H&M Swimwear Ads Piss Off Dermatologists, But Are They Really Increasing Skin Cancer Risk?

Mass clothing retailer H&M is getting slammed for their advertising, but this time it’s not because they’re using fake bodies for models; in fact, their latest swimwear ads feature real-life model Isabeli Fontana, but dermatologists say she looks too tan. Their complaints have mainly to do with the fear of influencing young viewers, who might desire a similar level of tan that, clearly, wouldn’t bode well for their skin cancer risks. Which might be true, but to be honest, I’m not really with the derms on this one.

Dr. Ralph Braun, from the Early Skin Cancer Centre at Zurich University Hospital, told the Daily Mail:

I find this advertisement very alarming and borderline. [...] Many people, especially the young, will try to emulate this and will try to be just as brown, although with some skin types this is just not possible.

And Swiss Cancer League spokeswoman Cornelia Egli said simply that the H&M ad “completely contradicts our advertising efforts.”

There are a couple of obvious problems here:

1. Skin color varies. Some people are just browner than others (much to the dismay of those of us who come from Nordic stock). As Dr. Braun pointed out, not everyone could be that color if they tried–but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate someone’s beauty if they happen to have dark skin.

2. Who knows where that tan came from? Some have pointed out that Fontana doesn’t normally appear so dark, but that doesn’t mean she baked for hours in the sun to get that way. In fact, it seems pretty unlikely; sunless tanner and makeup are fairly common tools of the fashion-photo-shoot trade. And the good news is that they’re readily available to the rest of us (and increasingly easier to use).

3. A single ad isn’t the problem. All of the problems with today’s beauty standards can’t be boiled down to a single ad; idealizing body types and skin colors happens by cumulative effect. Flip through a spring or summer issue of almost any lady mag, and you’ll probably get the impression that a sun-kissed skin tone is preferable–because so many ad campaigns and photo shoots feature bronzed models. Browsing through H&M’s website, they appear to have a fairly diverse set of models in their ad campaigns–even pale ones, as shown in the photo to the right.

Obviously, skin cancer is an important issue; according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, it’s the most common type of cancer in the U.S. (and most cases can be prevented with proper skin care). But increasing skin cancer awareness and encouraging smart skin care habits will take a lot more than pointing a finger at H&M’s swimwear ads. Like we’ve said so many times before, calling for greater diversity in media—and celebrating the beauty of SPF-slathered pale skin as much as the beauty of SPF-slathered dark skin—is a better answer than picking on any one body or skin type.

And, while teens and young women are typically bound to be more impressed by their favorite celebrities and models than warnings about skin cancer, it can’t hurt to keep pushing actual facts about skin cancer prevention in everyone’s direction.

Photos: H&M

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    • Joe

      You are an idiot.