The Politics of Tanning
When I am travelling, there is one particular image that ignites a strong emotion of fullness and freedom within me. That image is of my tanned arm immersed in seawater as I float in the ocean. The sight causes my heart to burst with elation. When my bronze skin and the turquoise sea merge into one, in that moment, I am stripped of all that makes me human and I am just an arm, a body in the ocean. The fact that I value this image so highly is revealing of my values. It has layers.
The act of tanning is a political one. It indicates privilege, it romanticises a certain lifestyle, and it is a measure of beauty. Amongst backpackers, the tannest of them all is the one who has had the most adventures under the beating sun. They are the one who has travelled for months or years on end, never seeing the four white walls of an enclosed space for longer than a few hours a day.
One of the most popular white people hobbies is to lay under the burning sun for hours on end in the tiniest bathing suit – becoming lobster-like and leathery or suffering second-degree burn an accepted part of the process. Every summer, thousands populate beaches and swimming pools just laying there to achieve that glorious summer tan. Tanned skin has come to be associated as a status symbol. It means you spent your summer holidaying on the coast of France, sipping cocktails and toasting under the Mediterranean sun without a worry in the world, rather than bagging groceries or selling rich people sunglasses for eight hours a day.
There is a right shade of brown. Crossing it on the upper end indicates that you are the unattractive sort of ethnic. The actual ethnic whose exoticism is more than skin deep. Falling short of it on the lower end assumes that you are a pasty boring bitch who can’t afford a holiday and dare to unabashedly parade your Casper-white skin. Your name is probably Doris and your hobby is watching reality television shows while eating Oreos.
For South Asians such as myself, the deep tan that is coveted by westerners is equated to being poor: a life of gruelling work under the beating sun. To be fair-skinned is to be protected by four air-conditioned walls of privilege. Fairness is the epitome of beauty, class and elitism. A dark-skinned person could also be from a higher class, but a fair-skinned person could never be lower-class. During summer when you see the rare South Asian outdoors for an extended period of time, they are usually under the cover of an umbrella, a giant hat and sunglasses shielding their face for extra protection.
I was born a very fair girl in Kathmandu, and I remember how my mother would be showered with compliments about how gori, and thus beautiful I was. The fair and lovely fairy. Was I privileged because of this, even as a child?
Probably, but it was invisible to me because a privileged person does not know they are privileged until they hear the stories of the oppressed. And I did not hear these stories. In the 90s we hadn’t yet found the vocabulary to describe the discrimination dark-skinned South Asians face compared to lighter-skinned South Asians. Now we call this colourism. Fairness creams and lotions were and still are a thriving market, with major celebrities like Shah Rukh Khan endorsing them, and people believed it. If it works for a God-like figure like Shah Rukh, surely it will work for me. The dangers of using bleaching products and its link to skin cancer was hidden.
Under the influence of an upbringing in the west, I learned that being tan was the epitome of cool and came to value it. I too started laying on the beach for hours on end in my tiniest bikini. I think that the western mentality regarding tans is on the right track in some ways. South-Asians shun the sun like they are vampires. They stay indoors as much as possible because they are scared that the evil sun will mar their beauty, make them dark and unattractive. But to be outdoors enjoying nature, being kissed by the sun, is undoubtedly one of the most pleasurable experiences in life. Why deny oneself that?
The issue becomes complex when we look at the cultural phenomenon of white people wanting so desperately to be tanned that they hurt themselves in the process: spending hours in solariums, risking skin cancer by turning into bright tomatoes on the beach. Then there are the rare few that take tanning to such an extreme it becomes a form of blackface. White people want to look exotic on a superficial level, but they have the privilege of being unaffected by all the oppression that actual brown people experience because of their skin colour.
White people lust after being tan for purely aesthetic purposes, but brown people desire to be fairer because they suffer real discrimination being darker-skinned. South Asians can usually determine a person’s class – which is linked to caste, status and power – just from one look at another’s skin. Lighter-skinned South Asians are preferred in both the private and public spheres: more likely to attract mates and get jobs. White superiority, internalised racism and unachievable standards of beauty all play on the psychology of South Asians. We try to align ourselves with the elite, copy the traits of the coloniser, because that is sometimes the only path to upward mobility.
Humans covet and glorify that which we don’t have, especially when it comes to our appearances. We put our bodies through uncomfortable and harmful processes to appear more beautiful, successful, privileged, elite. For races in positions of power, this is a personal choice with minimal social or political repercussions. For the rest of us, we feel the weight of our skin tone on a social level. Deciding which crayons to shade our skin with is not a black and white issue.
Photos supplied by the author