Tan is Beautiful?

I have darker skin than many white people. I also tan easily. It’s not unusual for people to mention my tan in a way that is almost always given and received as a compliment. Like many white people, I want to be tan. This is a reversal of beauty trends that places pale, unblemished skin as the ideal. Because tanning is racialized, I will examine why the desire for darker skin is consistent with Eurocentric beauty trends, and not a sign of relaxing beauty standards.

White people darkening their skin is a practice that is acceptable because it is framed in a white context and doesn’t undermine white privilege. Darkening skin for people of color, on the other hand, often means a rejection of Eurocentric beauty standards, and a potential loss of privilege. Susan Bordo is helpful in understanding this process. She writes, “Consumer capitalism depends on the continual production of novelty…But such elements will either be explicitly framed as exotica or, within the overall system of meaning they will not be permitted to overwhelm the representation and establish a truly alternative or ‘subversive’ model of beauty or success.”[1] Bordo’s argument comes in handy in explaining that tanning is more available to white people because it does not upend white beauty standards when white people practice it. Bordo’s claim is strengthened by the practice of skin bleaching among some people of color because when dark skin is not framed by whiteness, it is deviant and normatively unacceptable. Dr. Yaba Blay clarifies, “A White person with a tan is just that–a White person with tan. White people, on account of their Whiteness, have the luxury of dabbling in whatever cosmetic and aesthetic practices they so choose without ever losing their racial status or privilege as White.”[2]

4007011990_5271be34d7_bThis prompts an exploration of why tanning is desired. It is a trend that is most closely related to class. Before the Industrial Revolution, pale skin was preferred because of a desire to appear upper class. Participating members could afford to not spend time working in the sun, and instead stay indoors and keep their skin light. After the Industrial Revolution, tanning rose in popularity for similar reasons. Being a member of higher classes meant access to leisure in the sun, and sunny vacations on the beach.[3] Something not often mentioned about tanning (at least in my research), however, is the relationship between tanning and exoticism. In a 1964 Tanfastic advertisement included in this post, the woman walking across the frame is tan, and therefore sexually attractive. She is also wearing a bikini, seeming to underscore her sexual availability. The relationship between her darker skin and sexuality is not a coincidence, but another example of Bordo’s claim. By darkening her skin, the woman in the advertisement is taking on an exotic sexuality that is often placed on women of color. She is no longer the desexualized, innocent, apolitical white woman, but a sexier, exotic version of one who is still afforded the benefits of white privilege. Because of the woman’s ability ability to take on certain exotic elements while keeping her whiteness, tanning upholds white supremacy, and does not reverse it.

[1] Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 25.

[2] Yaba Blay, “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine: Bleaching vs. Tanning,” Dr. Yaba Blay, accessed April 25, 2017, http://yabablay.com/your-blues-aint-like-mine-bleaching-vs-tanning/.

[3] Yaba Blay, “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine: Bleaching vs. Tanning,” Dr. Yaba Blay, accessed April 25, 2017, http://yabablay.com/your-blues-aint-like-mine-bleaching-vs-tanning/.


4 thoughts on “Tan is Beautiful?

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  1. I would like to respond to hmatthiasson’s blog post and expand on it even more through the perspective of East Asian culture and beauty standards within East Asian countries. In the United States before the Industrial Revolution, pale skin was preferred because it was a sign that people with pale skin did not have to work in the sun and had the privilege to spend their time indoors. (hmatthiasson). Similarly, in East Asian countries, the desire for pale skin was tied to perceptions of socioeconomic class. People with tan skin were seen as dirty and poor. They were viewed in society as laborers, working in the fields, or outside begging for food. People with pale skin were seen as beautiful, civilized, and privileged within East Asian countries. I argue that the East Asian countries’ obsession with pale skin extends even further into modern day, with implications related to white beauty standards and a desire to follow them. For white women, skin tanning is seen as a fun pastime, one to achieve a “sexier, exotic version” of oneself, while still benefitting from white privilege. For Asians, it is a much more politicized matter. The proliferation of skin whitening creams on the skincare market demonstrates the East Asian beauty standards. Its obsession with whiteness relates to a desire to look “white.” This is also evident in the discrimination within the Asian community, between what Ali Wong coins as “Fancy Asians” and “Jungle Asians” in her Netflix comedy special, Baby Cobra. “Jungle Asians” are often seen as uncivilized, poor, and working in working-class jobs. They are often from developing Southeastern countries. On the other hand, “Fancy Asians” are seen as civilized, rich, educated, and working in professional careers. They are often from developed East Asian countries. In the context of skin tone, “Jungle Asians” are often associated with a darker skin tone while “Fancy Asians” are associated with a lighter skin tone. There is discrimination within the Asian community, with “Fancy Asians” looking down on “Jungle Asians,” especially in terms of making assumptions based on skin tone. The skin tone of a particular Asian person could suggest whether or not they are a “Fancy” or a “Jungle” Asian.

    hmatthiasson, “Tan is Beautiful?,” Beauty and Race in America: 2017 (blog), April 30, 2017.
    hmatthiasson, “Tan is Beautiful?,” Beauty and Race in America: 2017 (blog), April 30, 2017.


