To look at our political candidates, you might think that orange-hued skin is all the rage. Donald Trump springs to mind, but he is not the only candidate who has turned to spray-tanning in an effort to improve his appearance. Mitt Romney also used tanner during the 2012 campaign. These aesthetic alterations are intended to make the candidates look better. “Tans,” a news-service cosmetic artist once told me as she made my skin four shades pinker, “make people look healthy and relaxed.” She’s correct that these are the social and cultural connotations of tanned skin. But tanning as a practice is a relatively new arrival to the beauty scene; until the nineteenth century pallor was the skin tone of choice. And people employed a whole host of dangerous beauty treatments in order to achieve it.
For the ancient Greeks and Romans a pale complexion was deemed the most desirable. Roman love poetry extols the merits of the radiantly white girl and Greek mythology admires the pale-armed heroines and goddesses like Andromache and Hera. Paleness was seen as a marker of beauty but also, for some, as an indication of character. Aristotle’s Physiognomy relates that “a vivid complexion shows heat and warm blood, but a pink-and-white complexion proves a good disposition.”
More than character, however, pale skin was a marker of social status and class. It was a sign that women (and men) did not have to engage in the kind of menial work that would take them outside into the sun. In women paleness had a kind of moral dimension: it was a sign that a woman had remained in the household and, as Caesar might put it, was “above reproach.”
The preoccupation with pale radiant beauty even had a religious dimension. Sixth-century mosaics from a church in Ravenna, Italy, depict a procession of male and female saints in heaven as pale, aristocratic, Roman Stepford Wife-like figures, in near-identical attire. The only way to identify the saints is by the names above their heads. The mosaics are illustrative of the Greco-Roman preoccupation with uniformity, but, as I have argued in an academic article, they are also an act of what we might call ancient whitewashing: They impose Roman beauty standards on North African saints.
Paleness, of course, is relative. Life in southern Italy and Greece does not lend itself to pallor and, thus, Roman aristocrats turned to cosmetics: predominantly chalk but sometimes also lead to whiten their faces. They weren’t alone. Their medieval counterparts used lotions made of violet and rose oil to protect their skin from the sun. It’s difficult to imagine these sunscreens were effective but, then again, many modern sunscreens also fall short.
During the Renaissance, Elizabethan women used ceruse, a lead-based white paint that was made with vinegar, to lighten the color of their faces. Queen Elizabeth I herself was a great fan of ceruse, highlighting the blue veins at her temples as part of an effort to appear youthful. As Sarah Jane Downing has described, the Elizabeth-effect boosted the popularity of skin lightening: just as her courtiers dyed their hair red to emulate her appearance so too they adapted her maquillage. Skin-whitening cosmetics made from toxic substances like lead and mercury continued to be used to conceal the marks of diseases like smallpox well into the eighteenth century.
The price for the skin whitening was steep. Lead-based makeup not only ate into skin (causing the wearer to apply more of the toxic substance), it could also lead to lead poisoning and death. Maria Gunning, the Countess of Coventry, one of English society’s most celebrated 18th-century debutantes, died at the age of 28 from lead poisoning. The cause of her death was well known to those at the time. Sir Horace Walpole remarked in 1760 that she and others had been killed by white lead. If dying for lighter skin seems absurd, bear in mind that many modern skin lighteners also contain harmful bleaching agents, including mercury.
Given that paleness enjoyed such popularity for so long, one might wonder how by the 1960s television advertisements were filled with long, lithe, tanned Caucasian bodies. An internet search on this subject might lead you to Coco Chanel and a widely held opinion that the fashion icon started the tanning fad after accidentally getting sunburned. As Kerry Segrave, author of Suntanning in America, has demonstrated, the story is a myth. The rise of tanning can be traced to a late-19th-century medical movement that focused on the sun as a healer. Sun exposure was used as a treatment for a number of ailments: most notably tuberculosis but occasionally even depression. It was the medical establishment that made tanning fashionable.
By the first decade of the 20th century, attitudes were already softening, Segrave cites a 1905 editorial decrying those who thought they were “getting back to nature and laying in a stock of health” by going bareheaded. The hapless editor was unable to stem the tide of change: by the 1960s tanning began to be associated with athletics and leisure time. People who were tanned were no longer seen as the working classes, but rather people with time to kill. Thus even though tanning was strongly associated with notions of health, the desirability of skin tone as a marker of wealth remained a constant. Classism was alive and well. By World War II women were using tea-bags as self-tanners.
The elephant in the room throughout all of this history is that the preoccupation with paleness is as racist as it is classist. While the rise of tanning in the 1960s lines up chronologically with the civil rights movement, there’s no connection between the two. The recent preoccupation with tanned Caucasian skin cannot truly be said to have ushered in more diverse ideas of beauty that embraced darker skin tones for African-Americans or Latinos. As a number of sociological studies have shown, African-Americans with lighter skins tones face fewer societal barriers. The vacillating cultural aesthetics of Caucasian-dominated advertising and social ideals have not positively affected larger issues of discrimination and prejudice. If anything they reinscribe them.