A History of Tanning Culture, From Coco Chanel to Snooki
Summertime. Cue the languid bathers soaking in the blistering summer sun in the park, on the beach and just about everywhere you look. Everyone’s trying to get that summer glow. Unless, of course, you’re me. I’m the girl reapplying her broad spectrum sunscreen and wearing a big floppy sun hat.
I’ve written before about why I don’t tan. Still, though I long ago accepted that my skin would never be described as “sun-kissed” or “bronzed,” the culture of tanning fascinates me. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer at some point in their lives; skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the United States. Incidences of melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, increased by 800 percent in women and 400 percent in men between 1970 and 2009. Of the seven most common forms of cancer in America, melanoma is the only one whose incidence is increasing, and people who use a tanning bed before the age of 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 87 percent. Tanning has become akin to smoking – people know it puts them at risk for disease, but many just can’t stop. A significant number of those who have reluctantly dragged themselves out of the sun and tanning beds still spray tan. So what gives?
Clearly, this has a lot to do with our current standards of beauty. Which sounds more desirable: “healthy glow,” or “ghostly”? “Bronzed,” or “pasty”?
The impulse to darken white skin – identified as a “race-bending beauty practice” by The Root – is odd, considering that white skin carries with it a lot of privilege in our world. It’s ironic that as the use of skin lightening products with potentially toxic ingredients continues to rise worldwide, millions of naturally light-skinned people are trying to make their skin look darker. Beauty Redefined pinpoints the connection:
Though the skin-darkening and skin-lightening movements might appear to be opposites, they’re extremely similar. The U.S. tanning industry has got nothing on the world’s “fairness cream” and “skin lightening” industry in terms of revenue (and shockingly degrading messages), but they use similar tactics to incite appearance anxiety in women and then capitalize on that body shame by selling products to “fix” the flaw. In many cases, those so-called “solutions” to our skin tone problems are extremely dangerous to our health – whether it’s burning your face with hydroquinone to get a lighter complexion or burning your whole body with UVA/UVB rays to get a darker complexion. Both have proven to be deadly.
So, how did we get here? The rise of tanning culture is easiest to track through celebrity tanning habits. After all, celebrities are at once our trendsetters and powerful reflections of current trends. This is perhaps more true now than ever before, when the internet and reality TV have elevated otherwise average people to bizarre levels of stardom (hi, Farrah Abraham).
There are, and have always been, some celebrities who don’t tan – think Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, and Emma Stone, among others. But while these women might be praised for their “porcelain” or “peaches and cream” complexions, that’s not the way it generally goes down in the real world. 1 in 3 white women in America use indoor tanning beds, and tans, real or fake, still abound on the red carpet and especially on reality TV. So who led the way? Click through the gallery to find out.