The Perfect Tan: An Imperialist Fantasy?

The National Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 included a provision that requires salon tanners to pay a 10 percent tax each time they drop in for some faux sunbathing. The tax will generate an estimated $2.7 billion over the next ten years that will go toward the cost of extending health-care coverage to the uninsured.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Wrong.

The bill was met with an onslaught of opposition by conservative news media and right-wing political figures who claimed the tax was racist and sexist against white women. Uh, what? Not surprisingly, these pundits were made up of white upper-class men like Doc Thompson (standing in for Glenn Beck), who said the tax made him “feel the pain of racism.”

70 percent of those who frequent tanning salons are women and girls between the ages of 16 and 49, and Thompson didn’t feel the need to discuss the fact that the tanning trade is one that capitalizes on women’s insecurities in exchange for higher instances of skin cancer. Thompson’s view fell more in line with that of reality TV star Snooki of Jersey Shore, who blamed Obama’s skin color for the tax, saying that John McCain never would have let the bill pass because “he’s pale and would probably want to be tan.”

Conversely, it has taken lawmakers more than two decades to begin to correct prejudiced incarceration punishments for convicted crack cocaine users, more than 80 percent of whom are African Americans. Until last month, powder cocaine users, more often white and middle-class, would have to be caught with 100 times the amount as crack cocaine users to receive the same sentence.  But Thompson, Snooki and their counterparts don’t seem bothered by this kind of institutionalized racism.

While a bronzed body was once reserved for the working class, celebrity use (abuse?) of UV lights and spray-on brown hues has fostered an American addiction to tanning. In the early 20th century, sun exposure was believed to have curative and restorative effects, supplanting prior beliefs that white skin indicated gentility. While in some countries skin bleaching is now a popular cosmetic endeavor (which carries its own set of ideological indications), in the U.S. the glow still rules. A tan epidermis has evolved into a fashion accessory that screams sex appeal despite widespread knowledge of the cancer-causing effects of the so-called healthy glow.

Which brings me, finally, to bell hooks. In her essay “Eating the Other” in Black Looks: Race and Representation, hooks tackles the complicated terrain of commodity culture and racism. Citing Benetton ads and rap music as examples, she explains how Western advertising capitalizes on the white subconscious desire for “a bit of the Other.” The pursuit of the perfect tan is a paragon of this desire, a result of what hooks calls a “fascination with the primitive” stemming from a Western crisis in identity. She writes,

Ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is white culture.

Viewing dark skin as a fad, a seasonal indulgence, is a reductive fantasy that further distances minority groups by maintaining that white is the status quo.

“The message is that ‘primitivism,’ though more apparent in the Other, resides in the white self too,” hooks writes. She explains that the Western romantic fantasy of the Other is sustained by a “longing for the pleasure,” a transcendent bit of paradise, whether that be found in “a country or a body, a dark continent or dark flesh.”

This nostalgic yearning for a slice of primitivism reinforces a white imperialist narrative, where non-whites are considered uncivilized, exotic and savage. If we can simply purchase a connection to the Other, we needn’t think about how our everyday lives ignore or maintain institutionalized racism.

The perfect tan in U.S. culture is often coupled with the striking contrast of white blonde hair. hooks explains that most cultural consumption of racial difference provides “distance from whiteness, so that we can return to it more intently.” Like the tan-line phenomenon of the 1970s, the blonde-and-tan ideal is both an assertion of whiteness and play with the exotic. This new archetype takes its cue from years of fashion advertising that consistently prefers unrealistic and often racist images of uber-thin, brown-skinned models with flaxen hair, a combination that conjures notions of the primitive while maintaining Caucasian familiarity. Synthetic tanning creams have the same effect: They erase/replace white skin while still reminding lookers of its presence with that fake orange-y glow.

But isn’t valorizing the ethnic a good thing?  hooks reminds us that “one desires contact with the Other even as one wishes boundaries to remain intact.” One could argue that getting a tan bod necessarily promotes heterogeneous skin color within society. But the allure of golden skin is a politically immobile indulgence bound up with body image issues (tan bodies look slimmer) and sexual fantasies (the dark woman is hyper-sexual and wild, the white pure and chaste).

