With summer here, there are more opportunities to spend time in the sun. With more sun comes more responsibilities (i.e., proper skincare), but also a strong desire to look good. As one interviewee in a study of tanning behavior explained, “You know how it is: I mean for us girls, we normally wear less in the summer or spring than in winter, and it just looks bad if you’re as white as snow in the middle of June or July” (Vannini, & McCright, 2004). This summer, are you going to lather yourself in SPF-100 sunblock or embrace the rays in hopes of achieving a nice deep tan?
Your answer to that question depends on several factors, starting with media consumption. After viewing models with Photoshopped tans, women express more favorable attitudes toward tanning compared to another group who saw the same model without a tan (Mahler, Beckerley, & Vogel, 2010). Researchers found the same effect when a separate group of participants looked at magazine advertisements featuring tanned vs. non-tanned models. In other words, seeing tanned, attractive people encourages us to want the same for ourselves.
Not surprisingly, a major motivating factor for tanning is that people want to improve their general appearance (Cafri et al., 2006). In fact, among adolescent females, the primary motives for sunbathing are appearance and well-being (e.g., “improve my mood”) (Darlow, Heckman, & Munshi, 2016). Those who sunbathed more were also more likely to “buy into” societal standards for thinness.
In a separate study, those who were more concerned with appearing attractive had more incidental sun exposure but also worried more (appropriately so) about skin cancer and the sun’s effect on aging (Heckman, Wilson, & Ingersoll, 2009). Tanning may also relate to a person’s desire to attract and keep a relationship partner. Research shows that those who are dating were more likely to suntan than those who were not dating at all or those in more established relationships (Pettijohn, Pettijohn, & Gilbert, 2011). In their sample, the majority of daters (73 percent) regularly suntanned, with 64 percent believing that tanned skin made them more attractive to potential relationship partners.
These beliefs aren’t just among women. As a male interviewee explained, “I guess us guys are not supposed to be so much into our own looks, but, whatever, I like myself better when I’m tanned” (Vannini, & McCright, 2004). Boys who perceive themselves as being either very over or underweight were more likely to tan, as were boys who had been bullied (Blashill & Traeger, 2013). At this point, I’d love to tell you that everyone desiring darker skin is buying into a false narrative about tanning’s benefits. But I can’t.
Here’s the problem: The “tanning to enhance attractiveness” crowd may actually be right. To test this, researchers from the University of Melbourne randomly assigned participants and showed participants models with four levels of tanning (none, light, medium, and dark) (Broadstock, Borland, & Gason, 1992). Participants indicated that models with a medium level tan appeared most attractive and healthiest, with those who had no tan appearing least attractive and healthy. Males preferred darker tans more than women.
A similar study found that males not only rated dark tans as more attractive (vs. light or medium tans), but also perceived dark-tanned women as thinner (Banerjee, Campo, & Greene, 2008). Tanning’s powers extend beyond simple attractiveness. Research shows that we’re more likely to respond positively to requests for help when a tanned person asks us (Guéguen, 2015). We’re also more likely to hire a tanned person for a job (Gillen & Bernstein, 2015). Part of the reason for wanting to hire them? Participants thought tanned applicants were more attractive.
Now, before you go rushing out to the nearest beach or tanning salon, a quick public service announcement. Self-presentation strategies, or the things you do to make others view you favorably, can involve all sorts of unhealthy behaviors (Leary, Tchividijian, & Kraxberger, 1994). In this context, tanning is in some really bad company as a potential cancer-causing behavior, along with things like smoking and excessive drinking or drug use.
If that sounds bad, it is. Research shows that when women focused on the severe consequences, including the possibility of death, they said that they planned on using proper sun protection (Routledge, Arndt, & Goldenberg, 2004). However, there was a catch. Among women who were led to see a connection between tanning and attractiveness, thinking of death threatened self-esteem, which ironically increased interest in tanning behavior. Ultimately, though real, the tan-attractiveness link carries some potentially serious consequences.
Everyone would like to present themselves as more attractive, but this summer, when you head out to do a little "GTL," make the "T" stand for “taking time to apply sunscreen.”
Banerjee, S. C., Campo, S., & Greene, K. (2008). Fact or wishful thinking? Biased expectations in ‘I think I look better when I’m tanned. American Journal of Health Behavior, 32(3), 243-252.
Blashill, A. J., & Traeger, L. (2013). Indoor tanning use among adolescent males: The role of perceived weight and bullying. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 46(2), 232–236.
Broadstock, M., Borland, R., & Gason, R. (1992). Effects of suntan on judgments of healthiness and attractiveness by adolescents. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 22(2), 157-172.
Cafri, G., Thompson, J., Roehrig, M., van den Berg, P., Jacobsen, P. B., & Stark, S. (2006). An investigation of appearance motives for tanning: The development and evaluation of the Physical Appearance Reasons For Tanning Scale (PARTS) and its relation to sunbathing and indoor tanning intentions. Body Image, 3(3), 199-209.
Gillen, M. M., & Bernstein, M. J. (2015). Does tanness mean goodness? Perceptions of tan skin in hiring decisions. North American Journal of Psychology, 17, 1-16.
Guéguen, N. (2015). Effect of solicitor’s suntanned face on compliance with a face-to-face helping request: A brief examination in a field setting. Psychological Reports, 117(1), 245–250.
Heckman, C. J., Wilson, D. B., & Ingersoll, K. S. (2009). The influence of appearance, health, and future orientations on tanning behavior. American Journal of Health Behavior, 33(3), 238-243.
Leary, M. R., Tchividijian, L. R., & Kraxberger, B. E. (1994). Self-presentation can be hazardous to your health: Impression management and health risk. Health Psychology, 13(6), 461-470.
Mahler, H. M., Beckerley, S. E., & Vogel, M. T. (2010). Effects of media images on attitudes toward tanning. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32(2), 118-127.
Pettijohn, T. F., II, Pettijohn, T. F., & Gilbert, A. G. (2011). Romantic relationship status and gender differences in sun tanning attitudes and behaviors of US college students. Psychology, 2(2), 71–77.
Routledge, C., Arndt, J., & Goldenberg, J. L. (2004). A time to tan: Proximal and distal effects of mortality salience on sun exposure intentions. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30(10), 1347-1358.
Vannini, P., & McCright, A. M. (2004). To die for: The semiotic seductive power of the tanned body. Symbolic Interaction, 27 ,309–332.