We’ve all seen them. We all know at least one. Those girls and boys who take tanning too far, their orange bodies glistening in the sun, the smears of fake tan at the bottom of their legs, the sickeningly citrus hue of their skin contrasting nicely with the white-blonde hair, backcombed voraciously to show off those darkening roots.
A natural tan can be beautiful, but why bother trying when you can fake it? The tanning industry bombards us with products, sun beds, airbrush tanning kits, tinted moisturisers, bronzers, creams, lotions, potions: all to achieve that coveted ‘natural glow.’
A native Briton’s average complexion is not a ‘natural glow.’ In a country where we are more likely to be huddling around a fire or sheltering under an umbrella than soaking up the sun in a vineyard, it is ridiculous to set ourselves these standards that we cannot achieve.
As the country basks in an unprecedented heat wave this week, it seems a norm, nay, an obligation to run outside, douse yourself in baby oil and fry yourself nicely, occasionally turning over like a pig on a spit roast. With summer upon us, the magazines gently chide you to ‘get bronzed for summer’ or ‘achieve that perfect natural tan,’ in the manner of a steely persistent mother.
This summer, instead of my usual ritual of sunbathing, burning like a crisp and the sunburn eventually fading and peeling to reveal a patchy tan, my resolution is to stay pale. Society’s perception of beauty is an ever-changing thing, and often political. Not one hundred years ago, the pinnacle of attractiveness was a snowy-white complexion, a tanned visage an indication of a life of working in the fields.
Nowadays a tan is considered a sign of health, a sign of a go-getting, active and self-controlled person, with enough money to fly abroad often to burn themselves on foreign soil. The irony of this is that to achieve the perfect tan, your health is compromised, with exposure to UV rays and dangerous sun beds.
If you are lucky enough to have a beautiful honey complexion, with tanned and toned legs reaching up to your armpits then I envy you. However, I don’t envy you enough to cover myself in fake tan, attempting to copy you, knowing full well that I will more resemble an orange than a tanned sex goddess. Instead I smother myself in factor 50 Boot’s children’s sun cream or sit in the shade with a big floppy hat and a book.
Creamy skin provides the perfect base for vintage-style make up, something that would look trashy on a tangoed face. While paleness isn’t for everyone, if you are not naturally tanned, I urge you not to succumb to society’s view as to what beauty should look like. That is something that you should decide for yourself.
Originally published on The Yorker 27th June 2010