And did I mention that indoor tanners who use the beds at least once a month are 55 percent more likely to develop melanoma, and this rate only increases for women between the ages of 16 and 49? Writes hooks:

Encounters with the Other are… more exciting, more intense, and more threatening.

Is the threat of cancer actually fueling our fascination with UV beds? (Most women know the dangers of tanning, but 70 percent also think a tan makes them look more attractive.) The pleasure/pain dichotomy may be a part of it, but it seems what’s really driving women to the tanning salon is the West’s objectification of female bodies, both dark and light.

Photo from Flickr user Evil Erin under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. I know the risks, but I continue to tan! I'm not happy about the tax, but I am still willing to pay it!!! It's not only about making me look good, I feel better when I tan, so cheers to GTL!!!!

  2. Taxing tanning versus some other service seems pretty arbitrary to me as a way to raise money for better healthcare. I mean, they could just as easily get the money from taxing avacados and it really wouldn't make much of a difference so I don't really know where I stand on this politically. I mean, I'm positive it's not racist to tax tanning but part of me also just thinks "tanning? why tanning?" Either way, this was a great article Valid points made and not overly biased. It's this kind of writing that makes Ms. Magazine so good.

  3. Andrea, I would invite you to question what it is that makes you 'feel better' when you tan. The point Amanda is making through hooks' work is that these notions of self-perception are not un-related to larger issues of social and political ideologies.

  4. Honestly, I can see an increase in taxing tanning services to be just as valid as the steadily increased tax on cigarettes in the last decade. Both lifestyle choices cause an incredibly high percentage of cancer. I personally do not understand the obsession with either, but only because I am not addicted to either of these habits. I wish that all of us could accept ourselves outwardly and inwardly as we are. That is what makes all of us beautiful. I understand bell hooks ideas about people (many white women in particular) wanting to claim the other. I am a white woman that has watched family and friends head to the tanning salon on one occasion or another. Myself, I have always been disgusted by the thought of being in a closed in space, where someone else has sweated. And to top that off, nearly ten years ago I read an article about how a tanning bed could cause more severe cases of cancer than the sun alone.

  5. I found this article fascinating. I am a "middle aged white woman" who went through the 60s and 70s tanning at every opportunity – before tanning beds! It was ALL about the tan lines. Some deeper part of me wondered WHY this obsession with the deep tan and the defining lines was so sexy. I never thought of myself as a racist but this illuminates a whole new aspect to the phenomenon. That fine line between being white and "native": highlighted hair and a tan! This is the kind of article that really makes you stop and think. That's what I look for in reading Ms.- a chance to expand my perception and see the way we behave in a new light. Just knowing how these cultural expectations affect our lives gives me the power to simply accept who I am, as I am. Thank you Ms. for another enlightening article.

  6. I have two comments. You mention that artificial tanning is apparently a way for women to seem more exotic and thus "turn dark skin into a fad". Are you only speaking of white women who tan artificially while living in environments that do not allow them to tan year around? I mean, are women who live in New York and tan artificially doing it for a different reason than women who live in Miami who can tan naturally? Or do all women who tan have an obsession with seeming more exotic and more attractive? I'm not convinced that women who tan are doing it to seem more exotic. Maybe it's just that they are in the sun more. I don't think that it's fair to make these generalizations about women who use tanning beds, when there are millions of women who tan, but some just have more of an opportunity to do it under natural sun.
    Furthermore, to say that "seems what’s really driving women to the tanning salon is the West’s objectification of female bodies" is another generalization. In order to determine what is driving women to tanning salon, field research should be performed. Certainly, many women go tanning in order to look more attractive. But does wanting to look more attractive automatically mean that we are being objectified? What about women who work out to look attractive? Who buy flattering clothes to look attractive? Who get flattering hair cuts to look attractive? And who are they objectified by, men, other women, themselves? If they are doing it for themselves, then is it really objectification? .
    Overall, a good article, but I feel like it makes certain biased claims strictly from the feminist stand point and while this seems to be the standpoint of the author, i believe some possible objections should be brought up and answered in order to make the original claims stronger.

