Heather Stephenson

(WOMENSENEWS)–It’s swimsuit season and women’s bodies are once again being exposed to sun, and scrutiny. Self-consciousness will inspire some women to stay covered up. Confusion around skin cancer, vitamin D and the safety of sunscreens and other cosmetics will cause other women to wonder about following suit. And attitudes about race and skin color will keep additional women under cover.

Given these issues, it can be a challenge to stay happy and healthy during this season. But let’s not allow the supermodels in the string bikinis and the cosmetics companies with their questionable products to stop us from enjoying ourselves.

A middle path between worshipping the sun and staying indoors altogether does exist.

For many women, this is the time of year when our self-esteem issues literally come out from under wraps. After months of bundling up against colder weather, we often find ourselves in front of a mirror getting reacquainted with our inner thighs.

It isn’t always an easy moment. For too many women, accepting and enjoying our bodies as they are is a struggle.

Dressing Room Messages

That’s when the Dressing Room Project can help. This homegrown endeavor, started in Montpelier, Vt., in 2000, offers friendly encouragement against internalized self-hatred right when most women need it: as they’re trying on clothes.

Female teens involved in the project write messages of affirmation on colorful small cards and post them around the edges of dressing-room mirrors. My favorite says, “Worry about the size of your heart, not the size of your body.”

Like missives from a secret sisterhood, these positive messages catch your eye with their perky colors and interrupt negative self-talk before it starts.

Other groups around the United States have made their own cards or downloaded and reproduced the ones created in Vermont. Admittedly, it’s a small action in the larger effort to prevent eating disorders and increase self-acceptance. But it’s particularly welcome at this time of year.

Of course, the shapes and sizes of our bodies aren’t all that keep us from feeling comfortable showing our skin. While fair-skinned women may feel pressured to acquire a tan as a marker of beauty and leisure, darker-skinned women may avoid the sun in order to maintain or acquire the social status associated with lighter skin in a racist society. A whole industry of unhealthy skin-whitening and “anti-aging” products cashes in on this inequality. In this context, being told not to play in the sun can conjure up color prejudices.

But many women are working to rewrite these damaging aesthetics. Like the Dressing Room girls, they are celebrating our different sizes and colors, and are reminding us to focus on what our bodies do more than how we look.

Healthy Exposure

Getting into a swimsuit without signing up for a starvation diet, cosmetic surgery or other self-damaging behaviors is only one hurdle. Another is figuring out how much you want to expose your skin to the sun, or to sunscreens and other skin products.

The standard advice is to use sunscreen with a sun protector factor (SPF) of at least 15 to 20 even on overcast days and a higher SPF on sunny days or at times when you will be outdoors longer. Your sunscreen should be “broad spectrum,” blocking both UVA and UVB rays, the two forms of ultraviolet radiation from the sun that can cause skin damage.

Following this advice will reduce the likelihood that you will develop skin cancer.

But some exposure to the sun is healthy. It helps our bodies synthesize vitamin D, which promotes the calcium absorption necessary to develop and maintain strong bones and may help ward off certain cancers and immune system problems. Ten to 15 minutes of exposing your face and arms without sunscreen at least twice a week is generally recommended to provide adequate vitamin D.

Even spending this amount of time in the sun, many African Americans and others with dark skin may not synthesize enough vitamin D. The higher melanin content in darker skin that helps prevent sunburn and reduces the chance of developing skin cancer also reduces the ability to synthesize vitamin D from sunlight.

If you’re not getting adequate vitamin D from the sun, be sure to include good sources in your diet. Milk, cereals, orange juice and soy milk are often fortified with vitamin D. Few foods are naturally rich in the vitamin; those that are include fish liver oils, salmon, sardines and tuna.

Because getting enough vitamin D from the food you eat can be difficult, some nutritionists recommend supplements. Between 1,000 and 2,000 IU (international units) a day from all sources–sun, diet and supplements–appears to be optimal.

Chemical Concerns

In addition to awareness about vitamin D, some health advocates are raising questions about the chemicals in sunscreens and other cosmetics. Ingredients such as benzyl alcohol, aluminum starch octenylsuccinate, fragrances and oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) have raised serious health concerns.

An excellent resource to learn more about the ingredients in cosmetics is the Skin Deep database created by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research group based in Washington, D.C. The database lists many kinds of sunscreens and gives each a rating from 1 to 10 to indicate potential risks.

Concern has also been raised about nanoparticles being used in sunscreens. These tiny, engineered particles are poorly understood but preliminary research suggests that some may have harmful effects on humans.

Sunscreens that look white when applied to the skin probably do not have nanomaterials; sunscreens with nanomaterials are generally transparent. However, the only way to know for sure whether nanomaterials are among your sunscreen’s ingredients is to contact the manufacturer.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental group with offices in Washington, D.C., has called for a moratorium on the use of nanomaterials until adequate regulation and safety studies are put in place.

In the meantime, you may want to consider tried-and-true ways of enjoying the summer weather and protecting your skin. Staying in the shade at mid-day (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.); wearing a hat with a brim, UV-blocking sunglasses and other protective clothing; and limiting your exposure to direct sunlight are all time-tested methods to reduce the possibility of skin cancer without exposing yourself to potential new problems.

Sunscreen may be necessary for long swims at the beach or other extended times outdoors when it’s impractical to use clothing to cover up, but using it to increase your hours of direct exposure to ultraviolet light is most likely unwise for your health.

During this season of sun worship, let us remember that beauty comes in all shapes and shades and let us appreciate our precious skin enough to protect it, and play in it.

Heather Stephenson is the editor of “Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for A New Era” (Simon and Schuster, 2005); “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause” (Simon and Schuster, 2006); and “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth” (Simon and Schuster, forthcoming in 2008).

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

The Dressing Room Project:

Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep, cosmetics safety database:

Friends of the Earth, “Nanomaterials, Sunscreens and Cosmetics: Small Ingredients, Big Risks”

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.