I have an enemy. It is an old enemy, and like any great adversaries, we cannot seem to do without each other. Like the Joker to my Batman, I know this enemy will forever taunt me, and that nothing but one of our deaths will end our fearful standoff. Who is this enemy? If you know me personally, you will have already guessed. Yes my friends, my great nemesis is the sun.
I am a very pale girl. The picture up there above this column doesn’t do my pallor justice; if I float too low in the waves at the seashore, lifeguards evacuate the beach due to sightings of a Great White shark. When I go skiing I have to wear a mask, or the children will become convinced they have seen an empty parka and pants jetting down the mountain. I can’t skydive naked — they would lose me in the clouds. I don’t tan, is what I’m saying here.
Ok, quick aside. I’m aware that this pale skin has afforded me white privilege my entire life and will continue to do so. Sunburn is nothing compared to a lifetime spent experiencing the subtle and overt racism that people of color deal with on the daily. You know what I bet really stings? Being treated like a second-class citizen.
Whew! Now that we’re past the heavy stuff, let’s get to the science! What is a tan? It’s actually pretty straightforward. UV rays stream down from that smug son-of-a-gun up there, strike us fragile little gut-sacks, and cause all kinds of havoc with our DNA. The DNA starts to get all screwy or whatever the science term is, and the rest of the cell is all “yaaaargh, damage alert!” The skin turns red to block even more damage, and if you’re a natural tanner that red eventually converts to brown pigmentation on your skin cells, also known as melanin.
Here’s a cool thing. You know how sunburns feel warm? That’s all the blood rushing to the site of the damage to try and repair it. I don’t exactly know how blood fixes body damage but it’s still a cool thing to know, right?
Now here’s something I wondered. Why on Earth did a certain group of people in the U.S. get so in to tanning, while in other places people bleach their skin to get paler? Well, as with so many of my questions, the answer to this one is, “fancy French women and colonialism.”
So in the 20’s, Coco Chanel was basically the most important rich lady on the planet. She’s the person behind the brand Chanel, and back then she was the shizz; no rich bored woman’s wardrobe was complete without one of her suits. Coco was also a Nazi sympathizer and possible spy, but that’s neither here nor there.
So our girl goes on a vacation to the French Riviera, comes back with a sun tan, and the formerly pale-obsessed high society dames are like “what the what?!? I want one of those!” Just like that, being tan went from signaling that you were lower class and had to work outside, to showing that you could afford vacations to the Riviera and bikinis made of unicorn hair or whatever.
Meanwhile, in the colonized countries Europeans had spent centuries insisting that they were intellectually and physically superior to the dark-skinned people they were busy oppressing. For example, in India the British followed an explicit policy of selecting the lightest and most amenable local people — who were often mixed-ethnicity — to designate as their next-in-commands, basically bumping them way up the new class hierarchy and giving them all kinds of privileges. In a lot of places the attitude that pale is preferable has stuck. And you can bet your booty that America’s new cultural colonialism, from the Hollywood films that flood foreign markets to the mostly white top-40 radio stars, haven’t done much to change the association between whiteness and power and glamour.
So yeah. Now we live in a world where Tan-Mom becomes an internet celebrity for putting her 6 year old daughter in a tanning booth and putting her at risk for skin cancer, and women across the world risk horrible facial scarring in pursuit of paleness. Coco Chanel, I am so mad at you.
If you were also surprised that this turned in to such a serious article, feel free to e-mail KATELYN HEMPSTEAD at khempstead@ucdavis, because sometimes even frivolous columnists get mad about social justice issues.