  7. Natalie,
    It's all about questioning how "attractive" is defined. What are the underlying cultural assumptions, what is the context behind generalized notions of "attractiveness," and how is the dominant perception of attractiveness connected to gender/race/class?

  8. Amanda Montei says:

    Thanks to all for your comments.
    Natalie & Andrea– I'd have to agree with shae's response. I think it's important to question the ideological influences on our notions of beauty, attractiveness and quite frankly self-worth. How do we define attractiveness/beauty? Is it in physical terms? Emotional terms? Intellectual terms? I don't think it's a far stretch to say that consumer culture would have us believe that the most worthy form beauty is on the outside, is bodily. Tanning fads are yet another specification consumer culture draws: not only is physicality the most important aspect of "attractiveness" (worth) but on top of that, certain physical aspects are more favored. Ie. blond/tan. I would certainly not say there is any difference (in my mind) between women who tan on the beach and those who do so indoors– both groups are putting their health at risk to conform to an ideal. I'm not sure I can see many other reasons one would want to tan indoor or out, other than to conform to an idealistic notion of beauty. The "it just makes me feel good" argument is directly linked to our desire to conform to that ideal– it feels good because otherwise culture tells us we are ugly (worthless), or uglier (less worthy). The exoticization of the tan body is also, as I've laid out in the article and as Shae says, problematic on other levels: ie. in terms of gender/race/class.

  9. Amanda,

    I agree with the fact that beauty does not only come from the outside and that we need to question such notions that tell us otherwise. Beauty is defined in many terms. Physical beauty is still one of them. It may not be the most worthy of them, but it is one of the "higher valued" beauties there is and this is because the physical is what we first notice in another person. There is really no way of avoiding it — when we come into contact with another human being, we see their physical sense first, unless the contact is via a virtual medium. Intelligence is yet another "highly valued" beauty. Because once we start talking to someone, s/he becomes more attractive/interesting based on what is coming out of the person's mouth. I don't just mean sexually attractive, but in general, as a person.
    Further on physical beauty is this: we use different markers when looking for a mate than a friend. While it is true that when making friends, most people aren't looking to surround themselves with "hotties", when picking a mate, we generally go for someone who we find physically attractive. With some people that rule is broken and then choose to date based on other markers. But most people are interested in hooking up with people who are attractive (of course, getting along w/ the person and having conversation adds to it greatly, but if the person is not sexually appealing to you, are you really going to sleep with him/her just because the conversation is great?)
    One more thing… the "it just makes me feel good argument" is not as shallow as it may seem. First of all, tanning, being in the sun raises people's Vitamin D levels in the blood. Vitamin D is needed by the brain to keep us happy and the deficiency of this vitamin is associated with anxiety and depression. So the desire to be in the sun may be the body's natural response to sunlight, not a subconscious need to fulfill some conformist notion. The statement that "it feels good because otherwise culture tells us we are ugly (worthless), or uglier (less worthy)" seems a bit judgmental to me because in it is the assumption that we are constantly listening to culture to make out decisions. While culture has a great influence on our lives, I don't think that all people take it so literally as you put it. Yes, there are open minded and educated people such as yourself who question the cultural standards. And that is good. But there are also open minded and educated people who question cultural standards even though they tan and there are people who don't think about anything and just want to look like Paris Hilton. You should not forget about the middle group and about the fact that not everyone who wants to look attractive on the outside is doing it to conform to an ideal. Do people work out to conform to ideals? Maybe, but maybe not. Do people read and go to med school to conform to an ideal? Do people seek help from a counselor to fix their emotional unbalances to conform to an ideal? Do people go to third world countries to feed the poor to conform to an ideal? Yes/ No/ Maybe/ Maybe not.
    It is good to keep people aware of why they're doing things though.

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