Sun Tanning

As Pascal Ory has suggested, sun tanning is a cultural revolution in the sense that the practices associated with it have undergone a “reversal of values” (2008: p. 13) that has deeply and permanently subverted a strong social and cultural norm in Western societies: pale skin as a marker of social status and class. In fact, a tan is simply a chromatic transformation of the skin when exposed to sunlight, which produces melanin causing the skin to darken. But tanning is not just a phenomenon studied by biologists or dermatologists. It is also a key topic in the social sciences.

The emergence of tanning can be studied by historians as well as by geographers, since it involves the question of space and spatiality. The French context alone is not enough to explain and understand the emergence, diffusion, and crystallisation of the practice of tanning. Other places, particularly in the United States, made this invention possible (Coëffé, 2014).

Translucent skin as a status symbol gives way to a new appreciation of tan skin

Historically, at least since the medieval period and until the early 20th century, fair skin was positively coded in the West. In reality, values have been classified anthropologically based on the polarities of light and dark. Through the process of human evolution, darkness (and dark complexions) have been negatively marked, while light (and light complexions) have been positively valued (Ory, 2008).

Christianity reinforced this by linking symbolic correspondences between virginity and whiteness embodied by figures such as Mary and Christ, while black was negatively coded (Ory, 2008: p. 20), and associated with the curse of Ham, being “cursed to slavery and carrying all the sins of humanity” (Retaillé, 1998: p. 55). During antiquity, pale complexions were a norm primarily for women, as their confinement protected them from both the gaze of men and exposure to the sun.

During the medieval period, fair skin, including through the use of cosmetics, was a marker that associated a certain level of grooming with a social class. This notion was upheld by high society, particularly the aristocracy, who viewed tanning as a sign of the working classes who were exposed to the sun as they laboured. Cosmetics made it possible to identify aristocrats from a distance, and this usage spread from the Court to the Parisian bourgeoisie.

However, in the 18th century and the Enlightenment, this model began to splinter, as Europeans developed a new relationship with alterity. In search of a utopia and a break from a civilisation based on the chromatic distinction of skin (pallor), explorers found in Polynesia an idealised in-between, in that it was symbolically distinct from the perceived savagery in Melanesia (“black islands”). The gendered vision of the explorers, made up exclusively of men, exalted the beauty of the Tahitians, whose skin colour differed from that of Melanesian women.

This male appreciation, linked to the discovery of exotic alterity, changed the long-standing symbolic correspondence between social rank and skin colour. As James Cook, captain of the Royal Navy who made three explorations in the Pacific between 1768 and 1779 noted, “the colour of the skin is not always the same, the islanders of the lower class, who are obliged to expose themselves to the sun a lot, are very dark brown, and their superiors, who spend most of their time indoors in their houses, are no browner than the inhabitants of the West Indies or people who have lived there for a long time” (Cook, 1998: p. 54).

Tan skin could now be associated with Polynesian nobility, while still distinct from the “very dark” brown of the common people. This new relationship with alterity was informed by the praise of primitivism that exalts “life outdoors” (Coëffé et al., 2014: p. 77). It is not surprising that the therapeutic benefits of the “aerial bath” emerged in the late 18th century and early 19th century, promoted by a natural theology focused on “describing all the beauties of the world created by God” rather than just manifestations of the Sublime, embodied by a sensitivity to “violent experience” such as “bad weather, squalls, and storms” (Granger, 2013: p. 49).

This was not yet tanning per se, but the practice was heralded by new relationships to the body and nature, particularly to “solar manifestations” (ibid., p. 49). The “light cure” promoted by doctors such as Arnold Rikli in 1855 accompanied the problematic unclothing of bodies, whose posture and movements were codified. In the context of the emergence of naturism, nudity became a recurrent principle in the German movement (Barthe-Deloizy, 2003), and the natural sunbath was taken in a vertical position.

Although fears associated with the sun persisted, new representations and perceptions emerged between the Second Empire and the Great War, as neo-Hippocratic theories associated with a mistrust of the sun lost ground, and hygiene once again became an important issue. The movement was not unrelated to the triumph of the “desire for the shore”, embodied by the first seaside resorts along the English Channel in the second half of the 18th century.

