Monday, 9 September 2013

What Your Tan Says About You (editorial)

  • Study finds that tanned women are often viewed as popular, young and socially active, and
  • Pale women are often viewed as stable, responsible, and career-oriented

Although my Facebook news feed can hardly be said to be representative of the population as a whole, I've noticed a trend: More people, men especially, are taking to tans and perms. I think this stands out, in particular, because I am so pasty that my friends need to wear sun shades when they look at me. I thought I had ought to come with a health warning; people shouldn't look directly at me without protective glasses. And as for the perms? Well, I don't have enough hair to justify that, unless I am looking to sport a new, self-styled concept, called, perhaps, scouring pad chic.

What I'm really interested in here, though, is tanned skin, because that's the only thing I can do anything about, short of investing in a hair piece. As a fashion, tanned skin has been in and out of favour over the last few decades. At the moment, we're in the midst of a revival to a scale last seen in the eighties. And while I sit here - coloured a shade of white which, should I be positioned in a light house, would be quite capable of guiding ships home at night - I wonder: What judgements do people make about one another's skin tone?

Researchers Garvin and Wilson put together a series of interviews and questionnaires in order to better understand attitudes to sun tanning and sun avoiding. The majority of the participants were female and the majority were well educated and from high socio-economic backgrounds (Garvin and Wilson, n.d.). Their opinions were fascinating. 

The participants agreed on the basics: They knew that not having a tan cannot be linked to being less attractive; less active; more unhealthy; or less beautiful. They agreed that having a tan is not particularly healthy but nevertheless they placed a value on tanned skin and feel it infers status (Garvin and Wilson, n.d.). 

As part of the experiment, the women were presented with photographs of both tanned and untanned women. Participants were then asked to give them names. The tanned women were more frequently given names related to supermodels and real or fictional icons such as Kelly, Cindy and Barbie (Garvin and Wilson, n.d.)

When asked to describe the likely characteristics of these women, the tanned women were described as perhaps being popular, young and socially active. They described the tanned women as likely to stay up late, to enjoy going to bars, drink a lot of alcohol when they are there, and, generally, fond of 'living life on the edge'. The pale women, on the other hand, were described as stable, responsible, career-orientated, quieter and older than the tanned women (Garvin and Wilson, n.d.)

The interesting thing about this study is that these descriptions were similar whether the participants relating them were tanned or pale. However, Garvin and Wilson wrote in their final report that their method of study was a potential weakness because some of the participants felt uncomfortable generating  stereotypes based on pictures alone (Garvin and Wilson, n.d.). Nevertheless, I think that this study is an interesting starting point for future research (not least because of the unique positive labels given to the women who didn't have tans). And by the sounds of things, being pale isn't necessarily something I need to worry about. At the very least, I could save money by using self-raising flour as make-up. 


Garvin, T., & Wilson, K. (n.d). The use of storytelling for understanding women's desires to tan: Lessons from the field. Professional Geographer, 51(2), 296-306.

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