A Tan Isn’t Worth Dying For

by Gio
the truth about tanning

Summer is fast approaching, and I can’t wait. I love the hot and sunny weather. The cute skimpy clothes. Eating ice cream without shivering…

But there’s one thing that I really can’t stand about summer: having to justify my lack of tan.

When you live in a coastal town, having a tan is the done thing. As soon as you have some free time, you’re supposed to rush to the beach and lie on the sand for hours, soaking up all that radiation. Usually without enough sunscreen.

Everywhere you turn, you see lobster-red, burned skin, or complexions that have become so dark, it looks like they’re wearing blackface (no, it’s not a bad joke. Sometimes, you really can’t tell).

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 me with panic in their voice, “Why haven’t you found time to go to the beach? Have you been working too hard? Been sick?”

I tell them the truth: “No, I just don’t like a tan.”

That’s when I wish I had lied. 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, most people 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.

tan isn't worth dying for 01

But it would be wrong to place the blame entirely on Chanel. She may have started the trend, but it was only in the 1980s that beauty companies recognized that there was a lot of money to be made in tanning.

Next thing you know, 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 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.Β  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’s 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.”

If women are more likely to develop melanoma, it’s only because they think a tan will make them more attractive. A natural desire, but not one worth to be pursued with any means necessary. A tan is not worth dying for.

tan isn't 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.

You also need to wear sunscreen every day, not just at the beach. Unfortunately, even when people use it, they don’t apply enough – or forget to touch it up during the day.

Not using your sunscreen correctly will make your skin prone to sunburns, skin cancer and premature aging. Yep, UV rays make your skin develop wrinkles and sun spots a lot sooner than they would otherwise appear.

Us women 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’s 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 and if so, do you do it because you like it, or because you hate your natural skin colour? Share your experience in the comments below.

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18 comments

Allison May 3, 2014 - 5:05 am

You are smart, girl! Stay outta the sun. I wish I had skipped the baby oil and reflector when I was a teen and lying out baking when I was in my 20s. Stupid. I too have light skin, and now I have lots of sun damage. I am lucky that I don’t have too many wrinkles for my age, but getting rid of those dark spots is very difficult, really impossible. I love the beach, and I love to jog outdoors. I always wear sunscreen, and at the beach I wear a hat and sit under a sunscreen umbrella. But in summer, I can’t stand wearing a hat while jogging outside and even with sunscreen, I get a bit of a tan while not trying. I am thinking about getting one of those sunscreen coverups that are in all the catalogues this season to wear to the beach. However, it is still in the 40s (F) here, and I fear hot weather will never come.

Gio May 3, 2014 - 7:57 am

Allison, thanks! Unfortunately, back then we didn’t really know how dangerous tanning was. And once the damage is done, it’s so difficult to undo it. πŸ™ But you look great. πŸ˜‰

I think in the summer, even when you wear sunscreen, it’s difficult not to get even a light tan. It happens to me too sometimes, and although it’s very light, I hate it. But by wearing sunscreen religiously and keeping out of the sun at least in the hottest hours of the day, we can prevent most of the damage. πŸ™‚ Those sunscreen coverups intrigue me too, although I have never seen around here, and I’m a bit hesitant getting them online. But I think they would be very helpful.

Julia May 3, 2014 - 10:07 am

Story of my life. Thank you for writing this article.

I would like to add two thoughts, though. One, I find it a little odd that out of all pictures of tanned people, you choose one of Japanese girls. I used to live in Japan and there, as you probably know, pale is the beauty ideal (guess how much more popular I suddenly became XD), so these two girls would receive a lot of negative feedback. I think you should have chosen white women, because it’s still so weird how white people discriminate against people with naturally darker skin colours, yet love to tan so much.

Second, I have recently read a study that says men appreciate women with fairer skin: http://jezebel.com/368746/study-men-are-more-attracted-to-women-with-lighter-skin/all I don’t know if I can agree with that, but I thought you might find it interested. πŸ™‚

And yes, Coco Chanel… I have so much beef with that woman I almost can’t claim to be a vegetarian anymore.

