Around this time each year—usually a hair later, but, hey, climate change!—I enter the same debate with myself: to self-tan or not to self-tan? After years of studiously avoiding the sun, fervently evoking old-timey movie stars with porcelain complexions as my reason for doing so, I spent time in the tropics a few years ago and returned with a deep allover tan that made people around me say, “Wow, you’re tan.” I freakin’ loved it and promptly spent a small fortune on Jergens Natural Glow. It lasted through the summer, but then the following summer I was faced with a conundrum: I’d adored having a natural tan and didn’t mind keeping it up artificially, but healthwise I couldn’t afford to do it again—I tick nearly every box on the list of skin cancer risk factors. (I’d initially done my best to avoid the sun in Vietnam but when that proved impossible, I threw off the towel and sunbathed for all it was worth.) Did I actually want to start from scratch, building up a “tan”—a tan made up of what amounts to skin dye, I might add—for no particular reason? Did I really want to invest the money and time in a fake tan, for a capitulation to vanity?
So here we are, leg-baring season quickly approaching, and I’m in the same spot again. And as I go back and forth with myself about whether I want to appear tanned this year, I'm asking myself a question that, surprisingly, I haven’t wondered before: Why do we want to look tan in the first place?
Part of the answer, as with many things fashionable, is Coco Chanel. Prior to the designer’s rise to prominence, clothes covered so much of women’s form that a body tan was impossible, and a tan on the face and hands signified what it still does in developing nations: that the tanned person is an outdoor laborer, most likely of low social status. Lily-white skin remained a sign of a lady even after industrialization, but legend has it that when Chanel was accidentally sunburned during a trip to the Riviera and developed a tan shortly thereafter, her new hue took fire as a symbol of all she herself embodied: modernism, luxury, and independence. The episode “coincided” with a shift in the medical approach to sunlight, as the medical field went from regarding the sun as dangerous to seeing it as a cure-all within a span of 30 years. In 1905’s The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men, Dr. Chas Edward Woodruff wrote that “The American girl is a bundle of nerves. She is a victim of too much light,” but by WWI “heliotherapy” was readily used to treat wounds, rickets, tuberculosis. Whatever the case, according to Vogue, “The 1929 girl must be tanned,” and so she was.
But here’s the thing that’s sort of flummoxing: That was 83 years ago. We haven’t let up since. There have been plenty of developments that have kept tanning popular—the bikini in 1946, the foil blanket in the 1950s, a plethora of tanning aides from “gypsy sun tan oil” in the 1930s to the perfunctory Coppertone baby—and there have been fluctuations in the fashionability of suntans. But since their arrival, tans have never truly gone out of fashion. Even through the enormous rise of awareness of the dangers of UV rays, tanning is, if not a cultural imperative, something we don’t necessarily question. We might swat wrists of friends who bake in tanning beds, but we don’t really blink an eye at self-tanning creams even if we don’t use them ourselves (and up to 46% of us do). Plus, judging by the number of people who complimented my tan after my return from Vietnam, it still holds a good amount of cultural cachet. Since 1929 we’ve given up spit curls, drop waists, and breast binding, but we cling to the tan.
We cling to it in part because its significance hasn’t changed all that much, sure; it’s affluence, luxury, and even though we all know better, health. The idea now isn’t so much that we’re acting as if we’ve spent two weeks at Saint-Tropez but rather that we’re not desk-bound. It’s also the perfect accessory: A tan hits the sweet spot between conspicuous and inconspicuous consumption. It visibly shares that you’ve done something we still connect with leisure and affluence, but without the bourgeois connotations of furs, Jaguars, and jewels. Once tan, you cannot help but be tan; it’s literally a part of who you are. It’s the ultimate expression of “Oh, this old thing?” The dearth of tans among hipsters supports this: In a community definitively marked by inconspicuous consumption, the standards for visibility change, stigmatizing any visible consumption, i.e. tans, more than they would be elsewhere. The activities prized by the hipster community—not that such a thing exists, mind you!—with the possible exceptions of fixed-gear bicycling and rabid picnicking, are largely indoor: art, music, Tumblr. The less tan you are, the more easily you can create the appearance of partaking in these activities. Certainly I don’t think hipsters are avoiding the sun to act as if they’re not secretly weekend warriors. But taking the step those weekend warriors might—applying self-tanner or bronzer to advertise one’s proclivities to the outdoors—would send the wrong sort of social message at Chloe Sevigny’s tea party.
