Tag Archives: tanning

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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