Beauty and the Burn: Abington professor examines tanning behaviors, attitudes

A woman and child on a beach
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ABINGTON, Pa. — In the summer, it becomes apparent that some people are more devoted to tanning than others. So Meghan Gillen, associate professor of psychology at Penn State Abington, offered some insights recently into tanning and related behaviors and attitudes. 

“Tanning is largely motivated by appearance concerns, which is a major theme that cuts across my papers," she said. "Women are more likely to tan than men, perhaps because they have greater appearance concerns. Individuals who are more concerned with their appearances are more likely to tan indoors and sunbathe outdoors.”

People who are more depressed are more likely to tan indoors, perhaps using UV rays as a form of self-medication as UV rays can help people feel warm, relaxed and comfortable, Gillen and co-author C.N. Markey wrote in a paper titled “The role of body image and depression in tanning behaviors and attitudes.” 

“In another paper, I found that indoor tanners were more likely to have piercings, tattoos, to engage in healthy dieting behaviors, and to express interest in cosmetic enhancements. Fewer associations were found for outdoor sunbathing,” Gillen said.

These findings suggest that there may be a constellation of appearance-oriented risk behaviors. People who engage in one appearance-oriented risk behavior (tanning) may be likely to engage in other appearance-oriented risk behavior (piercings or tattoos), Gillen and Markey wrote in their paper “Beauty and the burn: Tanning and other appearance-altering attitudes and behaviors.”

"Caucasian tan individuals were rated more favorably for jobs in a hiring context as compared to Caucasian non-tan individuals.”

— Meghan Gillen, associate professor of psychology, Penn State

In a second strand of research, Gillen explored how tanning relates to impressions of people with tan skin. In general, people perceive those with tan skin in more positive ways than those with non-tan skin.

“For example, in a study where college students viewed Caucasian women's and men's faces, tan faces were perceived as higher on physical attractiveness, health, physical fitness, friendliness and popularity,” said Gillen, who teaches courses in the psychological and social sciences major at Abington.

“In another study, Caucasian tan individuals were rated more favorably for jobs in a hiring context as compared to Caucasian non-tan individuals," she added.

Gillen has co-authored a new book, "Body Positive: Understanding and Improving Body Image in Science and Practice." Her overall research focuses on body and appearance-related issues. 

She earned her bachelor's degree in human development from Cornell University, and her master's and doctoral degrees in human development and family studies from Penn State. 

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education, resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With nearly 4,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 19 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer honors program, NCAA Division III athletics and more.