However, tanning was conditioned by the emergence of the “warm” paradigm (Mobilités, Itinéraires, Tourismes (MIT), 2005), based on the therapeutic imperative, but gradually gaining acceptance as a source of pleasure. Doctor Viel extolled the virtues of the sun and sunbathing on the hot sandy beach in 1847. Tanning no longer only implied simply taking the air or drying the skin but the penetration of the sun into the skin (Andrieu, 2008a). Michelet evokes the sun in 1859 in La Femme: “Light inundates the head, traverses it through and through, even to the deep, recondite nerves” (quoted by Granger, 2013: p. 54). While Andre Gide did not specifically mention tanning, he did write about the rise of a new sensuality and aesthetic associated with exposing the skin to the sun in his book L’Immoraliste in 1902.

Soon a delicious burning enveloped me; my whole being surged up into my skin. On one of the last mornings (…) I was bolder still. I looked at myself for a long while — with no more shame now — with joy. Although not yet robust, I felt myself capable of becoming so — harmonious, sensuous, almost beautiful.

André Gide, L’immoraliste, 1902, cited by Andrieu, 2008a: p. 72

The release from the therapeutic imperative was then reinforced by another distanced relationship, that of artistic sensitivity. In the wake of the new taste for the tanned skin of the “noble savage,” painters such as Gauguin, echoing the Orientalist accounts, depicted the half-naked Vahinés in a way that was both exotic and erotic (Staszak, 2008). This milestone provides insight into a geohistory of tanning based on varying scales, places, and uses.

The tanning revolution: a tourist invention that permeates society

French Polynesia alone is not enough to explain the process of how tanning was invented. Americans also played a decisive role, while being imbued with certain European visions of the world, as seen in their fascination with the South Seas and their adherence to social Darwinism.

As they expanded to the Polynesian islands, particularly Hawaii, Americans updated their “racial” classification, placing Hawaiians in a new category, since they could not be classified as “Blacks,” “Whites,” or “Mulattos.” Hawaiians were perceived as “brown,” not mixed race, and as belonging to a branch of the Polynesian race, which was undoubtedly of Aryan stock (Desmond, 1999: p. 51). “Brown” Hawaiians came to be seen as “pure”, a vision that promoted their integration into the United States. Tourists also helped make exotic and erotic bodies desirable, particularly the hula girls, the Hawaiian dancers who aroused fantasies among tourists from the mainland. The hula girl was the Hawaii version of the Tahitian vahiné.

“Distinguished” tourists spread these images when they visited the Hawaiian archipelago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when tourism took hold, particularly in Honolulu and Waikiki where the first large hotels opened (Coëffé, 2014). Unlike Honolulu, where the missionaries were focusing their conversion efforts, Waikiki was designed as a refuge allowing practices that deviated from the Puritan vision of the world, particularly activities involving (scantily clad) bodies such as dancing and surfing.

In the early 20th century, Jack London spent time in Waikiki as part of his South Seas travels. He developed a fascination with surfing after meeting Georges Freeth, a Scottish-Hawaiian, and Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian, both of whom were particularly active in promoting a practice that was becoming progressively more of a sport through its Western appropriation. London wrote effusively about Kahanamoku in a story that was published in the October 1907 issue of Woman’s Home Companion, and later included in his book, The Cruise of the Snark, which became a best-seller in the United States in 1911.

In his writing, London portrayed an ideal of brown-skinned surfers as “noble savages”: He is a Mercury—a brown Mercury. His heels are winged, and in them is the swiftness of the sea. In truth, from out of the sea he has leaped upon the back of the sea, and he is riding the sea that roars and bellows and cannot shake him from its back. […] There is a wild burst of foam, a long tumultuous rushing sound as the breaker falls futile and spent on the beach at your feet; and there, at your feet steps calmly ashore a Kanaka, burnt, golden and brown by the tropic sun. Several minutes ago he was a speck a quarter of a mile away (London, 1936: p. 86-87).

London offered even stronger identification material when he returned to Hawaii in 1916, a trip during which he exalted the bodily metamorphosis of the “White” man: “Hercules of twenty-two, the whitest blond man ever burned to mahogany brown by a sub-tropic sun, with body and lines and muscles very much resembling the wonderful ones of Duke Kahanamoku” (1918: p. 240).

