Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

When Is a Tan Socially Desirable?

Light-skinned Americans seek a tan, but light-skinned Chinese avoid it.

Wikimedia/Public Domain
Claude Monet: Woman with a Parasol (1886)
Source: Wikimedia/Public Domain

A New York Times article pointed out a surprising style innovation on Chinese beaches—ski masks. The women who wear them do so to protect themselves against the sun—not to prevent skin cancer, but to avoid getting tan. Apparently, many in China view fair skin as beautiful.

Why is this? The Chinese, like all cultures, are ethnocentric, so it isn’t that they want to look more like their former British overlords. As Lijia Zhang put it, “One Chinese creation myth was reworked as follows: Nuwa, a legendary superwoman, molded the first humans from balls of mud. But she burned the first batch, which became the African races; the second was underdone and resulted in the pasty-faced Europeans; the third was ‘just right,’ delivering today’s Chinese.”

No, it is that they want to look like a certain kind of Chinese. As one ski mask wearer quoted in the article put it, “A woman should always have fair skin... Otherwise, people will think you’re a peasant.”

I saw this kind of thinking on display in Brazil in the 1970s. In the interior of Brazil, men and women alike avoided the sun, and some lighter-toned women even used parasols, because a tan skin suggested that one labored in the fields. On the beaches of Rio, however, a tan was desirable, since it indicated that one had the leisure to play in the sun instead of working at jobs away from the open air. In other words, the key element was social class, and a tan skin could be either desirable or undesirable depending on its meaning to the local audience.

So far we’ve been talking about acquired tans and their meaning. But what about people whose skin is tan (but not dark) without the aid of the sun?

In the United States, many white folks like to sport a tan. Some even go to tanning salons, despite warnings about skin cancer. Here’s a thought experiment. Suppose someone made them this offer, “There’s a new painless procedure, with no side effects, that could permanently alter your skin color to the exact tan that you desire.” Would they take it? My guess is that they would not. A temporary tan—i.e., an acquired tan—has one set of social meanings—health, leisure, and sexual attractiveness—while a permanent tan has another: not white.

I remember a fellow clinical psychology graduate student back in the 1960s—a permanently tan, Italian American woman who did her internship at a hospital in the American South. She told me of meeting a white man who, on learning that she was completing her Ph.D. said, “You’re a credit to your race.”

So the identical tan skin color can have positive social meanings if it is temporary and negative racial ones if it is permanent.