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Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is fairest of them all?

January 25, 2013

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is fairest of them all?

Snow White really had it all didn't she?

I mean, if you forget about the whole poisonous apple, evil step mother bit at the end...

The Magic Mirror declared she was the "fairest in all the land" with lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony and skin as white as snow (not to mention a very handsome Prince Charming and a variety of forest friends who did the house work).

Growing up reading the story of Snow White taught me that our fair, or natural skin colour, is beautiful, without a tan.

Yet, in Australia, we don't seem to have really taken on this message. Granted, we don't live in a European climate, we aren't all as "white as snow" and aren't all looking for a Prince Charming. But maybe there is still a key lesson in the Snow White story for us Down Under.

Australians have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. And with Australia Day plans revolving around barbeques, beaches and beers this weekend, I wonder, have we taken the idea of a sunburnt country too far?

To women in the Victorian period, tanned skin was associated with the lower classes who worked outdoors. Women went to great lengths - even using lead and arsenic to whiten their skin - to achieve the pallor of the upper classes. Full length sleeves, parasols and sun bonnets were de rigueur.

Then in the 1920s Coco Chanel went and got tanned on the French Riviera and suddenly women everywhere raised an eyebrow (with not a wrinkle in sight) and the tan became a symbol of a life of luxury and privilege. Out went the parasols, up went the hemlines and off came the conservative clothing.

The first suntan oil was launched in 1927 and by the 1940s, women's magazines were actively encouraging women to cover themselves in oil and bake in the sun all day - a practice that exploded in the 1960s and 1970s and for which we're still paying the price today.

Working at Cancer Council, I've come across some scary statistics. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, and tragically, more than 1800 will die from it each year.

I've also learnt that a tan is not a sign of a healthy Aussie. As well as increasing your risk of skin cancer, a tan is a sign that you have been exposed to enough UV radiation to damage your skin. This will eventually cause wrinkles, sagging, yellowish discolouration and even brown patches. Snow White would be turning in her glass coffin!

It has taken 30 years of skin cancer awareness and sun protection campaigns but we're slowly making progress. Cancer Council's latest National Sun Protection Survey (conducted in summer 2010-11), shows the preference for a suntan among 12 to 17 year-olds has steadily dropped, down to 45% since the previous surveys (51% in 2006-07 and 60% in 2003-04).

Modern-day versions of Snow White, such as Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett, are leading by example. With barely a freckle or wrinkle, their skin proves the benefits of protecting yourself in the sun.

Let's give fair skin a fair go and reduce the number of Australians affected by skin cancer. It's never too late to reduce our risk of skin cancer and prevent further damage, and it's today's children and teenagers who hold the key to accepting natural again as not only safer in terms of skin cancer risk but, importantly, Australian, youthful and beautiful.

So without suggesting you teach your pet rabbit to wash the dishes or go in search of seven men named after emotions, let's take a leaf out of Snow White's book and embrace the skin we're in. I dare suggest that you too can live happily ever after.

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