The tropical beach epitomised a new societal value, specifically in relation to the temporary alteration of skin colour. High society, whose distinction was achieved through tourist activities, was receptive to these ideas that were a reversal of the colonial perspective. Whereas previously working classes had tan skin from labouring outdoors, these classes were now more likely to be working in factories, and pale skin became a stigma. Consequently, the distinction of high society was now achieved through non-productive exposure to the sun.

It was in fact the contact between French and American cultural spaces that allowed the crystallisation of the positive value associated with a tan, which came to be called ‘tanning’ in the first quarter of the 20th century and required the exhibition of the body (Millet, 2022: p. 136). The practice was also invented in Florida where ‘sun hunters’ (K.L. Roberts quoted by the MIT Research Group, 2005: p. 131) revelled in the sun. In France, the trend was primarily concentrated in a few places on the French Riviera such as Cannes, Antibes, and Juan-Les-Pins, where convalescent American soldiers, writers and artists, like Ernest Hemingway and Cole Porter, converged in the aftermath of the First World War.

Many of these individuals, who were well endowed with social, cultural, and symbolic capital, frequented or resided in Paris, where artists were increasingly interested in Negro art, and numerous live shows glorified the ‘liberated body of the African beauty’ (Chalaye, 2021: p. 56).

Josephine Baker became an exemplary figure in the linking of American and French spaces when she was hired in 1925 by the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for the Revue Nègre. The ‘Black Venus’, an ‘eroticolonial’ icon (Chalaye, 2021: p. 56), a figure of desirable alterity, was so fascinating that some ladies tried to emulate her by applying walnut stain to their skin. In the second half of the 19th century, Paris staged a number of “ethnological shows,” exhibiting “Nubians” and “Eskimos” at the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation. During the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 World Fair, which was attended by tourists from all over the world, there was a ‘Negro village’ with 400 extras, followed in 1900 by a ‘living’ diorama on Madagascar (Andrieu, 2008a: p. 76). The browning of the skin embodied the increasing desire for idealised but controlled ensauvagement, mimicking the outward appearance of ‘primitive’ peoples.

The event in which Coco Chanel is said to have dropped her umbrella and exposed her face to the sun is poorly documented and overly interpreted in its effects on the reversal of a multisecular norm (Ory, 2008). However, a photograph from 1918 showing her with a tanned face provides insight into her avant-garde behaviour, despite the then prevalence of the “cult of distinguished pallor” (ibid.: p. 33). The practice of tanning was embraced by certain creative elites, including a number of fashion personalities. Skin tanning was promoted by Jean Patou’s Chaldée Oil launched in 1927, the first sun oil that was supposed to protect against sunburns.

The cosmetics industry helped to legitimise tanning by mitigating the associated risks, even though in the 1930s some members of the medical community criticised the “harm of heliotherapy” (Granger, 2017: p. 123). Ambre Solaire, developed in 1935 by the chemists of Eugène Schueller (which later became L’Oréal), experienced unprecedented success as a unique product that combined filtering and tanning, with a strong fragrance, and particularly effective advertising, especially on the radio (Ory, 2008). The controversies surrounding the positive values associated with tanning played in favour of the codification of behaviours as shown in a treatise published by Hortense Cloquié in 1936, L’Art de brunir. Méthode pour se dorer au soleil.

The infusion of tanning into the social mainstream, intertwined with other transformations in practices, was not a continuous configuration without social struggles or disputes. It was even affected by contradictory representations, in tension with each other to define legitimate behaviour, as shown by an advertisement in the Honolulu Star Bulletin, a newspaper published in Honolulu in 1927. The advertisement promoted a lotion that claimed to make the skin “ivory white in just three days” (31 January 1927: p. 2). However, in contrast, in 1937, an advertisement for Kodak featured a message promoting the “bronze” bodies of surfers in Waikiki (Coëffé et al., 2014).

In 1932, in France, in the summer section of the magazine Femina, Colette made a statement that provides insight into the construction of a new norm: “as everyone knows, summer beauty is black” (quoted by Granger, 2017: p. 120). After the Second World War, attitudes shifted, and the practice of tanning came to be associated with hedonism, fun in the sun and the baring of bodies on the beach in summer (Granger, 2013).

The exposure of the body plays a significant role in the fantasy of ensauvagement, made even more pronounced by the invisible forces of controlled relaxation, described as “civilised” by Norbert Elias in that this practice presupposes self-control and an internalisation of impulses (1973). The invention of tanning is less associated with the invention of sea bathing, which for a long time was done with the body veiled in a multitude of garments (Andrieu, 2018), than with a new relationship to the body, in this case to nudity and the associated order of modesty.

