The Sexist History Behind Our Obsession With Tanning
Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29's global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there's no such thing as safe sun.
From "sun-kissed skin" to a "healthy glow," the way we talk about being tanned is proof enough that we romanticize the idea of it. Add in the visuals, like adverts for luxury fashion or influencers posting to Instagram from a poolside in Ibiza, and it becomes ever more apparent that a bronzed body has become synonymous with being attractive and healthy -- even when we know a real tan can be deadly.
It's no wonder, then, that the tanning industry is big business. Despite the well-documented risks of indoor tanning such as melanoma skin cancer, the global tanning beds market is expected to reach a value of over $7.4 million by 2027. More prosperous still is the business of faking it: today, the worldwide self-tanning product market is estimated to be worth around $1.1 billion, with formulas having come a long way from the acrid, dubiously orange versions of yesteryear. What these numbers tell us is that, while acceptance movements have had some success in chipping away at our fixation with flawless skin and thinness, that elusive "healthy tan" is one ingrained beauty ideal on which many people are unwilling to compromise.
When did tanning become so popular?
When did tanning become so popular?
Let's get one thing straight: it wasn't always this way. In terms of "desirable" complexions, light skin reigned supreme for thousands of years. "Since ancient times, paler skin equaled beauty and wealth, while tanned skin equaled the working class," Dr. Amy Boyington, a UK-based historian, tells Refinery29. "Those of the lower social classes would usually be required to work long, arduous days outdoors. Because these people were outside all day, they became tanned, which was then used as a social differentiation."
The classist and colorist association of lighter skin with higher social status runs parallel to the shameful exploitation and subjugation of people of color throughout history, especially as it relates to colonialism. "European colonialists used the whiteness of their skin as a tool for discrimination and racism," says Dr. Boyington. "Mixed-race or lighter-skinned individuals were often better treated than their darker contemporaries."
In the pursuit of pale skin, people from 8th-century Japan all the way through to the Victorian era used skin-lightening products containing toxic ingredients such as lead and arsenic. "Roman women would enhance their pale skin by applying face-whitening creams such as cerussa (sugar of lead), which was made by pouring vinegar over white lead shavings," says Dr. Boyington. White lead was known to be poisonous but that small fact hardly affected its popularity for creating a smooth complexion.
In Western culture, pale skin continued to be considered a beauty ideal until the 20th century. In 1923, French fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel spent rather too long soaking up the sun on a cruise to Cannes and photographs showing her emerging from the boat with much darker skin were published in the popular press. Whether she realized it or not, Coco had inadvertently made tanned skin trendy -- for white women who wished to convey a certain air of privilege, at least. "Tanned skin slowly became more popular in the 1920s and 1930s because it suggested that one could afford luxury holidays to sunny destinations," says Dr. Boyington. "Sun-seeking behaviors were promoted in tandem with the increasing promotion for an active and sporty lifestyle, which necessitated swimsuits and sportswear that revealed more skin than ever before."
For an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers assessed summer issues of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue magazines throughout the 1920s. They found a multitude of articles and advertisements (again targeted at the publications' mostly white, affluent audiences) advocating tanning as a fashion statement, likely inspired by Coco herself. The analysis uncovered a handful of articles encouraging women to tan and offering advice on how to dress to both attain and show off tanned skin. "There is no doubt about it," reads a line in Harper's Bazaar's June 1929 issue. "If you haven't a tanned look about you, you aren't part of the rage of the moment."
Why do more women use tanning beds?
Why do more women use tanning beds?
Coco got her glow straight from the source on the French Riviera and it would be decades before women took en masse to artificial means of tanning. Rudimentary tanning beds were invented as early as the 1900s to function as "light therapy" for various health concerns such as treating tuberculosis and preventing infections and colds, but it wasn't until the 1970s that German scientist Friedrich Wolff was credited with fine-tuning the technology and bringing it to worldwide attention.
