May 17, 2010

Lightness and Whiteness

KS_2010a By Karen Sternheimer

The recent passage of Arizona’s immigration law has created fear, particularly among Latinos, that darker-skinned individuals might be under increased scrutiny as possible illegal immigrants. Janis Prince Inniss has blogged about colorism and the privileges of lighter skinned blacks, who historically have had more opportunities than their darker-skinned peers.

And yet paradoxically, many whites make a concerted effort to darken their skin, through tanning or using creams providing the appearance of a tan. Why is light skin a privilege for some groups but not for others?

You might be thinking what I thought much of my life growing up: tanned skin “looks better.” As a pale-skinned white person, I was occasionally taunted from classmates and strangers who might actually yell from passing cars, “get a tan!” One guy in college told me I’d be so much more attractive if only I had a tan.

I learned that I could get tan if I baked in the sun and got a good burn, which would eventually turn into a tan. Once while on a summer vacation to Florida I spent the whole day in the sun and was up all night sick from sun poisoning (which caused fever, chills, and vomiting, not to mention an awful burn). And yet when I returned home I got all kinds of compliments from classmates on my hard-earned tan, despite the fact that the skin on my chin, nose and cheeks had blistered and looked like overcooked cheese.

That was a long time ago, and I have since stopped tanning, especially when one of my cousins was diagnosed with melanoma, a potentially fatal form of skin cancer. Her prognosis was not good at first, but thankfully after surgeries and years of treatment she survived. I am in a high risk group because of my complexion, family history, and because of the severe burn I endured before I was eighteen.

Her struggle with melanoma was not isolated: as you can see from the graph below charting melanoma trends in the United States, rates of diagnosis have risen steadily over the past several decades. And yet tanning is still popular, both outside and in tanning salons.


According to the American Academy of Dermatology, the indoor tanning industry brings in about 5 billion dollars a year, which has quintupled since 1992. Most of their patrons—70 percent—are white girls and women aged 16-29. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that nearly 30 million people use indoor tanning beds each year, and that those who do have increased odds of contracting skin cancer.

All this begs the question: why is tanned skin—something that is potentially harmful and aging—often considered a sign of health and beauty?

To answer this question, we might go back a century to a time when light skin was privileged over tanned skin for whites. The majority of Americans still lived in rural areas, and many worked on farms and fields. Pale skin reflected wealth and implied the lack of a need to labor outdoors. And with massive influxes of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, lighter complexions of people from northern and western Europe connoted status.

After World War I, several major changes made tanning gain popularity. First, the economy shifted. As the middle class grew and labor became more automated, being outside was identified more with leisure than work. Leisure time grew with the growth of wages and the shorter workweek. European ethnic divisions began to lose some of their power due to the unifying effect of the war effort as well.

Ironically, the medical establishment did much to promote the association between health and tanning. During the 1920s, the sun was thought to be able to  cure nearly any ailment. Tuberculosis was a major illness of the era, and warm, dry air was thought to help heal its many sufferers. Bacteria flourishes in dark, moist spaces, and during a time when many people lived in cramped, crowded conditions with little sanitation, it is likely that spending some time outside would be a major improvement from their normal environment.

Today, perceptions of tanning are complex: the medical establishment warns of the dangers of overexposure to the sun, but millions still seek tans. I have noticed the contradictory thoughts about tanning myself. Every so often someone compliments me on how few wrinkles I have and asks how I’ve been able to keep my skin from sun damage though I spend a lot of time outdoors in southern California. Once someone even asked to know what sunscreen I use so she could go out and buy it herself. And yet I still occasionally hear taunts about my naturally light skin. “Are you from Alaska?” a man asked me on the beach last summer, as he and his friends laughed.

While rude remarks like this are a nuisance, my skin color hasn’t likely created the same kinds of challenges that dark-skinned blacks and Latinos might experience. My pale skin is not likely to lead to me to be pulled over by police, lose a job opportunity or be denied housing.

Legend has it that Coco Chanel, a fashion icon of the early twentieth century, first made tanning fashionable during the 1920s. But skin color is about more than just fashion—it reveals other sociological meanings. What other reasons do you think that light skin provides few advantages for whites, unlike for people of color?


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This is a really interesting post. I think that another possible factor is that pale skin is sometimes associated with sickness (ironically, since tanning has such a potential to cause health problems). Maybe people are biologically wired to find tan skin attractive since it implies that the person is healthy and strong enough to spend lots of time outside. But who knows.

