Sunday, December 16, 2012

Spray tanning - a general WTF?

EDIT: This post was republished on Fairfax's Daily Life and can be seen here

I've been ignoring my little corner of cyberspace lately. I haven't meant to, but I've had to do boring things such as move house, deal with medical woes (including a back injury which is never conducive to sitting up and ranting, that's for damn sure) etc, and whilst a great many effects of the patriarchy have bugged me, I haven't got around to writing them down. So apologies to those that have been reading and have been wondering why there has been a delay, and I promise to return you to your regularly scheduled programming ASAP.

Earlier on today I received an sms ad from a beauty therapist whom I've never visited, or if I have then I don't remember doing so. Within the body of the text, the business was flogging $35 spray tans. Now the fact that a beauty therapist would think advertising to me in the first place would bring in the biscuits is rather laughable, but flogging spray tans? Whilst I would actually be interested to hear whether $35 is a good price to pay for the privilege of coating yourself head-to-toe in gunk designed to give you a golden glow, I couldn't help but ponder the number of assumptions contained within that short text message. Firstly, they were assuming that I am a woman. Secondly, they were assuming that having a darker visage would be an attractive proposition to me. Thirdly, they were expecting me to do a whoop whoop dance over their bargain price. Needless to say, it failed to spin my wheels.

As a non-white person, I can't help but think that spray tanning is bizarre. I know that this phenomenon has arisen as an allegedly healthier alternative to baking oneself to a crisp in the harsh sun rays risking burning and melanoma, but I don't really understand why people feel the need to do that either. Perhaps I'm being sullied here by my childhood traumas, but when one of the first things I learnt at school was that having brown skin was not good, followed by others reinforcing it to me that being different was a good thing, these beauty routines geared around darkening one's skin tone really aren't going to make much sense to me. I really don't get why women feel more beautiful when faking a darker hue.

Or I do. I suppose a lifetime of hearing about "exoticness" and "brown skin shining in the sun" (damn you 80s music) can't make me too ignorant about why there's an entire industry geared around women achieving this phenomenon. Apparently darker people don't "age" as rapidly too, and as aging is allegedly a bad thing, perhaps I can draw some understanding from that. But then it all becomes rather hypocritical to me, because whilst it was being reinforced to me that despite any negative (or positive, yet objectifying and othering) attention my skin colour may attract I needed to learn to love the skin I was in, the same idea doesn't seem to occur in reverse. See it's desirable to be "white" in Australia because you're part of a socially-privileged majority, but then with that whiteness, and particularly if you're a woman, you should make some attempt to be brown because being white-white is not beautiful and it makes you look older. Or something. Is anyone else thinking more messages about loving the "skin you're in" are needed?

There are entire industries out there that profiteer by reinforcing some arbitrary beauty paradigm to women, and I find that a lot of the time these industries sell their wares by pointing out supposed flaws that women have. Whether women are white, or hairy, or short, or their labia are too long (don't even start me on the articles on the rise of labiaplasty in this country that I have been absorbing of late!), there always seems to be something fundamentally wrong with the way women are and it can be fixed, for a price. Where does it end? When a woman becomes the ultimate picture of constructed womanly beauty, does she become perfect and is no longer targeted by such campaigns to change stuff? Reckon the answer to that is "no", for some reason.

Fake tan has not been short of scrutiny by health researchers incidentally, despite its claim as a healthier alternative to sun. Concern has been raised, for example about DNA-altering chemicals contained within it that could also lead to cancer. Not that this is much different to the host of other chemicals women are supposed to smear all over their skins on a daily basis to achieve desirability, mind. But considering the relatively short time fake tans (particularly of the spray variety) have been on the market, I think it's rather premature to claim their "safety".

Some people might be reading this and thinking "well, it's all very well that she says this. She doesn't have to worry about getting a tan". I urge them to go back and read my post regarding that Insight programme, particularly the part about their nifty camera work. If anything, it should tell you that you can't win no matter what your hue, and basting yourself in marinade will not solve things. As someone who has seen a lot of stage shows in her time, I can acknowledge the benefits of matting one's appearance when standing under excruciatingly bright and hot lights. But as part of some routine to enhance desirability? Not so much.

Tanning is bizarre. Fake tanning is bizarre. Forking over your hard-earned to be hit with a spray gun is bizarre. And it all makes zero sense to me at all as a non-white feminist. So endeth this rant... ;)  



  1. No doubt it is funny beyond belief. My favourite story, though, is that this bloke who worked somewhere I worked claimed Aboriginality (and who apparently wasn't) apparently decided in order for it to be authentic, he'd go and get spray tanned (not sunbedded for some reason, less cancer causing theoretically?). The irony of course is that he worked with me, who was both Aboriginal and about as fair skinned as you could get. And he was a member of the Oompah Loompah community, I think, by the looks of him.

    Yeah, I don't get it either. It's odd... but beyond everything about whiteness and skin colour, that you put far more eloquently than I need to, I also don't really know - just thinking pragmatically) how people manage to maintain it. But then I don't really know how women wear makeup all day without it getting smeared all over their faces. I mean other women. Real women is what I really meant in my mind... oh dear.

