Skin. At roughly 20 pounds and 16% of your body weight it is the largest organ in the human body. It grows with us, stretching and expanding to cover the vast crevices and sinews within. It clings to our mass and stays with us, it adapts with our losses, our extensions, our embellishments. It is our ‘forever piece’, like that trusty pair of leather boots or favourite pair of jeans. It rarely gives way and it remains, embracing our bodies until the very end. The skin is a moving instrument, vital to everyday life and vitality. It is fragile – the cracks in the parched, overworked hands, the flush from the heat, the pallor of an ailment, all visible on the skin.
There isn’t quite a fashion trend that has entrenched itself so deeply in society, culture, race and politics than tanning; more recently the word is on our lips because the newest leader of the ‘free world’ is apparently incapable of feigning one.
Never has a skin tone been so in flux throughout history as tanned skin, apart from perhaps the early 20th century concept of black people, and culture, being a synonym for cool.
Prior to the 20th century a tan was not the look du jour, to be seen with a tan was to be admitting that you spent you’re days toiling in the fields and not, y’know, crocheting indoors or something. While today women (and men) in the US, Europe and Brazil often strive for a tan, those in Asian countries, such as China, Korea, Thailand and India, use lightening creams and agents to look fairer and more pink in tone. Women have quite literally killed themselves in times past to attain a fair complexion by using tonics of lead and mercury. To be free of colour was to be free of the reigns of labour and an inherent sign of privilege. Then, in the 1920s, Coco Chanel popularised tanning. In a bizarre and ironic twist, what was once emblematic of hard work and endless labour became the symbol of wealth and leisure. Naturally this lifestyle was not easily in reach thus fake tanning was borne, and infinite, poor, copies emulated (see above).
But, just as the tides come in and the sun rises every dawn, when something is no longer unattainable and exclusive it becomes deeply unpopular. That, and the added (surprise!) element of potential skin cancer. ‘Fake bake’ and tanning beds took something that was once aspirational and made it everyday, mundane. However, bad habits die hard and a tan is still a socially accepted look.
The complicated dichotomies of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ are systemically racist. ‘Fair’, ‘porcelain’ and ‘alabaster’ – notions and materials heralding luxury and esteem. Compare those to ‘honey’, ‘chocolate’ and ‘caramel’ – all words that conjure up edible consumption, something easily obtained and chewed up. This Guardian article referred to ‘Women with toffee-coloured skin (Jessica Alba, Beyonce, Halle Berry, Kim Kardashian) are at the forefront of definitions of 21st century beauty.’ To tan is to become darker, to be deeper in tone, but for those with white skin it is temporary. Much like black skin as a long-held synonym for cool, tanning is racial; one can achieve all the aesthetic qualities of a skin colour, but not the prejudices that come with. For all those attempting to achieve a tan there are those born with such that are desperately trying to scrub it away.
We’ve become pious worshippers of the sun eschewing lives of leisure for stringent asceticism, just for a tiny morsel of melanin.
Blay, Y. (2011). Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of Introduction. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 4(4).
Gutiérrez, G. (2015). Black Culture Is Cool, So Why Aren’t Black People? – the #swag class. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/hey-guys-lets-talk-about-cool-stuff-swag/black-culture-is-cool-so-why-aren-t-black-people-1929d6e7bcc2#.97y6wnooa [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].
Sarnoff, D. (2011). The Tale of Tanning – SkinCancer.org. [online] Skincancer.org. Available at: http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/tanning/tale-of-tanning [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].
Wilkinson, S. (2012). A short history of tanning | Sophie Wilkinson. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/feb/19/history-of-tanning [Accessed 25 Mar. 2017].
‘Vitiligo is a long-term condition where pale white patches develop on the skin. It’s caused by the lack of melanin, a pigment in the skin.’
I myself ‘suffer’ from the condition, ‘fortunately’ in rather hidden places on my chest and legs. Long waits at the dermatologist’s office and trips to the Chinese herbal medicine clinic still burn brightly in my mind. It isn’t painful, contagious or fatal, the most harm it can do is cause sunburn, but it can be seen as unsightly. Covering myself in thick ointments and necking back pungent herbal teas never cured me of it, ‘it’s caused by stress’ they said, but how much stress can an otherwise happy, healthy child be capable of? From the age of five to my early teens a remedy was often sought but never found, now as an adult I’m so used to my patches of pale that I often forget they’re there. In some ways I find vitiligo rather beautiful, the peculiar tie-dye affect of melanin and not is captivating. The model Winnie Harlow proudly displays her vitiligo, the symmetrical patterns on her face resembling a Rorschach test. I cannot imagine life without my vitiligo. I’ve lived more of my life with than without it and it is so deeply ingrained in my sense of self that in its absence I would feel lost.
When I was a child I was engrossed with death, not the existential what-happens-when-we-die crisis, but the very viscera of it. My uncle would spin me tales of medieval execution methods and my grandparents let my tween self consume episode after episode of CSI. Perhaps something about the extremes the body can endure before giving way, or maybe I was just a weird kid. Fortunately I have grown into a happy, healthy young woman and not a homicidal maniac, thank God for societal pressure!
‘What are you?’
It’s a question I’m often asked. What am I? I am Coby, I am a woman, I am a Londoner, I am human. This was never enough.
An ubiquitous trope, prevalent in many in an epoch and one that engenders disquiet in the life of many black people. Its cultural equivalent might perhaps be ‘white people can’t dance’, but it doesn’t quite capture the nuance and unease of this historically entrenched misconception. Its roots can be traced back to the Transatlantic slave trade, thousands upon thousands of slaves trapped in tight wooden ships, barely able to breathe, the sea thus water as metaphor for both freedom, and death. Yet it, like many the neurosis of the contemporary black person, still permeates, interwoven with a history and identity entwined within slavery. My black mother never learnt to swim out of her own mother’s prohibitions and fear, despite being from the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados, enclosed by miles of coast.
Are you concerned about drooping and sagging? Do you fear the effects of time on your precious epidermis? Anxious that the, entirely natural and normal, effects of ageing will deem you a veritable outcast in society… you may as well go and live on an uninhabited island off the north coast of Scotland if you’re a woman past the age of 35, you’ve reached the end of your useful life.