In the context of the Caribbean, much of our history is decorated by the effects of race, ethnicity and to a larger extent colour. Historically, Caribbean society was hierarchically defined along the lines of race, colour and ethnicity which in essence were characteristic of a closed system of slavery. In so much that it determined the status/position of that individual (ascribed status). So too contemporarily, society still constructs and identifies a person based on the colouring of their skin. Contrary to prevailing notions held by those in North America and Europe, we in the developing world attach favourable stigmas to those of lighter skin. I best believe that these notions of 'colour' are culturally determined, in that there are varying constructions of this phenomena held internationally. Significantly, in countries of a much embedded colonial past (India, Caribbean, and Africa) light skin is relished and longed after. Seemingly so, Caribbean academic, Brathwaite (1950), postulated that following emancipation of the slaves, society was based on the positive view of the whites and the negative view of the blacks.
Conversely, in terms of the contemporary North American and European society, the media plays a considerable role in disseminating information about stylish trends, especially among females. Haralambos and Holborn (2008) explains that ‘.Women are encouraged by the media to look like the models and style icons who wear fashionable clothes. Alongside the fashion industry, books and magazines provide advice to women about how to improve their ‘look’.’ For this reason, if ‘tanning’ is seen as a fashionable accessory being perpetuated by the media, then it can be an assured event that women will do it. Additionally, is the construct of the perception of beauty, which again is culturally determined. This quintessentially, affects the way in which individuals view themselves, and they attempt to manipulate their outward appearance to fit into the prevailing norms and values held by those in society.

this is intersting. sometimes pale skin can be seen as less desirble. some girls wish to not be pale. and be more tan. whether its a health thing or a looks thing. possibly because tan might be linked to healthy.

This is an honest article that brings up good question. I have always wondered why white skinned people had discriminated against black skinned people, and yet try to tan so they can be darker skinned! It truly makes no sense. I myself am of white skin, however I have a dark complexion and tan. I like the way a tan makes me feel. Maybe it is for the reason you say; it makes a social statement of health and beauty, even if too much sun can be harmful. I am not racist or discriminatory towards any race because I believe that all people are equals. I, however, am in awe that people can discriminate against a black-skinned person yet tan to try and make their skin darker.

I have never understood why tan skin is so popular. True...people with tan skin can often look better in a wider variety of colors, but I think light skin can look nice as well. I have a fair complexion, but I also have an olive undertone, so I have been complimented even for my pale complexion. But, that's here in Michigan, where light skin is more prevalent. On vacation in Florida, a black guy told me I needed to get a tan, but I, personally, enjoy not developing skin cancer and early wrinkles. I am not sure why people strive so much to be tan when it is so unhealthy. Why not except our natural light skin, allowing achieving beauty to be more healthy? On the other hand, why is it that black people and latinos are ridiculed at times for their dark skin? I often think that the darkest of black skinned women are so very beautiful! I think that skin color should be excepted in a wide range, because each person is unique, and they should not be made to feel less because their skin is too light or too dark for society's approval.

I find this post very interesting because alot of people at my school tan to much and they just look gross. They dont realize that tanning is harmful and can cause skin damage. I have tanned but not for no reason, things like prom and when I was going away for spring break because I didnt want ot get burnt. I think that people are wanting tan skin because it is more appealing and pale is not. It may appear that the person is sick. And also girls think it makes them look better.

I really liked how you approached the idea of white vs. tan. I never even knew that being pale back in day was a status symbol of those who were wealthy. I think that in today’s modern times it has become an obsession. There are girls/women (and even some men) that will tan multiple times per week to “get the tan look.” As someone who grew up in the southern California area and is outside or by the pool often I know what it is like to have a tan. And just like in the authors posting, there are people that will say things such as “you look tan” or many comments that coincide with that particular comment. However, I now live in Colorado and just like everyone else, become pale in the winter months where we are limited to cloudy/snowy weather or being stuck indoors. Not soon after the sun has decided to come out again, are there people trying to get a tan. Sun damage to skin has risen to the point that you can’t turn a television on and hear something about sunscreen or the dangers of the sun. Even with all the publicity that the skin damage, cancer or even as specific as melanoma is receiving, it seems that people can’t get enough of the “tan” look and will keep seeing it until the day that they are unfortunately diagnosed with some sort of skin damage. Now, I’m not saying that people can’t go out and get a tan, they just have to be more careful about it.