  2. I am also fascinated by the increased popularity, and even expectation, of tanning. During my studies in Australia, members of the group (including myself) went to extreme lengths to achieve a tan for the upcoming term despite the heartfelt warnings of our program leader, who had lost both her uncle and father to skin cancer. Pondering this now, I wonder why the dangers of tanning, when explained to us explicitly, did not dissuade us from participating in this form of body work. Relating this back to the concept of cosmetic surgery and what is deemed acceptable or extreme, why is tanning, which can have deadly and unsightly consequences in later life, not seen as a more extreme form of body work? Why, when a friend comes back from the beach looking like a lobster, is the immediate response among their peers, “well at least it will turn into a tan?” And then, when viewed on the flip side, why is skin bleaching to achieve paler, more white skin, commonly accepted in the societies they are so prevalent in? How can we quantify the extent to which it is acceptable to change skin through perceived “natural means”, despite the dangers, before it is deemed unsightly?


  3. This sort of obsession with tanning has always been a hard topic, and one of interest, for me. I am incredibly pale (all my ancestors are from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales…so I can’t really help it) and I’ve been insecure about it basically my entire life. In middle school people would call me albino and tell me I needed to get a tan, joking about how I never went outside and saying that I’d be a LOT prettier if I had darker skin. I was always aware of how light my skin was compared to everyone around me. My “pasty” skin was the first thing I looked at when I was outside with skin exposed or in pictures. And it didn’t help that everyone around me, whether they were White or a person of color, was often complaining about how pale they were. As if to make them feel better (and maybe to be self-deprecating before they could tease me?) I would joke that they just had to stand next to me to feel better about it. While I don’t get teased about my skin as much as I used to, and have worked hard to feel more confident in it, I still wonder what my life growing up would have been like if I had slightly darker skin. Maybe I’d be able to blend in better?

    Tan skin is absolutely linked to beauty (and absolutely an exoticized beauty, like you said) for both women and men, I’d say. I know the picture you included showed the sexualization of a tan women, but I would argue men participate in this body work too (I have heard people tease men for being “pasty” too). I also wonder about what Belle talked about in her comment too, about how people know the dangers of skin cancer, yet seem to ignore it. I think are generation is a lot better than our parents’ generation about wearing sunscreen and not getting too burned, but it’s still an issue. I think the fact that my dad recently had a mole removed that had melanoma has made it easier for me to be more confident in my skin. I can now say things like, “I don’t want skin cancer” and people will kind of drop it. I really don’t know where this shaming of pale skin comes from, though I find Tumi’s hypothesis from class really interesting. In establishing people of color as “exotic,” “spicy,” and “tan,” white people ultimately caused a dichotomy to occur where the opposite was then “pale,” “bland” and “boring.” But no one wants to be pale and boring, so maybe a way for white people to feel more special or exciting is to be tanner. This seems to be a “good” option of body work for white people, (and perhaps also for people of color for which tanning is “acceptable”) as a way to enhance one’s beauty capital, to set oneself apart from the pale White people in society.


  4. I really liked your blog post. I would like to comment on tanning in the context of how people link skin tone to race. As we have read in several works, skin color (along with hair) is one of the most significant ways people are taught to identify another’s race. For many minority individuals, skin color carries the significance of the minority individuals—we have seen this many times, for example, in the way Michael Jackson and other celebrities are seen as “race traitors” for lightening their skin color. However, race is more than skin color, or even any particular physical attribute. Race exists in the history of families who have traditionally been oppressed in American society and in cultural norms. This being said, I have seen many instances of white people using the connection between race and skin color to subvert the experiences of minority individuals. I’m a lighter-skinned person of color, and every summer I dread the moments when my white peers will inevitably compare their newly tanned skin to mine. In saying “look at how much darker I am than you,” “you’re so light for a black person,” and “I’m blacker than you now,” their efforts towards a more exotic sexuality (as you put it) quickly lose their innocence. These comments not only ignore the experiences I have lived all my life as a person of color but the collective history of my ancestors who were slaves in this country. Further, it devalues the people of color’s experiences to something that can be achieved with enough time in the sun. However, unfortunately for us, we are people of color year-round, and not just in the summertime. This blog post then makes me wonder if tanning can be used as a justification in a colorblind society to neutralize the experiences of people of color.


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