5 December 2000

Australian female adolescents still rate tanned skin as more important than minimising the risk of getting skin cancer, according to a University of Queensland study released today.

UQ researcher Liane McDermott of the Centre for Health Promotion and Cancer Research said her studies found that suntan desirability was a barrier to adequate sun protection among adolescents.

"The belief that tanned skin enhances one's physical attractiveness continues to be an entrenched societal value and a common primary motivator for voluntary sun exposure," she said.

"Australians are generally more educated about sun protection than other cultures after 20 years of campaigns since the launch of Slip Slop Slap in the 1980s.

"However, adolescents are most vulnerable to image concerns and are a tougher group to change in behaviours.

"Although adolescents were concerned about skin cancer, they were also concerned about self-image and looking beautiful due to culture pressures of today's society. Their stereotypical image of beauty, although magazines presented models with a variety of hair colours and skin shades, was still of a blonde, tanned woman."

Ms McDermott, a project officer at the Centre, is conducting a number of studies on sun protection interventions for mothers of babies under three years; on media stereotypes associated with tanning levels; and on using The Wiggles characters to make toddlers keep their hats on.

For her Masters degree, Ms McDermott examined socio-cultural factors which promote the desirability of tanned skin among female adolescents by investigating its representation in the print media and its eminence as a beauty standard.

She analysed content of teen magazines Dolly and Girlfriend to determine the frequency and extent of tan levels of models/celebrities.

The study recorded personal characteristics of models in the magazines, such as hair and colour, body type, clothing style and extent of skin exposed, to examine any stereotypic characteristics associated with a suntan. The magazines were further analysed for representations of sun protection.

Ms McDermott also conducted focus group interviews to explore female adolescents' perceptions of societal beauty standards (especially on skin colour) and their perceptions of socio-cultural factors of suntan desirability.

She said compared with the early 1990s, the current study showed a trend in the magazines toward lighter tans. 25 percent of models were portrayed without a tan and 50 percent had lightly tanned skin. Only 25 percent had medium to darkly tanned skin. However, the portrayal of sun protective clothing was minimal, with fashion clothing failing to incorporate sun protection in outdoor settings.

Her findings will be released at the On the Beach conference of The Cultural Association of Australia at The University of Queensland's St Lucia campus today.

The Master of Social Science (health practice) project was supervised by Professor John Lowe, now of the University of Iowa's School of Public Health, and Associate Professor Mike Emmison of UQ's Sociology, Anthropology and Archaeology Department.

Next year Ms McDermott will commence PhD studies on interventions to reduce suntan desirability.

Media: Further information, telephone Liane McDermott at telephone 0408 786 574 or Jan King at UQ Communications 0413 601 248.