Stomachs were first bared in the 1930s with the invention of the two-piece swimsuit, The Atom, by couturier Jacques Heim. While the navel, an eminently symbolic place, remained veiled, this swimsuit foreshadows the launch of the bikini in 1946 by Louis Réard, a car engineer turned clothing designer. On the Riviera, especially during the Cannes festival, film stars provide legitimacy to this bathing costume that benefits from the convergence of interests between the social uses of an elite, the media and the fashion and cosmetics industries (Millet, 2022).

In 1956, Brigitte Bardot revealed a slender, tan body in the film And God Created Woman. Since the 1950s, tanning has been a part of a repertoire of behaviours that required preparation – including the use of self-tanners to darken pale skin – before taking centre stage on the social scene, particularly at the beach where bodies were allowed to adopt a horizontal posture in public space. However, the shrinking of swimsuits to the point of the thong, starting in the 1970s and especially in the 2000s, was not linear and remained an issue in defining a legitimate body, which also included different representations of tanning.

Tanning: standard here, deviance elsewhere

As Christophe Granger points out, “tanning is a plural concept. It is not a uniform imperative, received and suffered.” (2017: p. 127).

Tanning implies internalising a certain bodily norm, with uneven distribution of knowledge in society and among individuals. In the 1970s, Patrick Champagne observed on a beach on the Normandy coast, “fully dressed” farmers “[spending] time recreating their usual occupations” on the beach, their practices betraying a lack of mastery of bodily techniques internalised by the “upper classes” (1975: p. 23). This dissonance could be seen, for example, in their “uneven tanning of the body” (ibid.), an even tan being a norm shared in the vacation culture of those who could engage in extended tourist experiences, thanks to their cultural and economic resources.

On the other hand, the therapeutic prescription that had spurred the exposure of the body to the sun, but from which the practice of tanning had become detached, has been reactivated in recent decades. Despite the expansion of sunscreen, the medical community points out the risks of exposing the skin to UVB rays in particular, which can lead to melanomas and premature skin ageing.

But even here, the injunction to tan safely implies a mastery of bodily techniques involving staying out of the sun during the hours when ultraviolet radiation is most intense. For the past 15 years, cultural references have provided a range of colours, and the “light tan” (Laronche, 2010) is akin to a new prescription.

Finally, tanning is a Western invention rooted in a “dream of ensauvagement” (Granger, 2017: p. 121), so its worldwide spread meets cultural filters. The positive connotation of pale white skin constitutes a structural cultural theme in certain Asian cultures at least (China, India, Japan, Korea, etc.). White, milky skin has been associated with purity in China at least since the 5th century BC, as attested by The Book of the Way and Virtue (Daodejing) whose authorship is symbolically attributed to Laozi (Coëffé et al., 2019).

But this norm has nothing to do with “acculturation” since it predates Western contact with East and Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, the hypothesis of the circulation of tanning beyond its place of invention is not untenable. Its appropriation is made possible in China by an increasing number of Chinese tourists revealing their bodies in different coastal places of the People’s Republic of China such as Hainan Island (Southern China), regularly represented as the “Chinese Hawaii,” even if the beach is still largely seen as a place of games and socialising.

In this context, the sport of surfing has also contributed to the popularity of tanning among a small number of Chinese people who have travelled and have connections with Western foreigners (ibid.). Chinese surfer Darci Liu, who has competed in world longboard competitions, is an exemplary figure of this “normative incorporation” (Coëffé, Guibert, Taunay, 2019).

Furthermore, in some of the most trendy places in the world, such as Shanghai, tanning salons have emerged since the mid-2000s, frequented by individuals intensely connected to “flows of globality and valuing the cult of the body as a hedonistic practice” (ibid.). But for the vast majority of Chinese, there is a distant relationship with the exposure of a bare body to the sun (Ill. 1), tanning being strongly associated with negative values, especially in the case of the female body that is kept under an umbrella (Duhamel, Violier, 2009).

Ill. 1. While wearing Hawaiian shirts, these Chinese tourists observe a beach in Hainan while staying out of the sunlight (photo by Vincent Coëffé, 2012).

Vincent Coëffé


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