Why Britain’s obsession with tanning is the definition of white privilege

By Georgia Balmer

There is very little that brings the British together like a heatwave. Sweltering nights, a lack of universal air conditioning, and the smugness of reaching a higher temperature than the Mediterranean, can excite the nation in a way that only the FA cup normally can. 

However, with these higher temperatures comes the talk of tanning. A light ‘tan’, aided by Boots’ finest, may seem a harmless addition to a beauty routine, as commonplace and unproblematic as highlights and mascara, but the obsession of white British people with having darker skin is indicative of a larger problem. 

The choice of having ‘tanned’ skin is a luxury in both a monetary and social sense. There is a privilege in being able to choose when you wear a darker skin tone.

When white people choose to darken their skin, they are actively, if unintentionally, investing in a ‘Black aesthetic’, an act that could be labelled as ‘blackfishing’. In doing so, they feed a market that is oversaturated by white influencers and businesses who profit from the exploitation of Black culture and entrench a social hierarchy based on skin tone. 

The tanning double standard

The influence of Coco Chanel began Britain’s obsession with ‘tanned’ skin in the 1920s, branding it healthy, exotic and an indicator of attractiveness. However, naturally darker skin has been branded ‘lesser than’ by white Western beauty standards since colonial times. 

As Picton writes, colonial-era propaganda sought to create a clear contrast between Black and white. Beauty standards aided this propaganda, with the media contrasting “white non-threatening femininity” with the “the dangerous sexuality of the dark oriental”, creating an association with white as pure and good, and Black with “evil and impurity”. 

Going back further, ‘tanned’ skin was seen as an indicator of a low social class in Britain, a mark of outside labour that betrayed your status as working class. Ironic, considering that the choice of having ‘tanned’ skin is now a luxury, suggesting that you have just come back from two weeks on the Costa del Sol. 

However, for those who do not have the luxury of choice, the impact of this beauty standard is harsh. Take the legacy of European rule in Asia, where the effects of colonialism are painfully evident in the popularity of skin whitening products. Worth £3.4 billion globally as an industry in 2017, lighter skin is still deemed the ideal beauty standard in many Asian communities.

The fact that for white British people, pale skin is now deemed undesired, with ‘tanned’ skin being seen as exotic and attractive, displays a harsh double standard. As Picton points out, it may seem that this ‘tanning trend’ suggests “an acceptance of diversity”, but this “destructive obsession with skin colour” only further perpetuates the symbolism of white skin as pure and better, as it’s value allows the luxury of choice, continuing to serve the prejudice against naturally non-white skin. 

Blackfishing

Wanna Thompson coined the phrase ‘blackfishing’ to address the extreme end of this tanning obsession, but one that stems from the use of even the lightest fake tan. Calling to account influences and celebrities who tan to the point of racial ambiguity, Thompson describes the issue as white people having “the luxury of selecting which aspects they want to emulate without fully dealing with the consequences of Blackness.” 

Blackfishing is more than just the use of tan, it can also include the trend of plumper lips, cornrows, and artificially enlarged curves, to achieve a ‘Black aesthetic’ that has been popularised, in part, by hip hop music and the celebrity culture of the 00s.

These ‘aesthetics’ were “created by black women”, but they are “derided by mainstream white culture” when seen on Black skin despite being “co-opted by white women” in the media. As Wanna states, “it reaffirms the belief that people desire Blackness, just not on Black women.” White people using tanning products in any capacity, whilst not necessarily ‘blackfishing’, feeds into the popularity of these trends and normalises the co-option of Black skin for white gain. 

Profiting from the Black aesthetic

The ‘Black aesthetic’ has become big business for social media influencers in particular, with the Kardashian family arguably leading the pack of ‘blackfishing’ profiteers. Their surgically enhanced bodies, regular use of Black hairstyles, including Fulani braids, and fashion choices sell ‘Blackness’ to the masses. They claim these ‘trends’ as their own, with little to no credit to the communities they come from. 

Recently, Kylie Jenner’s appearance in the music video for ‘WAP’ caused a stir on social media, reigniting claims that her dark fake tan and fashion makes her guilty of ‘blackfishing’. As a family, the Kardashians have 763 million Instagram followers between them, who are quick to buy any product they sell or endorse. Not only do the Kardashians and other influencers choose to exploit Black culture for an aesthetic, they also make a direct profit from this exploitation, taking away opportunities from Black-owned businesses and creators. Worse than this loss of profit for Black communities is the perpetuation of the idea that ‘Black’ is a trend and not an identity. 

The impact of this influence is clear, with the fake tan industry worth $1 billion globally in 2017. In Britain, we spend £66 million a year on self-tanning products, with annual “increases in the use of tanning injections”, and according to the Sunbed Association, there are an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 tanning salons in the UK. The health risks of tanning beds, nor the cost of maintaining a fake tan is a deterrent.

Britain has an obsession with ‘tanning’ and it is directly profiting off the exploitation of Black cultures. 

It’s time to self-reflect

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the conversation around racial microaggressions has become harder for white people to claim ignorance to. A holiday tan or using St Tropez ahead of a night out is not necessarily akin to Black or Brown face, nor is it really ‘blackfishing’ if no other exploitation of Black culture is used.

It does, however, demonstrate a compliancy in a dangerous myth. 

White people in Britain have the privilege to choose to wear a darker skin tone whenever they want to. In doing so, they are wearing a skin tone that declares they are healthy, fit and implies they have the time and money to go abroad.

They don’t gain the oppression and complex realities of being a person of colour in Britain. The obsession of being ‘tan’ in a country where non-white people can rarely find a foundation to match their skin tone, suncream that doesn’t go ashy, and where even cameras aren’t made for use on their skin, feeds the belief that white is good and non-white is bad. 

We all have a responsibility to analyze the privileges in our lives. To pick up a bottle of fake tan and feel better for having darker skin is a privilege that people of colour don’t have, and it is one that supports an industry of people who are directly profiting from the exploitation of Black communities and other communities of colour. It is a choice to ‘tan’, and a choice to ignore those who are normalising ‘blackfishing’. 

A little bit of fake tan isn’t a crime, but there is a line that we have allowed too many people to cross. If we have the privilege of a choice, we also have the responsibility to make the right one and hold those people accountable. 

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