Gio May 3, 2014 - 12:08 pm

Julia, I’m glad you liked the post, and thank you for your feedback. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant about including that photo, but after spending more than an hour surfing the net for pictures of tanned women that could be used freely, without infringing anyone’s copyright, this one was the best I could find. The others were all too amateurish, blurred or at weird angles, or too sexy. It may be that I just didn’t use the right keywords, but it’s really hard to find pictures of women that you can use without having to pay a fee. I will do another search tonight, and see if I can find a more appropriate photo.

Thank you for the link to the study. That is very interested indeed. I think that what men like and what the media tells us men like are two very different things. πŸ™‚

Seppo May 6, 2014 - 6:44 am

Yes, it’s funny how culture dependent these things are. I live in Thailand and here, like in Japan, dark skin is looked down and people strive to be as white as possible. Everything in here has a SPF rating and on a sunny day (which is almost every day) people walk with umbrellas to keep the sun away.

They can’t understand us ‘farangs’ who are ok with tanned skin πŸ™‚

Gio May 6, 2014 - 8:34 pm

Seppo, it’s funny indeed. It seems that people always want what they don’t have. *sighs* I wish they were happy with their natural skintone as lightening or darkening it can be quite dangerous, both for our physical and mental health.

Seppo May 10, 2014 - 5:54 am

Perpetual dissatisfaction with current state of affairs seems to be a defining characteristic of humans. Take that away and not sure what we’ll be πŸ™‚

Anyway, I feel like Asians are much crazier about this than Westerners. Here in Thailand every, and I mean every, shopping mall has 3 or 4 beauty clinics and a few slimming clinics. Beauty clinics are 100% focused on cosmetics treatments.

Some time ago there was a news about a Korean man who sued his wife. He claimed that she had misled him because she had cosmetic surgery before they met. He is suing because their baby will be/is ugly. What can I say.. you can’t make this stuff up πŸ™‚

Gio May 10, 2014 - 11:00 am

Seppo, that is so true! But some people are taking it way too far! 3 beauty clinics in one mall?! Here, we usually have a hairdresser and a few beauty stores like Sephora or The Body Shop.

I think I had read about that in the news. I was speechless then and still am now. *shakes head* Reality is often stranger than fiction. πŸ™‚

Seppo May 11, 2014 - 3:12 am

They take the obsession with looks to a completely new level here. As a guy, I of course enjoy seeing beautiful women around me, but I can only imagine what the pressure does to the women.

Agree that some people take it too far. I have similar experiences in helping people with acne. Sometimes I get emails where the stress and anxiety quite literally bleeds off the screen. Sometimes they have even mild or occasional acne but it still causes them tremendous stress. The sad thing (among others) is that these people usually try to solve the problem with wrong tools. They usually already eat health, almost to the point of having an eating disorder, yet they still think if they tweak diet this way or that way it will get over acne. In a way, they are trying to solve emotional problems with a fork and knife. Given that it’s by no means guaranteed one can get rid of acne completely, it’s much better to focus on dealing with stress and trying to understand why minor acne causes so much stress.

I presume something similar is going on here. People who don’t feel happy about themselves try to make themselves feel better by correcting perceived flaws.

Gio May 16, 2014 - 7:47 pm

Seppo, that is so true. The media keeps perpetrating this myth that if you look perfect than all your problems are going to disappear overnight. And if you have low self-esteem or are in a bad place emotionally and mentally, you are more prone to believe those lies and use whatever means necessary to achieve those ideals of beauty, even if that means putting your own health at risk.

These people would benefit a lot more from counselling, but then dealing with those emotional and psychological issues will be more painful and difficult than dealing with acne or whatever it is that is bothering them, and not everyone is ready for that yet. *sighs*

Icaria May 3, 2014 - 12:08 pm

Smart and great article! In my teens and 20s I used to be teased a lot for staying in the shade, the sun made me feel sick. I remember being a little frustrated by this but just knew I’d be the one laughing later on and would you know, I am now! πŸ™‚

Gio May 3, 2014 - 1:34 pm

Icaria, that happened to me too. I hate it when people tease you because you want to do things differently from them, but in this case, we did have the last laugh indeed! πŸ™‚ It’s just a shame, though, to think about how they have damaged their skin.

