Why is fake tanning not demonised in the way that skin lightening is?

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This morning whilst scanning the newspapers I came across the headline ‘Fake tan mania looks like it's fading away: Number of bottles sold falls by a quarter in 2014 as women favour a lighter look’, in the Daily Mail, which got me thinking about how skin darkening (on the part of white women) is generally perceived and widely deemed as acceptable whereas – the reverse treatment if you like – skin-lightening (on the part of black and Asian women) is constantly attacked as a sign of self-loathing and the result of psychological colonialism continuing to be played out in the present day.

Black women who use skin-lightening products are often mocked by other members of their community, their desire to appear lighter supposedly indicating some deep-lying insecurity regarding their natural, black beauty; their being a victim of a long history of powerful white supremacist propaganda that would have BME women believe that they are not beautiful because their skin is not peachy, their hair does not swish and because they happen to have a large bum.

I am in no way in favour of the use of ski-lightening creams by women of colour, which I do believe is harmful in several ways, not just in terms of the individual harm to the user’s skin (the products often contain very powerful chemicals) but also the message that it sends out: whiter and lighter is better, more desirable, the ideal form of beauty. However, my issue is that the women – and indeed men – who choose to use these products are endlessly criticised and pitied by others whilst their white counterparts are able to engage in a similarly artificial process of adjusting their skin tone (fake tanning) without receiving the same treatment from their peers and wider society.

It is a well-known fact that many white women – and men – use fake tan to achieve a darker appearance to their skin, including most celebrities, some of whom appear in adverts for these very products. Every now and then the dangers of using sun beds reappears in the headlines, along with stories warning of the dangers of excessive tanning (both natural and artificial) including the increased risk of getting skin cancer. Yet still, in spite of these well documented risks and dangers, white women continue to slap on their fake tan with the hope of achieving a greater ‘glow’ and sun-kissed look.

Some of my white and mixed-race friends and I (a mixed-race woman) joke about being sun-worshippers, lying out in the sun for hours during the summer trying to achieve that perfect tan and glow which we think makes us look ten times better than when our skin is paler. As with many women, we will proudly show off our tan lines and ‘before’ (where we paler) and ‘after’ (tanned). In fact, we may even not be comfortable wearing shorts, anything to revealing or certain brightly coloured clothes (a white bikini before major tanning would be a complete non-no, for example) until we have achieved a certain level of tan which means our skin won’t look too ‘pasty’. Some of my black friends mock our eagerness to tan and insist we look just as good without a tan but we have none of it, still lying out in the sun for way too long despite knowing that it is not particularly good to do so. Although light-heartedly mocked by our friends, we are never subjected to serious criticism or arguments that we are not comfortable with our natural beauty and fairer skin.

I remember at university how some of the white girls I lived with would pile on the orangey liquid, scrubbing it onto each other’s skin before a night out, going out with their skin as it was being out of the question entirely. One of them always overdid it and had a wholly unflattering orange hue, amplified by her platinum blonde hair, by the time she was done. On one occasion they joked about how their skin was darker than mine, a mixed-race girl. At the time I didn’t think much of it but now that I think about the possible scenario of black women rubbing on their skin-lightening products and then joking with me that they share the same skin tone as me it strikes me that I would probably react to the black women completely differently; I would most likely sit them down and try to persuade them that their natural skin colour is perfect and that they are far more beautiful in their natural state. I would probably be left saddened by their desire to appear paler. Why did I not feel the same way about my white housemates fake-tanning?

Which brings me back to my original question: Why is fake tanning (i.e. artificial skin darkening) not demonised in the way that skin lightening is? Clearly, it is (at least) equally as harmful as using skin whitening products and yet fake tanning is not only widely accepted, but incredibly popular.

One answer to the question could be that skin-lightening creams are part of a black market, generally not sold in shops – and certainly not by major pharmacies or high street beauty stores – because of the harmful products that they contain rendering them illegal. That said, Holland & Barrett (unsurprisingly) came under fire last year when they began stocking Dr Organic Royal Jelly Skin Whitening Cream, which could also be purchased on their website, where it is described as helping ‘to inhibit melanin production whilst gently lightening and toning the skin's appearance.’

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Fake tan, on the other hand, is big business. All of the main beauty and cosmetic brands – L'Oréal, Rimmel, Nivea, Johnson’s – you name it, have a range of bronzing and tanning products targeted at white women, and men. Not only that, the products are widely advertised on TV, usually by popular celebrities, who vow that the product is wonderful and their personal skin-darkening product of choice. It goes without saying that what celebrities swear by will automatically be doomed ‘cool’ by the general public, who will then imitate their idols. Indeed, there are countless videos on YouTube where amateur and professional beauty bloggers share tips on how to use fake tan products to achieve the best look; those sported by celebrities.

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Sure there was a time when fake tan was deemed tacky but certain groups of society but now that snobbery seems to have largely disappeared with middle and upper class women also indulging in fake tan and making it part of their regular beauty regime when they are not jet-setting somewhere that they can achieve a natural tan.

Certainly another reason for the strong stigmatisation of skin-whitening comes down to the fact that black people are supposedly free from the long history of colonialism and its racist caste systems, apartheid and shadeism which for so long taught black people that they were inferior to those with fairer skin, including lighter-skinned blacks. Skin-whitening today, in twenty-first century Britain, then, is arguably a voluntary – or self-inflicted – expression of the continued, outdated belief that fairer skin is more attractive and so perpetuates racist perceptions of beauty which are no longer so widely accepted.

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There is not a comparable history of white people being forced to think that darker skin is more beautiful than their own and so fake-tanning does not arouse the same political controversy and passionate disapproval that skin-whitening does.

Is this just another example of behaviours which are deemed uncouth and inappropriate when carried out black and minority people but acceptable, even fashionable, when done by a white person?

If we think about hair there is a similar double-standard in terms of how women of colour and white women are treated when they choose to stray from their natural look. Black women’s weaves and extensions are often the butt of many jokes and criticised by many – not least other blacks who wear their hair naturally – as proof that they despise their natural appearance and have been brainwashed into thinking that longer, straighter hair is more attractive than their own, natural hair. This kind of criticism and negative judgment rarely falls upon the significant numbers of white women – especially celebrities – who also choose to wear extensions, dye their hair a much lighter, unnatural shade (e.g. when Kim Kardashian recently went platinum blonde); they are not instantly cast as insecure with their natural beauty. When they plait or braid their hair – an African style – they are not mocked for trying to achieve a more ‘black’ look.

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Just to make it clear, I am by no means arguing that skin lightening and the associated whitening products should be deemed acceptable, made widely accessible or endorsed by high-power blacks. Not at all. However, I do take issue with the so obvious discrepancy between the treatment of black women and white women when each decide to stray from their natural look; black women being more negatively judged for doing so. What I will say to those black women who choose to use skin-whitening products is this: All those white women (and men) who dedicate hours of their weeks to fake-tanning – or indeed natural tanning – do so because they strongly believe that darker skin is more attractive than fairer skin. Brown skin is beautiful.