Addicted to the Sun
The Body Image Factor
Even if you don't think you fit the "tanorexic" profile, you might be one of the millions of women who skip SPF in order to get a "healthy" glow -- a potentially deadly routine that experts believe is fueled more by vanity than biology. "Being tan made me feel healthier and more attractive," says Teresa Baglietto, 44, of Roseville, California, who had a squamous-cell skin cancer removed from her lip last summer. "I'm a fitness coach, so it was important to me to have a tan because I thought it enhanced my muscle tone."
Many women claim that being bronze makes them look thinner and that it minimizes the appearance of cellulite, acne, and other skin flaws. And how's this for a vicious cycle? "When some women start getting wrinkles -- which were probably caused by sun exposure -- they may tan to try to hide them," says Carolyn Heckman, PhD, an assistant professor at the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia.
Perhaps it's not surprising then that excessive tanning has recently been associated with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), in which a person obsesses over a perceived physical flaw. "Sufferers are often women in their 30s who look normal but think they're deformed or ugly," says Katharine A. Phillips, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She conducted a study that revealed that 25 percent of people with BDD try to manage their symptoms by tanning, whether it's a preoccupation with acne or the size of their thighs. If you tan frequently and worry more than an hour a day about how your skin looks, you may have BDD. Fortunately, cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors seem to help about two-thirds of people.
If you think UV addiction might be behind your urge to tan, try to wean yourself off it gradually to prevent side effects such as mild depression, suggests Dr. Feldman. "Cut your exposure in half for a few weeks, then continue halving the time until you've stopped tanning completely," he says. At the same time, get an endorphin buzz from healthier activities like exercising, getting a massage, or eating small amounts of chocolate.
Need more motivation to shun the sun? "I have to go to the doctor every six months for a CT scan of my chest, abdomen, and pelvis to make sure the cancer hasn't spread. Sometimes I have an MRI of my brain, too," says Karen Irons. "Basically, every six months I have to worry about whether my doctor will tell me I'm dying. Trust me, a tan really isn't worth it."
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