Tan is the New Pale? Why Tanning Doesn’t Mean Racism

Painting of Queen Elizabeth

In many cultures around the world, pale skin is prized. As far back as the Ancient Romans people were trying to lighten their skin. The article “Suffering for Beauty Has Ancient Roots” from NBC says that upper class Romans would put white lead on their faces to become paler. Later on skin lightening became even more popular. Queen Elizabeth covered her face in a white lead based foundation known as ceruse, according to the Royal Museums Greenwich website. The whitening products would eat away at and scar the skin, and in response people would cover their skin in egg whites to glaze it over and of course, cover it more of the lead foundation. People of her time would even paint veins onto their skin to give the appearance that they were so pale that their skin was translucent. Fun fact: the term “blue blood” likely came from the visible blue veins of the pale nobility. As you probably know, pale skin was considered fashionable because it meant that you were wealthy and didn’t need to work outside.

Today in the United States, we definitely don’t put as much emphasis on the importance of pale skin. Arguably, tan skin is considered the most attractive at the moment. I would say that this is for similar reasons of why pale skin was historically popular, although instead of it being a status symbol of being able to stay inside, wealthier people have the time/money to lounge around in the sun or go to tanning salons. Many women spray self tanner onto their bodies and put on foundation a couple shades darker than their true skin, like Kylie Jenner and a lot of YouTube “beauty gurus”.

An extreme example of dark foundation from Instagram user @sellmakasumoviq_studiosellma

This does not, however, mean that we love dark skinned women of color. Darker skin as an attractive thing seems to not usually apply to people who are not white, and instead we are encouraged to be as light skinned as possible. The little representation of people of color in the media is nearly always of people paler than average (who we often photoshop to look even whiter), and in society people with darker skin are more discriminated against.

Certainly, we do not discriminate against pale skin, as some people say. Truthfully, I’m tired of pale people claiming discrimination and racism because tanning is somewhat popular. I really can’t think of any disadvantages pale people have in life for being pale, save for the sunburn but I don’t think the sun is racist against white people. A comment to a pale girl about how she she must not go outside, will never be anything like the systemic colorism against people of color. White still means privilege and power.

Plus, almost all of the models, singers, and actresses I see are pretty pale, many of them very much so, which is why I’d even hesitate to call tan our beauty standard. It is hard to determine American beauty standards when there are inconsistencies (for example, runway models are stick thin but I hear more people praising the curvy hourglass shape). Tan is now considered beautiful, but you definitely don’t need to be tan to be beautiful.


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