Today, there are 57,283 tanning salons in the US, according to market research database Ibis World, while Active Salon, a company that provides software for tanning businesses, estimates there are around 3,000 to 5,000 tanning shops in the UK. Contemporary tanning beds use the same technology as those of Wolff's era, harnessing ultraviolet radiation (UV) composed mainly of UVA (which penetrates deeply into the skin and causes tanning but also premature ageing and skin cancer) and smaller doses of UVB (the radiation associated with sunburn).
Just like the tanning articles from the '20s, we only have to glance at magazine adverts from the '70s and '80s to see that the target audience of the newfangled tanning beds was predominantly women. A flick through the archives serves up illustrations and photographs of bronzed women with long limbs, washboard stomachs and perfect perms. Perhaps nobody knows this better than health, beauty and tanning historian Dr. Fabiola Creed, who spent four years during her master's degree and PhD program scouring shop windows, leaflets, posters, newspapers, magazines, television, and film for every single visual or written reference to tanning culture in Britain from the 1970s to the 1990s.
"For sunbeds, I found less than a handful of examples of men in contrast to thousands of "perfect-looking" women, always tanned, white, toned, affluent-looking, with big hair, pouting or smiling, with lots of 'natural' makeup," says Dr. Creed of her research. In the few examples she found of tanned men, they were either fully dressed or not shown undergoing the 'passive' tanning ritual of sunbathing, using a sunbed or applying fake tan. "Instead," she says, "they were always shown as 'active' and 'macho', such as playing sports with a tan, socializing or chatting up women." Tanning "100% has a sexist history," she says.
Not much has changed in 50 years. It is abundantly clear that women, not men, remain the target market. The windows of tanning shops that line the high streets still showcase posters depicting bikini-clad women. Even the language used to advertise tanning beds seems to have women in mind, with ads peddling questionable and unfounded "skin-tightening" and "rejuvenating" properties, for example. Consultant dermatologist Dr. Justine Hextall says she sees markedly more female than male clients with a history of tanning bed use in her practice. "Unfortunately tanned skin is often seen as a sign of health and beauty but, as we know, there is no such thing as a healthy tan," she says.
This falls right in line with the skincare industry's inherently sexist anti-ageing narrative, of which women have long been the main focus -- and we're eating it up. A 2022 study by the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Unit at Andreas Sygros Hospital in Greece concluded that women in Europe were two to three times more likely than men to use indoor tanning across all age groups. It's a similar story across the Atlantic: a study published in JAMA Dermatology found that approximately 7.8 million adult US women tan indoors, compared to 1.9 million adult US men.
Is tanned skin just another beauty standard?
Is tanned skin just another beauty standard?
Whether or not a person prefers to be tanned is entirely their prerogative but it's difficult not to see our obsession with bronzed skin as another exhausting beauty standard thrust predominantly on women. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, which examined the impact of images of tanned women from a male and female perspective, found that only male respondents viewed dark-tanned women as more "physically and interpersonally attractive" than light and medium-tanned women. This isn't an outlier: Dr. Creed cites a 2014 study that examined perceptions of tanned and non-tanned women and men on several different traits. The researchers observed that men are often not studied and concluded that tan faces are "perceived more positively than non-tan faces".
Male respondents to the aforementioned 2008 study also associated tanned women with thinness, another arbitrary physical attribute that has been drilled into women's heads as being more "desirable." The belief that tanned skin makes people appear slimmer is common even today. As well as lending skin a bronzed color, self-tan in particular is often used to emphasize or lend the illusion of sharper bone structure and body definition. Take social media's current obsession with fake tan contouring, for example, which creates faux cheekbones and even abs. More recently, a study published in 2018 that observed young women aged 18 to 25 suggests we've internalized these expectations over the years. Researchers found that indoor tanning users in particular believe tanning enhances physical attractiveness, increases confidence and leads to greater social acceptance. Unsurprisingly, there are far fewer studies like this one that centre men.
