New Emissary

The Many Shades of Beauty

Western beauty standards seem to favor tanned skin to pale. Is the grass just always greener on the other side?

When it comes to our skin tone, is the grass just always greener on the other side?

Earlier this week, I talked about how Asians worldwide spend billions a year on products and treatments to 'whiten' their skin despite the health risks that may be involved and posed the question: Is it time to turn the focus to inner beauty?

Well one reader today asked me about the other side—this is, what’s then the situation for Western, fairer-skinned people wanting darker skin? And it got me thinking that perhaps this is a topic worth investigating, so as to be able to give a rounded approach to the topic.

Tanning: Big in the West

According to a 2006 report in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, in the United States alone, commercial indoor tanning accounts for about $5-7 billion in sales per year. And since at the time the report was published, it also stated that the industry was one of the fastest growing ones in the United States, it’s probably safe to assume that sales figure is even higher now.

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Meanwhile, more recently, an Emory University study in the US also found that tanned people were twice as likely to be perceived as more attractive than paler versions of themselves. An ABC news article published late last year that cites the findings also states that indeed, over the past century the Western perception of tanned skinned has made a 180 degree flip to become desirable. For one, with the Industrial Revolution, it seems vacations to warmer places became more accessible, making sun-darkened skin not only more acceptable, but a status marker. Then, with the advent of tanning salons in the late-80s, the trend took off. ABC also reports that ‘tanning boosts confidence and is perceived as socially desirable,’ and is thus ‘a psychologically comforting thing to do’ for many.

The Many Shades of Beauty

The Hazards of Attractiveness?

But despite the allure of a sun-bronzed or darker appearance, tanning enthusiasts worldwide face major health risks when they spend time in the sun or under the artificial rays of a tanning bed. The Journal of Drugs in Dermatology report states that not only does the rising trend have ‘serious implications in view of today's skin cancer epidemic,’ with ‘the incidence of melanoma, the most serious, and life-threatening form of (skin cancer)…skyrocketing.’ It adds that with the ‘cancer burden’ predicted to ‘double in the next 50 years,’ that the popularity of indoor tanning will only add to such sobering statistics.

So why keep doing it? It’s something Sandra Read, a dermatologist and member of the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention, called ‘a Darwinian struggle,’ suggesting that humans are ‘hardwired to look at color—vividness—as a sign of health and attractiveness and a potential good partner to mate with,’ when she spoke to TIME  magazine in 2006.

However, according to media reports, it seems that the tanning trend might be facing some obstacles too. As the lead author of the Emory University study report told ABC, ‘a lot of the hot celebrities right now are actually quite pale, and there may be a trend towards that, but that is going to be so slow.’

As an article in The Link  implied earlier this month, there's a certain sad irony that while, for example, Westerners holidaying in Thailand spend much of their time sunning themselves on the beach, their hosts are desperately covering themselves up to ensure they keep their skin pale and so can make a visual statement about which class they are from (or want to be seen to be from). As the article notes: 'To Bangkokians, having tanned, dark skin insinuates that the person is of a lower class which has to do manual labour outside to make a living'.

But whatever the reason for the fixation on tone, I can only hope these health endangering skin tone changing methods, whether in Asia or the US, face many more obstacles to come.


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Images: hollaa01 / Flickr (top), essygie / Flickr (bottom).