When I was growing up in England during the 1970s it was quite unusual to see someone with a suntan. It meant they had done something preposterous like go on a summer holiday – overseas! They probably even took a plane! I mean, space travel was no less inconceivable. Those tans you did see were generally light, fairly natural looking and accompanied by a spatter of cute freckles.
Then all of a sudden it became fashionable to look like you’d just been marinated in (recently banned in Denmark) Marmite, and the ever darkening tan became a status symbol and gauge of how successful your holiday had been: of how exotic the destination; and it seems, how successful you are as a person.
Now, up until fairly recently, historically, it was considered awfully common to be suntanned. A suntan meant you were a vulgar serf who worked outside in the sun all day, getting your hands dirty, and therefore were no better than a filthy animal. You smelly peasant. In ancient Rome and Greece, bronzed skin was so reviled that lead paint was applied to the face to give it the appearance of alabaster. Weeks later, in the tenth century, ladies employed arsenic to create an illusion of pallor. My really quite pathetic research failed to reveal whether or not this killed them.
This trend for deathly pallor continued throughout history. In the Elizabethan era, women plastered themselves in white powder and even painted pale blue lines onto their foreheads to make their skin appear translucent.
Even well into the penultimate century, it was unusual to see an educated woman out of doors without some sort of large hat or parasol providing umbrage and protecting her hue-less flesh from the sinister effects of the sun.
And then in the 1920s Coco Chanel went and changed everything after returning from a holiday with a tan, and women everywhere, collectively squealed and wanted to be the same.
And the obsession with the suntan was born.
Holidaying abroad had become popular for the rich and a bi-product of holidaying abroad was of course a suntan. Only disgusting poor people were pale who couldn’t even afford to spend the summer in the South of France. Uerrgh – fetid proletariats.
Come the 40s and 50s, fashion dictated that swimsuits consist of less and less fabric, exposing more and more skin to the big round sky egg. The 60s brought forth the bikini, and then along came the 1970s and foreign travel became more affordable and popular and the suntan became the ultimate accessory that informed the man in the street that you were so cosmopolitan that you had eschewed a fortnight in the overcrowded, rain lashed beach towns of England’s grey and depressing coast, in favour of somewhere truly exotic, like the Costa del Sol in nearby sun riddled Spain.
Twenty or thirty years later, the effects of this boon became apparent with a sudden rise in skin cancer and government warnings of the risks of accelerated ageing. And strangely, many of us were that obsessed with looking good in the moment, rather than cease this behaviour, people continued to sunbathe. Lying out like oiled oompaloompas on a grill, more determined than ever to “not go home without a tan.”
Women bought white swimwear and accessories to accentuate the degree of sun damage they had managed to obtain, as if publicly celebrating their stupidity.
I’m fortunate enough now to not live in England in the 1970s, or thankfully any subsequent era for that matter, but on the Spanish coast, and I still see the holidaymakers splayed across the beach like badly creosoted lobster or lined up like a row of old moccasins in a second hand shoe shop. It’s still a race to see who can look the most like old furniture.
Now I’m lucky enough to have the kind of cadaverous and bloodless peel that makes people feel sick it’s so unfashionably and painfully translucent. It would be easier to put an octopus in a straitjacket than to give my body an all over tan. And that has paid off for me. There is nothing like being crap at something to put you off wanting to do it. So whilst all the good-looking popular fashionable girls blacked up, I used to sit indoors, drawing psychotic pictures that would make John Wayne Gacy appear sane, and writing odious poetry to my parents. These days, not much has changed and in particular I appear to have less wrinkles than my contemporaries and I don’t look like I’ve been clumsily hewn from old wallets. I don’t have the gorgeous alabaster skin of Julianne Moore or Kate Beckinsale – the see through one – my skin is more like badly made porridge that has been rolled in a dish of full stops – but that’s ok. I’ve learned to accept that. I’ve got fewer wrinkles than many people for my age, an adorable puppy and a boyfriend with a *trick block (Mikeney Rhyming Slang) – which helps me deal somewhat with the stigma of having pasty and unfashionable skin.
A suntan is as much a sign of healthy skin as coughing is a sign that cigarettes are good for you. It’s a sign that your skin is damaged. Considering it is generally people who are image conscious that want the fashionable suntan in the first place – you would think they would start considering the long term effects. The transient appeal of a suntan is a high price to pay for leathery skin at best, or skin cancer at worst.
As absurdly skinny models were banned from certain catwalks, perhaps we should protect our impressionable young by cutting down on the amount of bronzed bodies they are bombarded with in magazines.
It’s depressing seeing lines of topless young girls on the beach (unless you’re a teenage boy who’s never seen boobies before), drenched in sun-oil, smoking a cigarette, reading a fashion mag and drinking a soda. Just kill yourself if life is that bad that you are willing it to end. Kill yourself.
Personally, I like pale skin. I like the statement it makes about the person. It’s their natural color and it says that they don’t follow fashion, or at least they aren’t prepared to die in search of it. There is nothing de rigeur about skin cancer, there is nothing attractive about looking like you’re made from old handbags, and there is nothing sexy about being dead. Unless you are a necrophile.
Please let us know your views on the suntan culture by leaving a comment.
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