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jennifer graham

End the war on sun

Despite earnest anti-tanning efforts by schools, the patio still beckons

Coco Chanel was the French fashion designer who went on vacation in 1923 and returned with a suntan, creating a new standard for Caucasian beauty: unhealthily discolored skin.

Nearly a century later, it’s a pre-cancerous standard that persists today, despite the earnest efforts of our public schools and the Obama administration. Like our efforts in Afghanistan, the war on sun continues at great expense with little discernible progress.

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Thanks, I’m afraid, to people like me.

When my daughter was in ninth grade, a teacher told her she should never spend more than 10 unprotected minutes in the sun. She now shouts this at me through the screen door while I’m sprawled on the patio, tanning. Give me the Bad Mom award. I sneak an hour in unfiltered sunlight like other people sneak cigarettes. I grew up before anyone ever imagined SPF 75. I know melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, but also that cellulite looks better brown.

When tanning beds were introduced in this country in 1979, I was a senior in high school, primed for addiction. My friends and I were enthralled with the idea that we could look glamorous and healthy after just 10 minutes under long bulbs. We put bumper stickers on our cars that said, “It’s better when you do it indoors.”

And it was better — at least until the day I removed my protective goggles for a minute and burned my eyes so badly that I had to go to the emergency room. A couple of days spent in bed with ointment and eye patches should have scared me away forever, but UV rays ensnare, just like alcohol or meth, and 30 years later, it’s only the cost keeping me away from tanning salons.

The sun, however, is free.

So there on the patio, I set a bad example for my kids, who have a whole unit on melanoma in health class, but none on stomach cancer or gall-bladder disease. The sun, it seems, is more threatening than a lifetime of processed meats. On school field days, we’re to apply sunscreen liberally at home, and wear hats for added effect. This is good and benign advice we all should heed, just like we all should drink lots of water. But schools don’t have to be fanatical about it. When I read that administrators in Rhode Island and Connecticut have abolished recess, I always suspect it’s to keep our kids safe from the dastardly sun.

The hijab may yet come to mainstream America, not as an expression of religious belief, but to prevent melanoma and freckling.

Until then, the federal government attempts a sin tax, 10 percent imposed on tanning beds by the health care law. But the administration hasn’t made us any skinnier, nor will it make us paler, from the line I see at the counter of the Milford tanning salon. It still seems to be thriving, and this month, is hawking pre-prom packages for teens. In California, minors can’t use tanning beds at all, but in Massachusetts, they can with a parent’s permission. Presumably, this is good for business, because when the moms go in to sign, those who grew up sunning will succumb to the long bulbs, too.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, you know. We hate to do it, but we need the UVA to be happy. And when we get home, just a little bit more on the patio, for the vitamin D.

When the Twilight books went viral, I thought Edward Cullen had finally killed Coco, his pale vampire self making pallid the new sexy. I figured we’d all be Cullens now, hiding indoors unless it’s drizzling and gray. But amazingly, even bitten, Coco lives.

My teenage daughter won’t tan at a salon; my ER experience ensures she’ll never get the necessary permission. But her friends do, and sometimes I find her on the patio, eyes closed, rosy face lifted toward the sun. But don’t worry; I won’t let her stay more than 10 minutes.

She’s in my chair.

Jennifer Graham is a writer in Hopkinton.
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