I just returned from a two-week vacation in the Dominican Republic. Over the past few days, several people have offered positive comments about my deep tan. This compelled me to conduct a literature search to see if there were any recent studies that had explored the perceived attractiveness of individuals as a function of whether they were sporting a tan.
Prior to delving into this matter, I should mention that several years ago, I co-authored a paper on the application of evolutionary psychology in understanding sun tanning behavior with Albert Peng, a practicing dermatologist whom I had originally met when I was a doctoral student at Cornell. We offered evolutionary-based explanations for some of the robust findings that kept reappearing in the literature including the fact that young single women constituted the most frequent demographic group of sun tanners. Of note, women are much more knowledgeable than men about the damages of sun exposure, and yet they engage much more frequently in the behavior.
As I explain in both my 2007 and 2011 books (The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature), this puts into question the premise that consumers engage in acts that yield poor outcomes because of lack of information. Women are more informed about sun tanning and yet they succumb to its allure more so than men.
Returning to the issue at hand, are tanned people perceived as more attractive? Vinh Q. Chung et al. (2010) published a paper in Dermatologic Surgery in which they tested this exact premise. They took photos of 45 women, and posted these on the Hot or Not website (a site wherein individuals can offer 1-10 attractiveness ratings of submitted photos). Furthermore, using an Adobe Photoshop option, the authors artificially created tanned versions of the 45 photos. Accordingly, ratings were elicited for both the "untanned" (n = 6,228) and tanned (n = 8,988) versions of the photos. The authors analyzed the data in one of three ways, all of which yielded the same conclusion: tanned individuals were perceived as more attractive than their untanned versions. When matching the data within individuals, 12 of the 45 individuals saw an increase in their attractiveness (when tanned), 2 of the 45 individuals yielded a decrease in attractiveness (when tanned), and the remaining photos did not yield a statistically significant change (within-individuals).
Hence, whereas at the aggregate, a tan improves an individual's perceived attractiveness, this did not hold for the majority of submitted photos. Incidentally, the researchers had originally included photos of men as well. However, these did not garner a sufficiently high number of ratings so photos of men were dropped from further consideration.
A few parting points: When taking to extremes, the pursuit of a tan can yield the George Hamilton effect. Beware of too much sun exposure. In some cultures where skin tone has historically been associated with social status, women are both more likely to avoid sun tanning and to purchase creams that lighten one's skin tone. As such, in some cultural settings, a tan is perceived as desirable as it is associated with a healthy glow and hence its aesthetics are appreciated. In other cultural contexts, a tan is avoided as it connotes lower social status.
As I type these words, I realize that I am fighting a losing battle to maintain my vacation tan. By next week, I'll be back to "lighter Canadian" Gad as compared to the current "Lebanese olive-skinned" Gad!