In 2023, you'd think that attitudes might have changed but social media tells a different story. Type the word "tanning" into the search bar on TikTok (it has 3 billion views) and you'll be met with countless videos glamorizing and sexualizing bronzed skin. Clips captioned "Girls look the hottest with a nice tan" are accompanied by worrying posts titled "The way being tan just makes you look 10000x better -- skin cancer it is for me" and "Proof being tan boosts your confidence and makes u feel 10x prettier".
This obsession with tanning further highlights a light skin bias. It is not lost on London-based esthetician Alicia Lartey that although white women are idolized for their tanned skin, Black and brown women with the same skin tone are ignored by the beauty industry. "This is a form of discrimination," says Lartey. "Perhaps it would be different if everyone had equal opportunities but the global beauty industry favors lighter skin tones." Lartey also points out that many white people use tanning to appear racially ambiguous. Countless influencers have been accused of "blackfishing": using tanned skin to appear more attractive and to gain attention while benefiting from white privilege. It is problematic whenever Black and brown features and skin tones are repackaged on white people. "Women of color are not a trend," says Lartey.
What are the risks of tanning?
What are the risks of tanning?
The physical effects of a tan might make some people feel good temporarily but skin cancer is a serious risk of sunbathing and using tanning beds. To that end, in 2009 the World Health Organization declared indoor tanning a human carcinogen. "This means indoor tanning is in the same group as smoking and asbestos," explains consultant dermatologist Dr. Alia Ahmed. Both melanoma skin cancer (a type of skin cancer which can spread to other areas of the body) and non-melanoma skin cancers (a group of cancers which slowly occur in the top layers of skin) are hazards of indoor tanning. "Other risks include burning of the skin, eye damage and premature skin aging such as pigmentation spots, fine lines and wrinkles," says Dr. Ahmed.
Considering the risks of artificial tanning, and that significantly more women than men frequent tanning beds, it makes sense that so many women are facing the very real consequences. A 2016 study published in JAMA Dermatology observing 63 women diagnosed with melanoma before age 30 found that 61 of them used tanning beds. Research by the American Academy of Dermatology Association in 2019 shows that between 1970 and 2009, melanoma diagnosis increased by 800% among women aged 18-39, making it the second most common cancer in young women. Use of indoor tanning devices is of particular concern: experts estimate that it may cause more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the US each year.
Cancer Research UK reports that melanoma skin cancer survival rates are better for women than they are for men; however, Dr. Creed explains that history has been unkind to women with skin cancer. She recalls coming across a sexist campaign image of a woman -- never a man -- with the verbiage "Dying For A Tan". "Women [were] attacked through all the medical and government skin cancer campaigns from the late 1980s onwards," says Dr. Creed, "even though skin cancer rates [became] higher in men." Other evidence hints at a gender bias in healthcare and suggests skin cancer concerns are less likely to be taken seriously in women. Twenty-six-year-old Zoe Panayi died from melanoma skin cancer after two doctors told her that a mole she was concerned about did not worry them. Instead, doctors suggested cosmetic removal at a private beauty clinic. Panayi's family has now launched a petition calling on the government to implement Zoe's Law, which would require all moles removed at private clinics to be tested for melanoma skin cancer as standard, and for all doctors and medical centers to take mole removal more seriously.
Twenty-three-year-old Izzy Tomassi's concern was written off by doctors in a similar way to Panayi's. Tomassi, who used tanning beds in the past, told R29 that doctors believed she wanted a dubious mole removed for "vanity reasons" and warned it would leave an "ugly scar." When a biopsy was taken, Tomassi discovered she had stage 1B melanoma, an early stage of skin cancer.
"Tanned skin is certainly a beauty standard that we strive for," Tomassi told R29. "You think you look nice as your freckles come out, and it makes you feel good." Tomassi admits that she still wants to look tanned but now she'll only reach for the fake stuff. "Despite my ordeal, I know people who still use sunbeds all the time," she said. "I just think, For the sake of a tan, what is the point? There really is none, and it's taken me this entire nightmare to realize that."
This story was originally reported on Refinery29UK.