I live in Australia - where most people are tanned. I, however, have very pale white skin which does not tan. I have freckles from being sunburnt when I was little, and now I make sure to avoid sunburn.
I think my light colour looks nice on me, but people often tell me to "get outside more" and "get a tan" or advise me that "fake tan looks really real now" or even ask me if I'm sick ("you're so pale...").
I'm not sure why people are so keen on tans ... but I believe it may be linked to their percieved amount of leisure time, as the author mentioned. People in Australia seem to enjoy showing me their tan lines - "I spent all weekend at the beach! I have the *worst* tan lines where my bikini straps are!" - which suggests that they enjoy the economic stability to spend a weekend not working, the time to go to the beach (i.e. not busy with hosuehold tasks such as cleaning), the privledge/luck to live close to the coast (where housing prices are significantly higher), and, of course, the genetic/environmental luck to look socially acceptable in a bikini.
Good for them! I spent the weekend at a sci-fi convention, where my pale skin went unnoticed in the crowd. ;)

Wow, I’ve never given much thought to tanning, nevertheless the sociological view of it. I guess it is interesting for people to want to have lighter skin and the people with lighter skin wanting darker skin. I’m tan from birth so I don’t have to worry about tanning or the negative health concerns that go along with it.
We didn’t talk about tanning in my sociology class at all, not even for a second. But we did discuss the advantages of majorities over minorities. We talked about how most white people don’t really think about their ‘whiteness’ as being an advantage. We also talked about institutional discrimination still happening. And the advantages of being a male vs. a female such as physical strength, more opportunity in society, and not to mention the different between the pay scale.

I think having a white skin itself ia a privilege. Our history shows that people with white skin thought of as superior to the people of color.From the day one, white people thought of as more intelligent,independent and superior because they have a history of ruling the countries like India.Also,whites control the technology,management and i would say the "WORLD" because of the policies they have like "divide and conquer" which they only use against people of color. So overall, if you look at the history whites always controlled the men of color. In conclusion, the person who has the power, rules the World and get more incentives due to the history background they have.

I was raised in the South Eastern part of Virginia. Some black families have problems with the complextion of their other relatives. If a relative is dark skinned then they may be called blacky. And if the other relative is very light with blond colored hair. Then that person is not trustworthy and is called whitety or honky.

Also, my white friends who went to school with me. They worked on getting a tan in the summer. However, they were very concerned if their tans didn't leave fast enough during the fall. When it was time to go back to school.

It was confusing trying to understand what color or race that people wanted to become.

By Aundrea

I've never given much thought on this particular subject. I'm from South Carolina and after school or on the weekends my friends and I would go to the beach or go out in the boat and tried to work on our tan. I think tans are viewed as "more attractive" because it sends the message that they enjoy being outside and being active. However, I no longer tan in tanning beds because of the risk of skin cancer. I also don't think tanning beds are sanitary. The risk of disease is not worth having a tan.

It can be very scary receiving a cancer diagnosis from the doctor. To many, cancer is considered to be a death sentence; however, this doesn't have to be the case. Many aren't familiar with Melanoma, so a diagnosis of this form of cancer is even scarier.

OMG! Reading such articles I don't want to believe we live in such a dangerous and horrible world with so many diseases.
So scary....
And my dream is that people invent cure for cancer.

I think this is a very interesting article . White americans are very known for making or trying to get there skin darker. For some it's a habit which is not good for their skin or health. In my opinion, it's alright to tan once in a while but make sure you dont go overboard with it and know your limit! (:

Being a young female, I used to tan before proms or big events. Over the last couple of years though, it has become such a big problem that I won't go to tanning beds anymore. I do feel that laying in the sun and in a tanning bed are two different things. I love to lay in the sun. Both can be dangerous. I do think that someone will be attracted to you no matter your skin tone. There's no need to put yourself in danger, just to make other people "like" you.

Many people choose to tan for several reasons which all result from social forces.
Because it is the trend, and many people follow it to be "cool" and "up to date", some people will find it difficult to stand out and be the only white person. They might also face fears of being called "weird" and pale in comparison to all the golden colored people. Some people would tan to hide skin imperfections, and as I said, others will do it because everyone else is doing it.
This affects the social identity of a person, since that person would find difficulty to fit in, and as a consequence would tan and put him/herself at risk of danger and disease just for the sake of being part of a group.

In the case of dark skinned people who use skin lightning products, the concept of "Double consciousness" coined by W. E. B. Du Bois can help explain their behavior. This concept means that a person would view him/herself the way another person would view them. So, a black person sees that white people see them as criminals, thiefs, and up to no good. And as a result, the black person, no matter how harmful it is, would risk getting sick just for the sake of getting a little lighter to avoid racism and discrimination.

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