Can Tanning Ever Be Body Positive?

by Sebastian Zulch

Summer is coming to a close. But with bikini season almost past us, I cannot help but reflect on the many glorious beach days I experienced after finding the best tanning products on the market. Personally I love tanning my olive skin to achieve a deeper beige. Luckily for me, I tan very easily and hardly ever burn (must be my mother's Italian blood).

Looking at my tan reflection in the summertime can make me feel super beautiful and healthy. Perhaps it's all that vitamin D from the sun's rays. Perhaps it's because the world often associates paleness with frailty. Perhaps it's because a suntan makes me glow, erases my acne, and makes me feel stunning in white.

Since I can't get that lovely feeling year-round, I've invested in a self-tanner or two over the years to bring a little zing of summer glow into my beauty routine during gray winters. While I treasure my natural skin, I simply feel more body positive in a body that I think evokes vitality, especially when so much of my life has been spent with chronic illness that often leaves me looking less than vital.

But still, with the culturally appropriative implications some folks perceive within tanning, and the importance I generally place on loving one's body in all its forms, I'm hesitant to praise the practice too much and find myself questioning whether tanning can ever be body positive.

Over the summer, I took to Instagram to share my mixed feelings about tanning, and was met with responses from people who similarly feel more body positive in the tanned and glowing versions of themselves that the summer sun seems to bring out (with a little help from self-tanners, anyway).

One commenter, Emily Mahi'ai, explains that tanning makes her feel more like her healthy self and more at home with her Hawaiian roots. "I don't usually tan my skin artificially, but I used to be much more tan naturally from having some Hawaiian blood in me and spending a larger amount of time outside," she writes. "So I feel more like myself when I'm a little more tan. Last year for my wedding, I got a spray tan so I could be the color I usually am when my health isn't so terrible. It made me feel more like me."

Another commenter, freelance content creator Linh Le, expressed feeling most comfortable in a medium golden skin tone. "I have a lot of hyper-pigmentation and unevenness on my face and being darker seems to make my face and skin look more even," she tells me. "I also don't sunburn, so getting a tan is easy for me (probably because I shouldn't naturally be so pale, my Viet skin is craving sunlight LOL)."

Of course, tanning is not body positive for everyone. For another commenter, Katie, the practice has never been of interest. She prefers to embrace her naturally pale skin, characteristic of many folks who live in the U.K. due to fewer sunshine-y days. "I've never used tanner mostly because I could never be bothered and always thought it looked a bit weird on me," she says. "I just ended up embracing the pale until the sunshine came out properly."

The thing is, choosing whether or not to tan your skin is rooted in preference predominently for white or fair-skinned people. The topic can be way more complicated in communities of color, where cultural racism heavily impacts the beauty routines of many.

During my trip to India two years ago, I noticed that the majority of the beauty products I was coming across contained bleach or other whitening ingredients within them. It was then that the highly problematic reality that having tanned or dark skin is usually only celebrated for white people (exemplified in these lotions, face makeup, and deodorants) truly seeped in, and made me feel rather differently about tanning.

The same is true in America, where communities of color constantly feel the racist double standards of beauty. Whether we're talking about achieving dark skin or Black hairstyles like dreadlocks, popular opinion largely dictates that Black beauty is only OK on white people.

As actor Amandla Stenberg wrote on social media in Jul. 2015, "Black features are beautiful. Black women are not." Dreadlocks, for instance, weren't all that ~cool~ until America's favorite beauty mogul Kylie Jenner appropriated them in 2015.

Searching for further input, I spoke to Belle Glass, artist and staunch advocate for the visibility of people of all races and genders in art. Before she was able to fully embrace her identity as a proud Afro-Latina, Glass did everything she could to avoid the sun throughout her youth. "My summers were spent in the shade because I was always in fear of being too dark," she tells me in a text message. "I had friends whose old-fashioned family would make remarks about how 'Black' I looked after a few days in the sun. And although their intentions were never harmful, the effects and the meaning behind their comments were."

This internalized racism led Glass to deduce that she must avoid the sun. But that didn't stop her from noticing the double standard surrounding tanning, demonstrated in her sun-obsessed lighter-skinned friends. "My friends with lighter skin tones were doing the exact opposite," she adds. "They would spend as much time tanning as possible, aiming to reach the same warm tone of my own skin."

Luckily, Glass now feels differently and she's become way more conscious of the ways in which society aims to make Black girls feel less beautiful in their skin. She tells me she's excited to tan this summer after a long winter of paler skin.

But as Glass knows, body positivity doesn't come easily, especially for more marginalized populations. "If I hadn't searched within myself to eliminate that influence, I would be stuck in that same place where many Black girls are," she tells me. "It's clearly a crooked system that makes [us] feel like [we] need to be lighter and encourages light-skinned non-Black girls to tan so much."

One might say that it's great that tanning can give some people the power of body positivity. It's equally great when choosing not to tan or to embrace one's natural skin tone can be a means to showing love to oneself. But personally, I will never be able to pick up a bottle of self-tanner again without feeling the weight of my responsibility as a white, privileged person. It's up to me to examine my actions before partaking in potentially problematic behavior, after all.

The tanning industry relies largely on white people who want to make their skin look darker — who want to possess a trait that we often use to exclude others for having naturally. Body positive or not, the harsh reality of the racial implications of these beauty practices make slathering on some good old tanner feel pretty questionable to me.

Image: Christopher Campbell/Unsplash (1)