Jamie May 7, 2014 - 10:51 pm

I liked your article, but I think it is worth pointing out that tanning (in the sun or bed) is not a terrible thing to do if done responsibly. For me, I am fortunate to have darker, olive toned skin that tans very well. I can remember having maybe 1 sunburn in my entirely life. Obviously for those that are fair-skinned, periods of prolonged tanning is not recommended ever. Just my 2 cents.

Gio May 10, 2014 - 11:37 am

Jamie, the thing is that a tan is always a sign of skin damage. In fact, by producing melanin, and thus darkening its colour, the body is trying to prevent further damage. But some damage has already occurred, and, overtime, it shows itself in the form of premature wrinkles, sun spots, and even cancer. While it is impossible to avoid tanning completely (no sunscreen protects against 100% UV rays, even though some of them come really close to that), I don’t think that sunbathing or using sun beds is ever safe. But if you really want to do it, slather on the sunscreen. That will, at least, reduce damage to a minimum.

Pastelita December 17, 2014 - 12:35 am

I agree with Gio completely, thaks so much for opening this discussion xxx

Many people in Europe/Occidental culture would view a tanned skin as a mark of health and prestige that only wealth can give.
It seems like the iconography of the tanned, idle rich having fun on their yacht versus the pasty factory worker too poor to allow himself to outdoor activities is still deeply anchored in the collective unconsciousness.

Being dark brown (and preferably muscular) would indicate this person has time and money in their hands to dedicate to expensive hobbies that would keep them in good health. Which makes them all the more enviable.

In Asia, the discrimination is the same but the other way round. Being tanned is not considered attractive, mostly for some societal reasons. A tanned person often is a farmer, a peasant, who works outside may it sun or rain. Pale skinned people stay indoors, as it would suit the etiquette of higher society ranks and nobility.
For that reason, tanned skin is undesirable because deemed inferior and symptomatic of poverty.
May I remind that Europe had that exact mindset until the 20th CE: ie. browned skin = prostitutes/farmers whilst white face = aristocracy/ the dominant classes

NB, “jade skin” was praised for centuries as a symbol of beauty and purity in Asia.
So no, Asian people do not want to look like White Westerners!!!

Nowadays, many Asian men and woman continue striving for keeping and enhancing pale skin. Nobody wants to be perceived as a 2nd class citizen!

Also, having a clear skin indicates to your interlocutor: “I’m educated about the nefast effects of the sun (cancer, hyperpigmentation, premature ageing) and as a result, I’m protecting my skin from these harmful sunrays”

I moved to Ireland years ago and dearly missed the hot, dry summers I had in France, my native country!!! Up there in Dublin, my skin tone went from naturally cinammon cookie to pale, buttercream!
I didnt mind really about that colour change because the most important to me was skin health.
My skin was so bouncy and clear due to the humidity in the air and my skincare routine. Never left the house without SPF, ever!!!

Now, my husband and I are living in Spain. Our friends are always surprised to see our less than golden-skinned faces, knowing that the sun shines there for most days of the year! Thats because we’re not interested in getting into that “look at my holidays super tan!”

We’ve decided NOT to avoid the sun -only during peak hours- because there are health benefits you can get from it. But we would appreciate moderately and apply sunscreen regularly.

We would rather look a bit paler instead of showing off a tan, roasted chicken-style. So many people got their skin ruined by excessive exposure to the sun: uneven rough, parched skin; sagging and accentuated jowls; deeply marked wrinkled; hyperpigmentation.

In my opinion, the most important is how well you care for your skin, regardless of its colour. A healthy skin will always be beautiful, no matter what. Having a bit of a tan is ok, and keeping your skin un-tanned is ok too! No excess on both sides is way healthier for you, your inner health!!!
You will benefit so much more from this personal approach, rather then attempting to fit into the social hierarchy mold, may it be Occidental or Oriental.

For the sake of your good health, I would recommend to do what you fancy doing without excess

Gio December 17, 2014 - 9:11 pm

Pastelita, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you on everything. We should love our skin the colour it is and only strive to keep it healthy. Trying to conform to an ideal, whether Occidental or Oriental, is never good, neither for your skin nor for your self-esteem.

Poonpo January 6, 2015 - 5:46 am

Whenever i go for sun bath , i get tanning on my skin πŸ˜›

Gio January 6, 2015 - 4:07 pm

Poonpo, be careful with sun baths! They can be dangerous!

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