    So... was it definitely aimed at women, do you reckon? Do boys do it too? In the UK they seem to be doing it a-plenty.

  2. Well said Celeste. I totally agree. [I don't even wear makeup] Receiving an SMS from people you don't know is a worry and really annoying.

  3. Yep, boys do it too of course. But the rate women access it at is significantly higher so from that I draw the conclusion that not only is there more pressure for women to be tanned, but that there are a number more campaigns targeted specifically at women to fuel the industry.

    Sandy, got to love Oompah Loompah dude. WTF, seriously?! ;)

    Marion, I have no bloody idea how they got my number still, but how invasive, hey?

  4. Sorry I didn't mean that to sound like some kind of 'blokes do it to, so it's normalised for women' or worse that argument that people use about sexual assault also being done by women. I wasn't really thinking that when I wrote that above... mostly I was thinking of The Beauty Myth. When I first read that book (have I said this here before about something else?) when it first came out (late eighties, early nineties whenever it was) and Wolf was saying in the final chapter (I think, again it might have been twenty years since I read it), that the shift would really happen when men started being influenced by the same beauty imperatives as women. Except when I read it, I remember thinking that could never happen to the mainstream population. Then it did. And I think it's the markers of the extreme. And this whole bronzed look (more noticable/more prevalent in the UK and other less sunny countries, I think) that appears on men - just seems more of an extreme enactment of the behaviour cos I remain surprised about it. A little bit of my own internalised sexism I think.

    Yeah... how the hell did they get your number. I get facials places from time to time, and they remain the main places that text me this useless crap.

  5. tanned white skin and brown skin are two very different things, too. the former being desirable in our society and the latter being exotified but not nessesarily desirable.

  6. Well, I can say that it depends on the person's preference. Some people actually look good with tans. It brings out the sexiness in them. Being exotic is sexy no matter how much you look at it. Even prestigious pageants such as the Ms. Universe prefer using tans for their bikini event. :)

  7. Okay Rachel, I appreciate you're flogging a product and I'm questioning your livelihood here by writing this post in the first place, but seriously? "Brings out the sexiness in them"? Have you not actually read my post before commenting? Incidentally, referring to Ms. Universe as "prestigious" is highly unlikely to help earn cred points here.

    Question everything. And so says this naturally exotically tanned individual.

  8. PS and "anonymous", cheers for your comment. Precisely what I was on about but in a much more succinct manner!

  9. I dunno if the comment above is legit or she's pulling your leg. I mean nobody in their right mind would refer to Ms Universe as prestigious unless they're, you know, a nine-year old girl (or maybe a 14 year old boy).

  10. Hi Celeste! Great piece! It's Candice from Daily Life here. Would you mind shooting me an email on Would love to get your permission to republish this.


  11. I just read your piece on the Sydney Morning Herald - very well put. I'm white, but gave up sunbaking years ago. The health messages finally sank in. I grew in the country and out bush (NT), and used to bake on the beach. Plain dumb. Like you, I've often wondered why fair skinned women are trying to emulate dark skinned women, when so many of them still don't accept dark skinned women as being equal to themselves. I can only put it down to historical developments where once alabaster skin was a since of wealth and prestige; it was the peasants tilling the fields that worked up a tan and leathered skin. With the wealth that the middle classes garnered from the Industrial Revolution, it was they who were finally able to indulge in leisure time like the aristocracy. A tan became a sign for the summer spent in warm, seaside areas. It was then the working class whose skins became pale as they were couped up inside factories and mines 6 days a week. As for the safety of these spray on tans, I wouldn't risk it. Besides, haven't you noticed that these women have a slightly orange glow to them? Perhaps that's the new exotic.
    Karen Zadra

  12. Hello
    I love your piece on the Daily Life site today. You made some great points - why the need to change how we look? I have a skin condition which causes me to be very red like I'm sunburn (write a lot about it on my blog). I am happy with my appearance, but it seems that society thinks I should not be and want to change it, because they're self conscious about their own appearance, and they tell me they couldn't handle looking like me. It seems is too easy to change how we look to conform to an ideal. Even if I could use such products, I'd never spray tan, Botox, microdermabrasion etc.
    Thank you for your great writing. Putting you on my blog reading list.

  13. I think being tanned is a status symbol in Western society because it means you can afford to go on holidays, and being white means your sitting at your computer working away (thats how I see it) whereas in Eastern culture being tanned means you labour outside all day in the sun, and if you are white it means you have the luxury of sitting inside. And being skinny in Western society means you can afford vegetables rather than fast food, whereas in the past being a bigger woman meant you could actually afford to eat food in general. All these constant changing fashions of how a womans body "should be". I wish just being healthy and muscley like guys could be in fashion!? instead of being emaciated skinny like models haha. I agree with this article, when does all the pressure and 'fixing' of women stop?? Plastic surgery (nearly everyone I know has breast implants or nose jobs), waxing shaving tanning , makeup hair its all too much!!