Tanning and Standards for Female Beauty

29 May

Rachael Levy’s recent post in Slate, “Why Do Young White Women Risk Cancer to Be Tan,” hits on an issue that’s always puzzled and/or fascinated me about American culture. In part, it’s that being tan is about changing your skin color, even if the trend isn’t explicitly connected to race. And changing your skin color is a controversial topic: take Michael Jackson, the skin-dying products marketed in India, or even the lady-parts whitener that caused such a stir last month.

Yet tanning hasn’t received quite the same outcry that skin whitening has, and Indian skin whitening companies often compare their products (and the people who buy them) to Americans obsessed with tanning. Perhaps tanning is less controversial in terms of race because white people see wanting to be a brown as a compliment, as though this doesn’t completely disregard the historical and institutionalized problems people of color have to face every day.

Of course, skin whitening products are used for slightly different reasons in India, ones more closely connected to British imperialism, class structures, and race. Still, conversations about American tanning have carefully avoided discussions about race or wealth to focus entirely on “standards of beauty” for women.

I have a theory that stems from my obsession with nineteenth century novels that has more to do with wealth than race but still makes tanning a sociopolitical issue. Are you interested? It used to be that paler women were considered more attractive, thus the famous poems extolling a woman’s white skin and milky complexion. This explains the use of parasols in period novels and Downton Abby— nineteenth century women were protecting their complexions from the sun.

My theory about this phenominon is that paleness was a sign of health and wealth. And no, I don’t mean that women in the 1800s were more concerned with skin cancer than modern women. If you were wealthy, you could afford to stay inside instead of working in the fields all day– making the tan that comes from laboring in the sun all day a sign of the working class. Moreover, hard labor (and being poor) often resulted in health problems and an early death. Weight and complexion were two ways to determine how wealthy and healthy a woman was.

However, our standards of weight changed over time. Rather than shapely women being considered ideal (they could afford food and had better chances of not dying during childbirth), we now value skinny women. Gilbert and Gubar and Susan Bordo argue that this is part of our culture’s making womanhood an illness, and keeping women sick and childlike. This may be true. But (I think, at least) it also has to do with economics– wealthy people have access to the most healthy food: fruits and veggies are way more expensive than junk food.

Could our current tanning obsession have similar roots? In our mostly sedentary culture, having the leisure or privilege to be outside in the sun could be considered a sign of wealth. A tan shows someone who’s outside a lot, and probably active and fit. Maybe in the modern world, a good tan is a sign of wealth and health?

And yet, as so often happens, rather than actually being healthy by spending more time near nature, women in America are pressured to buy unhealthy products and services to make themselves look more healthy (the irony!). Though, I guess that supports my theory: wealthy people can afford unlimited tanning products, reinforcing the idea that being tan is just another status symbol for American women.

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3 Responses to “Tanning and Standards for Female Beauty”

  1. earthfae May 29, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    Wow, this is a very good post with observations I have made over the years. As a very pale photonsensitive white woman. however, I think another culpirt is adverstising.

    By making women think(and spociety by extension) that their skin color is ugly, then they’ll want to buy their products. Of course that is likely one of many factirs, that you have mentioned in this post

  2. esquaredg June 5, 2012 at 10:57 am #

    It’s strange how our idea of beauty *feels* like a natural thing, but it’s often so shaped by society!

  3. Saiyuri January 22, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    I don’t believe we are obsessed with skinny anymore. Overweight seems to be in style now. Look at how being chunky and chubby is mistakenly labeled “curvy.” The media heaps constant praise on chubby celebrities, saying they are “embracing their curves” while it questions every thin celebrity as to whether or not she suffers from an eating disorder. This has a trickle-down effect of course, with women blessed with natural thinness and a nubile appearance being accused of starving themselves even if they aren’t. Curvy originally denoted an hourglass figure, something that has to do with genetics and not weight.

    Most eating disorders involving restricted intake are actually forms of control – female celebrities feel their lives are out of their control, so they turn to their diets to regain some measure of control. I would not look at it as a standard of beauty so much as it is the symptom of leading a famous life.

    The fashion and photography industry will always adore thin women. Clothes look better on tall, thin women which is why models are chosen for those qualities. It is in that area that we must be aware of eating disorders. Otherwise, our society constantly heaps praise on overweight/chubby females (check out music lyrics too…..there are numerous examples of this).

    Overweight women tend to be defensive on this topic, but a logical examination of the situation, including the media, tends to reveal their defensiveness as a product of their own insecurity.

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