The Irony of the Tanning Industry in amidst Anti-Brown Racism.

I was once told in a childhood game that I couldn’t be the princess because I was the “colour of mud”. Decades later, I ran into the same childhood friend adorning an unmistakable tan, happily informing me that she couldn’t wait for her forthcoming holiday so that she could “catch some sun” and take a break from her self tanning. Curious, I asked her why it was so important to her to keep (as she had put it) “her colour topped up”, she looked at me as if I had lost my mind and said “to have that gorgeous toffee colour of course”… I couldn’t help but smile to myself at this response as I recalled our little exchange as children. “Mud” had turned into “Toffee” – but was it toffee on me, or just her? I wondered …

I have never understood the stark hypocrisy and irony of a successful tanning industry in the context of anti brown racism. The naturally melanated will have some experience or awareness of a variety of unsavoury racial slurs associated with the colour of their skin. Yet we see a booming tanning industry and a sun worship that represents a genuine love for brown skin(?) The paradox pushes the limits of the driest satire.

Although my experience speaks specifically to the UK, I have no doubt that this paradox could also be extended to the US in the context of the contradictions between their tanning industry and anti brown sentiment against the Mexican, Latino, and Indigenous communities.

There is a further paradox here when reversing the focus on to melanated communities. So while whiteness embraces tanning, many from within our communities embrace skin bleaching, to lighten our skin. Countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria, Morocco, and Dubai hold a skin bleaching cosmetic industry in parallel to the tanning industry in western countries.

It could be argued that these strange social practices are in fact just another legacy of Britain’s (and other European) colonial empire(s). That we haven’t been able to shed the imperial weaponising of race and still ascribe to the racial categorisations and hierarchies, regardless of whether we are of the postcolonial diaspora aspiring to whiteness OR fetishise and appropriate the melanated look without acknowledging the paradoxes, if we are white. To really unpack this, perhaps we need to ask questions such as:

What prevents a white tanned person from being called ‘mud coloured’ and a person of Pakistani origin ‘toffee coloured”?

Why do some within melanated communities aspire to fairer complexions? Is this a subconscious attempt to embody whiteness and hence, an underlying aspiration to acquire white privilege?

The tanning industry in the UK is not a new phenomenon. According to Sophie Wilkinson, tanning took off in the 1930s due to an accidental trend setting by Coco Chanel. Fast forward some 80 years, and the industry continues to flourish inspite of potential health risks posed from salon treatments. Similarly, the skin bleaching industries is also rooted in a complexed history. It is perhaps worth noting that some of the leading manufacturing names in skin bleaching are Johnson and Johnson and Unilever and that no such parallel exists in tanning (i.e. no Eastern brands lead or shape this industry). It would appear that western capitalism has all areas of racial socialisation and associated beauty trends, covered.

I guess what we should really be asking ourselves is why are white and melanated communities that engage in these practices so (sub?)consciously obsessed with emulating each other?