. Also, if you’re really desperate for a “glow,” in 15 years sunless tanning products will come a long way. And another thing…listen to your mother. Ditch that idea of getting a perm. It doesn’t work out.”

So what would you tell your 16-year-old self after watching this video? Are there any other former tanning addicts out there? We’d love to hear your stories!

It’s never too late to kick the habit! For more information about skin cancer and a video about the sun’s effect on your skin, click here.

This post was contributed by Ashley Howland, social media manager for Baylor Health Care System and editor of Sammons Says.

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