Fairly Unfair: Colorism and Tanning

As temperatures rise and the sun returns to the sky, Instagrammers everywhere are letting us know that #tanningseason has begun once again. A flood of bikini pics and before-and-after photos will encroach on our newsfeeds in the weeks to come.

Most of these photos belong to affluent white women trying to advertise some product or service. White social media influencers, fitness gurus, and makeup artists all frequently share their tips for the “perfect tan” during the summer months, tips that include daily tan routines and sometimes literal body paint.

Our society is obsessed with obtaining the “perfect skin color,” some mysterious shade that tanners are trying to reach but never go beyond. People will go to extraordinary lengths and risk permanent bodily damage to achieve their ideal “summer glow.”

The beauty industry has promoted this ideal for decades with the help of fashion magazines and TV shows targeted primarily to younger white girls. But glowing skin as a facet of beauty is no recent invention.

Evolutionary psychologists, like Bernhard Fink at the University of Göttingen, believe that facial skin tone has a large effect on perceptions of female beauty, since even skin and rosy cheeks may indicate health and fertility. Psychologists have tested this theory by creating 3D models of women’s faces that varied only in the homogeneity of their skin tones. Participants were asked to rate the models on attractiveness, healthiness, and youthfulness.

Researchers found that as facial homogeneity went up, so did ratings on these three attributes: the models that had clear skin with no wrinkles or dark spots were perceived as more attractive.

Of course, since the participants were mostly white and the models were mapped of off white women, the study is only fully generalizable to white features. Still, when we’re so absorbed in a world of Eurocentric beauty ideals, how can we trust ourselves to make judgments of beauty that aren’t biased by prejudices against dark skin?

Beside the obvious danger of skin cancer, it is often hard for white people to understand why the idea of purposeful tanning makes people of color uncomfortable. It’s frustrating to hear white people complain about the paleness of their skin if you’ve been told by parents and relatives to stay light. Colorism is pervasive and insidious; it often makes its way into the minds of POC at an early age.

Feelings of shame surrounding dark skin are conditioned without you even realizing it. As you begin to emulate the actions of your parents, you may unknowingly absorb actions that are a direct result of colorism, like instinctively retreating to the shade on a sunny day, or using cleansers that advertise their effects on brightness.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when colorism began, but there is evidence of it going back to the Greek empire, with Aristotle suggesting that women with fair skin produce more vaginal discharge due to higher rates of fertility. During that time, fair skin was considered a feminine trait, and dark skin a masculine one, causing dark-skinned women to be viewed as undesirable or infertile.

Throughout history, dark skin continued to be demonized, and not just by whites. Asian cultures very explicitly praised fair skin, since it was a signifier of socioeconomic class: a tan marked you as a member of the working class who labored outside in the sun. These ideals carried through into the modern day, evidenced by the prevalence of skin bleaching and other cosmetic procedures POC are pressured to endure.

In the world of makeup tutorials, it’s just as common to see a white makeup artist applying foundation five shades too dark as it is to see a black makeup artist applying foundation five shades too light. While companies like Emmaatan and Loving Tan profit off of what is essentially blackface labeled as self tanner; “fairness creams,” a.k.a. skin lighteners, advertise apps that edit your photos to make you look more pale.

This astounding pressure to look fair doesn’t just exist in India or China, however. Even some of Snapchat’s most-used filters, notably the flower crown and other beautifying filters, lighten users’ skin.

Seeing photos of harsh tan lines makes me cringe: once again, white people are benefitting from something that POC  aren’t allowed to have. As a child, the white side of my heritage drew me to images of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, who bragged about their use of tanning beds. The Chinese side of me knew this was bad, but why?

My family had convinced me that tanning was dangerous because of the health risks — melanoma, wrinkles, dark spots — but was this why my mom complained that the lightest shade of her foundation was always too dark? Is this why my grandmother gave me a visor and sunglasses for my birthday? Is this why I use SPF 100 when I’ve only sunburned twice?

The purpose of this article isn’t to tell white people to stop tanning. It’s relatively impossible to prevent tanning if you’re out in the sun — as anyone who’s been shamed for the darkness of their skin can tell you.

But white celebrities and businessmen profiting off of an ideal of beauty that POC are shamed for accessing is unethical and disgusting. Our skin is an organ we cannot control. Our sensitivity as allies, however, is different.

You can choose whether to educate yourself on issues that affect marginalized communities. You can choose whether to brag about your privileged ability to get darker. You can choose to speak out against media that perpetuates prejudice against those with dark skin.

This #tanningseason, choose nuance over ignorance. None of us can choose the amount of melanin we produce, but we can choose to acknowledge the problematic aspects of tanning in a world so defined by race.

Adela Pfaff PZ ’19 is a psychology major from San Diego. Their future aspirations include running a lab, giving a TEDtalk, and hand-feeding sharks.

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