Beyond the idea of material luxury, a tan represents that we have the luxury to be connected to both nature and culture simultaneously. Tourism boards use tanning in their materials: “The bourgeois on their Mediterranean beaches can entertain the illusion of learning to love their bodies again as they did in childhood,” writes K.K. Sharma in his overview of the history of tourism. A tan is a message, and the message is that its bearer is a child of nature who has returned to one’s filing-cabinet life bearing proof of the nature connection. The idea of tans returning us to a state of nature makes tanning less stigmatized where more tangible icons of luxury might be sneered at.
But even with all these reasons for tans sticking around for more than 80 years, it’s still counterintuitive. I’m having trouble thinking of anything that we know full well is bad for us but that we do anyway, for vanity—rather, that we encourage the mimicking of. We might go on diets, wear high heels, quaff martinis, puff smoke rings, or any number of other things that have been glamorized that aren’t so hot for your health—but we’re actually doing those things, not pretending to do them. With self-tanner, it’s like we’re all standing around puffing on electronic cigarettes even if we’ve never touched real tobacco. We all know tans don’t actually represent health and that there’s no such thing as a “healthy tan,” but we don’t really believe it. Rather, plenty of us believe it but covet the tan anyway, and turn to products to help us regain what has been taken from us with our banishment from the sun.
And, as with so many things about the intensely personal choices we make, it just might come down to this: There is an enormous financial amount at stake in keeping us sunny-side up. Sunblock is a good-sized segment of the skin-care industry (it’s projected to hit $5.2 billion globally by 2015), but so are its cousins: sunless tanning products, spray-on tans, and cosmetic bronzers totaling $516 million annually, not to mention the indoor tanning industry and low-dose sunblocks marketed as "tanning creams." I’d initially thought that the cosmetic approaches to tanning were developed as a “healthy” alternative to natural tans and tanning beds, but actually, various lotions and dyes have been around as long as tanning has been fashionable, for the very reason that a suntan is sought after in the first place: Most of us don’t have unlimited time to lounge around Biarritz (or, today, to lay complacently in tanning beds—which ain’t cheap, even if you’re willing to take the health risks). Mantan, a sunless tanning lotion popular in the 1950s, promised dual action with its “moisturizing” action that “lasts for days without touch-ups!”; even in an era when women were being supposedly liberated from housework with the modern kitchen, time was at a premium.
And we can’t look at tanning products without at least glancing at their counterparts: lighteners. Skin lightening creams are wildly popular in Asia; the idea isn’t to look white but rather to look sophisticated and wealthy—an elevation from the peasant class that works outside.The politics and implications of skin lightening call for deeper examination than I can give them here; for now I’ll just point out the obvious: Both self-tanners and skin lightening creams are class in a bottle. Asian women using skin lighteners don’t want to look white any more than I want to look Hispanic when I put on self-tanner; we want to look lighter or darker, sure, but both of those are a route to looking what our cultures deem better. Skin lightening creams are making in-roads in the North American market, with claims about “radiance,” “brightening,” and “illuminating—but the truth is, those adjectives are similarly applied in Asia as well (as I found out when I bought a “radiance” face wash in Vietnam that didn’t strip away my tan but made me look chalky immediately after washing). These are the same formulas, mind you, but being packaged to apply to the inner desires of each culture: paleness in Asia, radiance in America, youth and “rejuvenation” in both. As this excellently reported piece on the rise of skin lightening creams in North America shows, "a brightener is whatever we want it to be."
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes about how the beauty industry attempts to package the radiance each individual brings to the world. “The Rites of Beauty offer to sell women back an imitation of the light that is ours already, the central grace we are forbidden to say that we see,” she writes. If radiance can be bought and sold, in a consumer society that sends the message that the “real” radiance is what comes in the package, while the homemade stuff gets moldy. Add to that the reality that the homemade tan—that is, a tan acquired from actually being in the sun—is damaging to your health (and eventually to your vanity through a leathery appearance), and suddenly the stuff in the bottle becomes even more appealing than run-of-the-mill makeup that just promises to make you look “better.” Eyeliner makes you look more awake, but self-tanner (or lightener, depending on the culture) promises to give you back that light that was originally yours, and it does so in a way that lets you play by the rules. Good girls stay out of the sun, but good girls also look like they get plenty of the stuff regardless. The tan in the bottle—that “Radiant,” “Natural Glow,” that “Sublime Bronze,” that holy protection of the “Bronzing Veil”—gives us an out, allows us to have our radiance without the harm the real deal would inflict. The beauty of it for us is that we’ve figured out how to get that “healthy tan” after all. And the beauty of it for the industry is that we’re paying $8.49 for each opportunity to do so.