Maekup and makeup brushes

Insights from the makeup chair

During the Summer of 2022/23 I appeared live on a TV news program to speak about the glamourisation of tanning in advertising. I arrived at the station much earlier than required so I had the opportunity to have my makeup done before I went on air. I was explaining to the makeup artist why I was appearing on the show and told her about my Stage IV Melanoma diagnosis.

I was in the chair for quite a while, and she continued to keep adding foundation to my face. I watched my face getting darker and darker, and I was uncomfortable with what I was seeing. I couldn’t go onto a national news program to discuss the dangers associated with the glamourisation of tanning, with a skin tone that was not naturally mine.

I pointed this out to her, and she replied, Good point and went about changing the colour to a more natural tone.

What she had done was instinctive. Being a ‘bronzed Aussie’ is so ingrained in our culture that she automatically wanted to make me appear more tanned.

The media and advertising industries have played a significant part in creating this ‘bronzed Aussie’ ideal since as far back as Federation.  They were responsible for commentary on and promotion of an ideal Australian ‘race’ which included being tanned and fit.

There has been debate in the advertising industry as to whether it actually creates culture, or just holds a mirror up to it. My observations from having worked in the industry is that people switch sides of the debate when it best serves their objectives – a client’s feedback on a creative idea that the agency believes is the best solution, might prompt the response “we’re not creating the cultural standard, we’re just reflecting it” and yet how many creative briefs and ideas have been bought based on the promise of shifting the cultural norm?

Let’s accept, for argument’s sake that the industry is just holding the mirror up. When it becomes apparent that holding the mirror up is fuelling dangerous behaviours, shouldn’t we stop it or at least follow some guidelines? In a similar way that has been done for smoking or the reportage of suicide?

Or what if we discovered that the mirror is inadequate, that it doesn’t show the full picture? Shouldn’t we change the angle of the mirror, so we see the true breadth of reality? Like we are trying to achieve with gender equality and diversity, racism, ageism and other stereotypes? In these cases, both the media and advertising have been encouraged to, and in some cases, have driven the adoption of positive role modelling to reflect this diversity.

Why then shouldn’t the same be done for sun exposure? Especially when skin cancer kills more people each year than die on our roads and two out of every three Australians will be diagnosed with it before they turn 70.

Research has consistently found there is a direct link between seeing tanned bodies in media and advertising and an individual’s subsequent intentions and behaviours when it comes to tanning[1]. The image doesn’t need to be of someone tanning to have this influence. Just seeing tanned people in the media places a value on tanning which leads to increased sun exposure and less sun protection [2].

The impact of images and narratives in advertising and media can have a cumulative and lasting effect to the point that observing individuals with tanned skin in the media can project this as being the social norm[3].  

Adolescents particularly, seek to emulate what they see in the media when it comes to tanning and attractiveness ideals. When they see happy, attractive, successful people in the media who are tanned, they internalise the ideal of being tanned. They believe, in order to be like these people in the media, they need to look tanned like them too[4].  

Whilst the media world has changed significantly in the last 15 years, its influence on tanning ideals hasn’t. Social media is pervasive in its influence on tanning, the more time adolescents spend on social media is positively associated with more sun exposure, less sun protection and increased skin tone dissatisfaction[5].

The popularity of reality TV programming has also created what could be termed the ‘Kardashian effect”. A research study in Belgium found that women who watch reality TV come to recognise that there is an appearance standard for skin tone, and once they accept that, they go on to view themselves in terms of their appearance instead of their personality[6].

The good news is attitudes and behaviours towards sun protection are always open to being changed by the prevailing influences [7]. The same study that found showing an image of an attractive tanned person will influence tanning behaviours, also found that showing the image of an attractive person without a tan led to less tanning, increased sun protection and improved ‘image norms’ of paleness.[8]

The advertising and media industries need to understand the role they are playing in Australia’s skin cancer issue and start making changes.

Change can start in small ways, just like it did with me and the makeup artist.


[1] McWhirter et al 2013 Systematic review of population-based studies on the impact of images on UV attitudes and behaviours. White et al 2008 Exploring Young People’s Beliefs and Images About Sun Safety.

[2] Cafri et al 2006 Appearance Reasons for Tanning Mediate the Relationship Between Media Influence and UV Exposure and Sun Protection.

[3] Thomas et al 2016 Why do young adults tan?

[4] Eastabrook et al 2016. Melanoma risk: adolescent females’ perspectives on skin protection pre/post-viewing a ultraviolet photoaged photograph of their own facial sun damage

[5] Mingoia et al 2017 Use of social networking sites and associations with skin tone dissatisfaction, sun exposure, and sun protection in a sample of Australian adolescents

[6] Trekels et al 2017 Beaty ideals from Reality Television and Young Women’s Tanning Behaviour: An Internalisation and Self-Objectification Perspective

[7] Dobbinson et 2008 Weekend sun protection and sunburn in Australia trends (1987–2002) and association with SunSmart television advertising.

[8] McWhirter et al 2013 Systematic review of population-based studies on the impact of images on UV attitudes and behaviours. White et al 2008 Exploring Young People’s Beliefs and Images About Sun Safety.

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