• Open Access

Rise and Shine: sunlight, technology and health

By Simon Carter . Published by Berg , New York 2007 . Distributed in Australia by Footprint Books. Paperback, 134 pages with index. RRP $67. ISBN 978184520319 .

Reviewed by Jennifer Makin

Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, The Cancer Council Victoria

Despite more than 20 years of public health campaigns warning of the dangers of ultraviolet radiation, skin cancer control programs in Australia and New Zealand still struggle against the common perception that a tan looks healthy and attractive. In this book, Simon Carter tracks changing societal attitudes towards sunlight and artificial ultraviolet radiation from the late 19th century to the period after the Second World War. In doing so, he seeks to provide a sociological and historical analysis “of how sunlight came to have such a powerful association with well-being that, despite the best efforts of those that seek to forge new relations, the suntan continues a social and cultural historical trajectory that sees this artefact remain a referent of health and beauty”.1

For the historical analysis, Carter uses frequent and detailed references to contemporary sources, including medical journals, newspapers and fashion literature. In an easily readable style, although unfortunately without illustrations, he explains the darkening of the picture of health from the sheltered and pale Victorian beauty to the bronzed film star sunbathing on the beaches of post-war France. The book focuses particularly on the advent of natural and artificial ultraviolet radiation therapies for rickets and tuberculosis, but also examines how their influence was interrelated with such disparate social phenomena as the scouting movement, the ‘Sunlight League’ of the inter-war period, and developments in architecture and urban planning. This historical contextualisation is particularly valuable in light of debate on the risks and benefits of exposure to ultraviolet radiation in Australia, with increased federal investment in skin cancer prevention and moves towards solarium regulation countered by academic concern and public confusion at the implications of vitamin D deficiencies.

While the historical accounts in the book are of general appeal, the theoretical analysis may be less accessible to those unfamiliar with the sociological discourse. Drawing on actor-network theory (ANT), with obligatory nods to the sociological canon of Bourdieu, Foucault et al., the book describes the making of a heliosis: “an instance of an articulation between human and non-human sociotechnical entities that in turn allowed the emergence of a nexus made up of sunlight, bodies and social worlds”.1 This makes for an interesting case study, from the point of view of the academic sociologist, of how developments in technology influence and are influenced by changes in social constructions of the embodied human and the environment. However, interested public health practitioners may prefer to skip the theory in favour of the more accessible historical analysis of attitudes towards ultraviolet light exposure previously published by Albert and Ostheimer.2–4

Carter specifies in advance that his account is not definitive, focused as it is on a particular period in a particular location. However, these limitations somewhat reduce the interest for those in the public health sector in Australia. The analysis is predominantly centred on Britain, with some reference to developments in continental Europe. While Australia is informed by similar cultural influences, the differences in history and geographical location could be expected to result in alternative constructions of the relationship between humans and sunlight. Perhaps more importantly, Carter's analysis ends shortly after the Second World War, and therefore fails to discuss the influence of the growing awareness of UV exposure as the cause of almost all skin cancers.

Despite initial mention of the skin cancer epidemic as one aspect of a complex modern relationship between sunlight and the human body, throughout the remainder of the book attitudes to the sun rise in a more or less constantly positive trajectory. This does not negate the value of the historical analysis of attitudes that are still evident today; however, readers who are interested in the impact of more recent awareness of the negative aspects of UV exposure would again be better served by the paper series by Albert and Ostheimer.

In summary, this book provides a valuable historical contextualisation of attitudes towards UV exposure in Britain, which should appeal to those interested in skin cancer control and/or in developments in understanding of vitamin D deficiencies. In particular, some of Carter's observations regarding the disjunct between expert and popular discourses around exposure to the sun may resonate with those in the field. However, the density of some of the theory may alienate some readers, despite providing an interesting case study for academic sociologists.