Growing up, I was never as dark as I wanted to be. My mother and her family immigrated to the United States from Central America before I was born, and their skin is significantly darker than mine. When I was young, I applied tanning lotion and laid in the sun for hours. I disregarded sunscreen during every outing. I let my skin suffer burn after burn, cringing as it healed, relishing the tan that came after. I’m embarrassed by how long it took me to fully recognize the extent to which such behaviors were unhealthy, as well as the great irony behind the practice of cosmetic tanning. Looking back, I cringe at how much damage I must have done to my skin.
Tans are caused by excessive exposure to harmful UV rays, and often times, if a tan exists, it means damage to one’s skin cells has occurred. According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, 90 percent of melanoma cases can be linked to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from natural or artificial sources, such as sunlight and indoor tanning beds. While the foundation recognizes family history and genetics play a role in the development of skin cancer, excessive UV ray exposure still plays a significant role. In addition, the Skin Cancer Foundation cites people who use a tanning bed before the age of 35 increase their risk of melanoma, or the formation of skin cancer cells, by 75 percent.
While spray tans allow people to attain that ideal, bronzed color without causing this kind of damage to their skin, the entire practice of cosmetic tanning, whether the tan is real or not, is socially troubling. I cringe at how, up until recently, I flaunted my privilege by pursuing a cosmetic tan. While I artificially pursued bronze skin, I didn’t once stop to think about how unfair of a beauty standard tanned skin has become. People of color are regularly discriminated against for having dark skin, a kind of discrimination my mother and other family members of mine are more than familiar with, while white people who tan are often praised for their color. The cosmetic tanning industry promotes a warped beauty mindset in which the latent goal is for people with lighter skin to become as dark as they can without becoming “too brown.” This is not to say that anyone who tans or enjoys the sun is racist. The practice of tanning isn’t a racist act. Rather, it perpetuates a centuries-old, nearly global beauty misconception that still, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes not, exists today — that lighter skin is somehow more beautiful than naturally darker skin. In addition, when people with naturally less melanin pursue darker complexions, they’re perpetuating an exceptionally dangerous idea — darker skin is only beautiful if it’s artificially attained by people with lighter skin.
This doesn’t mean no one should enjoy the sun. There is nothing wrong with going outside and enjoying the sunshine. The body needs vitamin D, and laying out beside the pool to soak up some rays has the potential to offer health benefits, especially for those with vitamin D deficiencies. This is not a plea against the sun, but rather, against an industry that, as a society, we should be perpetuating the unhealthy Western beauty ideal of tanned skin.
This also isn’t to say tans, in and of themselves, are bad. Some people have lighter skin that quickly becomes darker when exposed to the sun, while others naturally spend large amounts of time outdoors or exposed to sunlight. If an individual is taking the appropriate measures to protect their skin from excessive UV rays, the act of having a natural tan isn’t harmful, it’s the pursuit of a tan for cosmetic purposes that quickly becomes physically and socially dangerous.
Institutionalized racism is far more complicated than skin color alone, and while decreasing the popularity of cosmetic tanning won’t single-handedly end racism or discrimination based on skin color, it could potentially help lead to a society in which we not only value health above arbitrary, unimportant measures of beauty, but also one in which we can appreciate the inherent beauty of all skin colors.
Corrin Bond can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @CorrBond