“You’ve such a great colour!” said my friend. I was ten years old, and made an “ah not really” gesture, shrugging my shoulders, but secretly thrilled with the comment. Or let’s call it a compliment – it doesn’t really make sense that it’s a compliment – I hadn’t actually done anything that required talent – but it was intended as a compliment, and received as one too.
Roll on a few years and my friends and I were slathering ourselves in Johnson’s Baby oil in a bid to absorb the elusive Irish sun.
“You’re so brown!” was the ultimate tribute you could pay anyone back then, and the response was usually “nah, you’re way browner than me” or “sure it won’t last, it’s fading already”; examining the tan with a sceptical eye, but feeling secretly thrilled.
Some years later, as a student on my J1 summer in Virginia Beach, I was far too sensible to use Johnson’s Baby oil – instead I layered on Hawaiian Tropic Factor 2 tanning oil. And I lay in that sun, day after day, in between shifts of chamber-maiding in the mornings and waitressing in the evenings. As my skin darkened, I craved it more and more – it was never enough. A limb that looked beautifully tanned in the evening light could appear pale again the next morning – it was never enough. It was addictive.
Why do we want to be brown? Why is it a compliment? When exactly did it become desirable to be tanned? And when did we go from plastering ourselves in Baby Oil to plastering our children in Factor 50 sun-cream?
First things first. Lots of us appear … let’s say airbrushed, with a sun-kissed glow. And while some women look beautiful with alabaster skin, those of us with less than perfect complexions tend to look better with a tan. It’s make-up-free make-up; it evens out the skin-tone and covers up imperfections – foundation without the price-tag. And of course, too much sun is not good – I’m not suggesting the leathery looks suits anyone – but a light glow can be transformative.
And most of us look slimmer with a tan – who wouldn’t take a bit of effortless weight loss, albeit perceived rather than real. There’s an overall aura of health and outdoorsiness that comes with a light tan, which for decades has been seen as attractive.
But until the early twentieth century, being tanned wasn’t at all desirable – in fact, before the Industrial Revolution, sun-browned skin was associated with outdoor farming work, and was therefore linked to peasantry. Wealthy people stayed indoors, and actively looked for ways to lighten their skin; it is said that in Elizabethan days, women used lead-paint to achieve the whiter-than-white look, which takes suffering for beauty to a whole new level.
However as the Industrial Revolution took hold at the end of the 19th century, poor people moved indoors to work in factories. They began to look pale and sickly, so whiter-than-white skin was no longer the trademark of the rich. And at the same time, wealthier people discovered sport and outdoor leisure activities, so switched places (well, to an extent) with their poorer countrymen – just without doing any of the actual farming work.
But it was only in 1923 that tanning became desirable in its own right; a sun-kissed Coco Chanel was photographed stepping off a yacht on which she had fallen sleep, and thus began our love affair with the sun-tan.
Tanning grew in popularity over subsequent decades, but there was a problem; while the look was achievable for eager sun-seekers during summer months, they reverted unwillingly to a pale-and-pasty pallor for the rest of the year. What to do?
Fake it of course. In 1960, Coppertone launched their “Quick Tan” which could “tan you indoors quickly and easily, in just three to five hours”. “Quick” was clearly a relative term.
With a combination of sun-bathing, fake-tan, and the newly popular sun-bed, deliberately browning human skin became an international pass-time right through the 1970s and 1980s. It was only in 1985 that the first medical warnings against over-exposure to sun were issued (by the newly formed American Academy of Dermatology), and in 1986 the first SPF 15 was launched.
With skin cancer rates quadrupling over the last three decades, awareness of damage that sun exposure can cause has greatly increased. Kids are carefully covered in SPF 50 before stepping outside the door, and in a change from the 1980s, sunburnt skin on children has become socially unacceptable. Obviously no child should ever be allowed to burn, but in terms of sun-cream application, some would say that the pendulum has swung too far. Humans need sunlight for Vitamin D, and in fact that’s the very reason that we in Northern Europe have evolved to have pale skin – so that we can better absorb the smaller amount of sunlight we get in this hemisphere. There is perhaps something to be said for allowing children to have a small amount of time outdoors before putting on sun-cream?
And as for the kids who are growing up with far greater sun-safety awareness than we ever had – will they embrace the pale-and-interesting look?
My eight-year-old recently picked up a bottle of tinted-moisturizer from my bathroom shelf and asked if she could use it. When I said no, explaining that it wasn’t normal moisturizer, but a kind of fake tan, she got really, really excited.
“Please mum, I’d love to have a tan – why can’t I use it?” she squealed, jumping up and down. I held fast and refused. No doubt in years to come she’ll be slathering herself in something that turns her skin brown, but I’m not about to fast-track that journey for her.
For me, tanning is still a little bit addictive. I don’t have time to sun-bathe and my family don’t seem big on the idea of me going on another J1 summer to Virginia Beach, so I get what I can when the sun comes out; playing with the kids in the garden or eating lunch in the garden or folding laundry in the garden or very, very occasionally, just sitting in the garden.
And nothing much has changed since I was ten – a friend told me last week that I had a good colour, and I smiled happily. “Yes, we had great weather on holidays,” I said. It still feels like a compliment – a compliment I haven’t earned – I’ve just got better at taking them.