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A Brief History of Tanning
New podcast episode: Doing It Right with Pandora Sykes!
The theory that beauty standards are products of evolution — that it is human nature to find certain physical features acceptable and others not, that modern appearance ideals are simply biological inevitabilities — is, in my estimation, the steamiest, stinkiest load of shit to ever come out of beauty culture.
Dr. Hannah McCann, a cultural studies lecturer at the University of Melbourne, agrees (although she phrases it a bit more eloquently). “To suggest that there are universal ideals of beauty that transcend culture,” she wrote in 2019, “completely fails to comprehend the way that ideals of beauty have been constructed in order to be sold.” In other words: Our idea of physical “beauty” is not innate, but enforced. It is not biologically programmed, but socially programmed — usually for profit.
One need not be a decorated doctor of anthropology to see this. Just look at the standards of beauty across countries and cultures: They differ. Then look at those different cultural standards of beauty across time: They change. The features that a particular society celebrates are not fixed; they are ever-fluctuating responses to the rules of that society. More specifically, they’re often responses to the oppressive structures that shape said society. (And not for nothing, but…! A biologically programmed vision of human beauty would have to be biologically possible. The current Western standard — hairless bodies, ageless faces, poreless skin — is not. It’s dehumanizing, unrealistic, and impossible to achieve without significant technological intervention.)
I talked a little bit about this in a recent episode of Doing It Right, a podcast hosted by the incredible Pandora Sykes — the idea that Western beauty standards are basically systems of discrimination in physical form, and the idea that these standards change in lockstep with the systems they stem from. In particular, we discussed how standardized beauty can be a class performance; a tool for either affirming your social standing or attempting to transcend it. See: the obsession with “looking expensive”. See also: the history of tan skin.
I think tanning offers the clearest illustration of how shifting cultural norms dictate which physical features we find “beautiful” at any given time.
As I told Pandora in our episode of Doing It Right:
For a long time, pale skin was considered the height of beauty. And that was because the working class was working outside. Having a tan meant you were poor, you were doing backbreaking work in the sun. Aristocrats were inside, not getting sun, and were super pale. Paleness was a signifier of wealth and that’s why it was popular. People would paint and powder their skin to be ghostly white, because that signified wealth.
We see this all change after the Industrial Revolution … With factories, the working class — the poor — are working inside now. They're pale. They are not seeing the sun because they're working from morning to night. And if you were wealthy, you had the time and money to go on vacation and lay out in the sun … now being tan was the height of beauty, because it signified being a member of the leisure class. Coco Chanel in particular popularized the tan in the 1920s.
We're still seeing that today. People are tanning, people are self-tanning. Tanned skin is held up as this paragon of beauty, and it is a class performance. We’ve drifted away from its roots — we don't really recognize what we're doing anymore — but that is 100% where it stemmed from.
“I do prefer myself with a tan,” Pandora responded. And like… exactly!! In the words of sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, “‘I like what I like’ is always a capitalist lie.”
This, obviously, is but a brief and incomplete overview of the classist/racist/colorist trend of tanning. There are so many other factors to consider here — from Ancient Egyptian slavery; to American slavery; to Western colonization and colorism; to the cycle of sickness as a beauty ideal; to health as a beauty ideal; to how trying to present as wealthy often presents as try-hard and therefore, poor (i.e., the “trashy” fake orange tans of the late nineties and early aughts, courtesy of cheap self-tanning lotions); to the bourgeoisie tendency to co-opt proletariat aesthetics (i.e., the bougie fake orange tans of socialites in the late aughts, courtesy of expensive spray tans); to the fact that tans today are almost exclusively promoted as the result of purchasable products rather than the sun (because skin cancer and wrinkles and SPF sales!!) — and I do want to cover all of that in a future post.
In the meantime, check out the rest of my Doing It Right episode! Pandora and I talk about the history of makeup, the celebrity beauty boom, how “clear skin” is not a health objective but an aesthetic one, and why tearing down beauty culture is not (as my critics love to say) “tearing down women.”