Summer is fast approaching, and I can’t wait. I love the hot and sunny weather, the cute skimpier clothes, being able to eat ice creams without shivering, and the general easiness and relaxation of the season. But there is one thing that I really can’t stand: having to explain to people why I’m not tanned.
When you live in a coastal town, having a tan is expected. It’s the done thing. Whenever people have some free time, they all rush to the beach, lying on the sand, soaking up the sun. Usually without enough, if any, sunscreen. Everywhere you turn, you see lobster-red, burned skin, or complexions that, having been exposed for hours every day to the sun, have become so dark they look completely fake and unnatural.
And then, there’s little, old, pasty, white me. A ghostly complexion stands out more than a neon sign, and, every time I meet someone I haven’t seen in a while, they all ask, concerned, why I haven’t found time to go to the beach. Have I been working too hard? Been unwell? “Nope,” I tell them. “I just don’t like a tan.” By their puzzled expressions, you’d think that two green horns had suddenly sprouted on top of my head.
The concept that tan equals beauty and health is so deeply rooted in our society that most people, especially women, can’t conceive the idea that anyone could ever find pale skin attractive. Pale skin is seen as something to be ashamed of and that needs to be covered up.
Coco Chanel has some blame in this. When the famous designer stated “the 1929 girl must be tanned” after returning from a holiday, perceptions started to change. Until then, a tan had been considered a sign of poverty and vulgarity (it meant you were a labourer who worked long hours under the sun) to one of wealth and glamour.
But it would be wrong to place the blame entirely on Chanel. She may have started the trend, but it is only in the 1980s that beauty companies recognized that there was a lot of money to be made in tanning. Tanning salons started appearing everywhere, promising to turn women from sickly white ghosts to beautiful bronzed babes. Constantly sported by most models and celebrities, a tan is said to make you look more attractive, thinner, healthier, and increase your confidence.
No wonder then that women, mostly young ones aged between 16 and 29, started flocking to these tanning salons. Problem is, there is no such thing as a healthy tan. A tan is a sign that your skin has been damaged. In the worst case scenario, that can lead to skin cancer. Unfortunately, that’s becoming more and more common. Since the ’70s, incidences of melanoma have massively increased both in the US, UK and other Western countries where a tanned complexion is regarded as a beauty ideal to achieve at all costs.
In the US alone, one person dies of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) every 57 minutes. It is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for young people 15-29 years old.
But the majority of the victims are young women. Between 1973 and 2004, “melanoma incidence among men aged 15 to 39 increased from 4.7 cases to 7.7 cases per 100,000. In that same age group, the figures more than doubled among women, leaping from 5.5 cases per 100,000 in 1973 to 13.9 in 2004.” (Source).
If women are more likely to develop melanoma is because they are more likely to associate a tan with beauty. And it’s based first on their looks, and only later, on their accomplishments, that women are still judged today. By getting a tan, women therefore hope to be loved and appreciated. A natural desire, but not one worth to be pursued with any means necessary. A tan is not worth dying for.
As the dangers of sunbeds became known, some governments have taken steps to ban them, at least for young teenagers. But forsaking sun beds is not enough. Also important is to wear sunscreen every day, not just at the beach. Unfortunately, even when people don’t purposefully refuse to use it while sunbathing for fear it will prevent them from developing a tan, they either don’t apply enough product, or slather it on often enough (how many bother to reapply it, even after swimming?) or choose a bottle not labelled as broad-spectrum.
Not using your sunscreen correctly will make your skin prone to sunburns, skin cancer and premature aging. Yes, because UV rays make your skin develop wrinkles and sun spots a lot sooner than they would otherwise appear. We spend millions of dollars every year on creams, fillers, and surgical procedures to get rid of wrinkles, and yet we often ignore the main thing that will prevent them in the first place: sun protection. And we often do this in the name of beauty, to get a tan. Ironic, isn’t it?
Of course, there is always fake tan. That, at least, is safe. Or not? Well, a bottle of self-tanner won’t give you cancer, but it can send a very dangerous message. It tells you that your pale skin is ugly. It implies that women with fair skin aren’t beautiful and, as a result, worthy of love.
But why? Who has decided that pale skin is less attractive than a bronzed complexion? And why? The self-tanning industry has created a problem that simply wasn’t there before and provided us with a quick-fix solution. They’re making billions of dollars by preying on our insecurities that we’re not good enough. And, sadly, we’ll never be good enough. There will always be someone who won’t hesitate to use body shame, and exploit or invent “flaws”, to make a quick buck.
But we don’t have to buy into this conditioning. It’s high time that we start to love our skin tones. I am a white, ghostly pale Caucasian girl. I own it, and I’m proud of it. Whatever your skin tone is, you should embrace it too. You don’t need a tan (or, a skin-lightening product if you live in a society where pale is the beauty ideal) to look gorgeous. You already are.
And if you really must get a tan, get one in a bottle. But only do so if you genuinely love that bronzed look, not because you’re ashamed of your skin tone, or because all your friends are doing it. Don’t succumb to pressure. Be your own gorgeous self. Always.
Do you tan? If so, do you do it because you like it, or because you hate your natural skin colour?