Comfortable in their own skin

Oak Bay High students take part in tan-free grad challenge

Co-leaders of the Oak Bay High’s Youth Against Cancer Club Graham Landells

It’s no secret that many high school students go to great lengths to look their best come graduation time. Fancy outfits, elaborate hairstyles and elegant accessories are all part of the milestone occasion.

But thanks to a student-led campaign initiated by the B.C. & Yukon division of the Canadian Cancer Society, some graduates will be foregoing a popular step in their preparations for this year’s big event.

The second annual Tan-Free Grad Challenge urges Grade 12 students to sign a pledge promising to refrain from intentionally browning themselves in advance of graduation, either through the use of tanning beds or by lying out in the sun.

Oak Bay High school is one of two Greater Victoria schools taking part in the challenge, along with Lambrick Park secondary. At Oak Bay, the charge is being led by student co-ordinator Jessica Wong, who says kids face pressure to measure up to a very specific ideal.

“The media’s definition of beauty is tanned skin and skinny,” says Wong. “The whole point of this tan-free grad is to let people know that beauty is your own skin colour, your own skin tone.”

Even more importantly, she adds, tanning presents very real health hazards to teens.

“It increases your risk of getting melanoma, so you’re putting yourself at risk just to be this definition of beauty,” says Wong. “It isn’t right.”

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, using indoor tanning equipment before the age of 35 can increase a person’s risk of malignant melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – by 75 per cent. And 27 per cent of women between the ages of 15 and 29 tan regularly.

The statistics are alarming and a traditional educational approach hasn’t been particularly fruitful, says Nancy Falconer, health promotion co-ordinator for the Vancouver Island region of the Canadian Cancer Society. That’s why a peer-to-peer campaign such as this is especially vital.

“It’s students talking to students, versus our organization or other adults going in and telling students what to do, which we know doesn’t work,” Falconer says.

Last year’s inaugural challenge saw more than 3,000 students from more than 30 B.C. high schools take the pledge, with Lambrick Park taking the top prize.

Wong hopes to see her school wrest that title away this year. Midway through the two-week challenge, 172 of her 280-member graduating class had already made the tan-free pledge, approaching the school’s goal of 75 per cent participation in the challenge.

“Overall, Oak Bay (High) has been very supportive of what we’re doing and how we’re supporting the Canadian Cancer Society,” Wong says.

Though some students have told her the challenge is an affront to their freedom of choice, Wong says she sees things differently.

“I look at it that (the pledge is) taking away your freedom to get cancer, not your right to do what you want.”



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