A few years ago I thought television programming had reached an all-time low with regards to the message it was sending teens about personal appearance and tanning.
E! television was showing a "reality" series, Sunset Tan, which glamorized the tanning salon experience and the fake-tan look endlessly. The trendiest of Hollywood personalities, including Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton, were constantly mentioned and making appearances in the show's Los Angeles tanning salon. The worst scene of the series showed a mother bringing her daughter, who appeared no more than 8 years old, into the salon to get ready for school pictures. The fearful girl had to be convinced by her mother and the sales person into getting a $1300 combination tanning-bed plus spray-on tan package by constantly reminding her that she too can look like Lindsay Lohan. The girl leaves the salon a deep artificial bronze color. Other storylines for this show included identical twins who want to tan their boyfriends' names on their bodies, a dead person whose final wish was to be tan, and a pregnant woman who wants to look "really hot" during childbirth.
This was concerning. This genre of shows largely targets adolescents and young adults, a population especially self-aware, self-conscious, preoccupied with image, and concerned with social acceptance. Adolescent girls are especially likely to look to media to help explain the world around them, and pervasive media messages have a strong influence on adolescent girls' self-image. Youth's desire to look like females in popular media has already been significantly associated with tanning bed use.
I didn't think it could get worse.
But then my sister sat me down last year to watch something more ridiculous than Janet Jackson's nipple. MTV's Jersey Shore was shocking. The characters and their misadventures were embarrassing... and a huge public health nightmare.
It did not take long to realize, however, as the characters became more and more outrageous, that MTV had actually created caricatures of young ultra-tan, super-drunk social misfits meant for public entertainment and mockery. In chat rooms and on blogs, adolescents and young adults were criticizing the extreme tans and obnoxious party antics. College campuses had "Jersey Shore" theme parties where students came dressed as over-the-top orange-colored characters. On the MTV website itself, you can "Jersey Shore yourself" by giving a cartoon large breasts, multiple tattoos, fluorescent eye makeup, and shiny bronze skin, and then posting the final image as your Facebook headshot.
Adolescents and young adults are still the target audience. However, they do not look up to these characters. In fact, the extreme Jersey Shore tan is publicly scorned. MTV may have launched a larger anti-tanning campaign than any public health agency could have hoped to do itself.
And this year, teens are instead flocking to movie theaters to watch Twilight movies, featuring some of the palest heart-throbs ever.