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skin color puzzle

Question for sociologists of race: In many cultures, darker skin is low status. However, tanning makes your skin darker and is often seen as an improvement. Why is tanning the exception to the dark skin/low status rule?

Written by fabiorojas

April 21, 2011 at 12:23 am

Posted in fabio, sociology

10 Responses

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  1. I’m pretty sure that light skin was high status among Europeans in the 19th century. I think the status value of tanning among Whites now is the implication that you have the leisure time to be outdoors. So I’d guess it is a shift from work being mostly outdoors to work being mostly indoors.

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    olderwoman

    April 21, 2011 at 12:39 am

  2. olderwoman also inserts an important clause by noting that the “tanning exception” in the U.S. seems to be entirely particular to Whites, as opposed to the entire population.

    Many African Americans still work to avoid prolonged sun exposure in an effort to reduce tanning.

    If I recall correctly, the narrowness of tanning as it relates to race popped up last year with the proposed tax on tanning salons in the health care bill. Those on the fringe right argued that taxing tanning salons was tantamount to a racial tax, and that the tax was an instance of Obama’s “reverse racism” against White people.

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    BC

    April 21, 2011 at 1:24 am

  3. Interesting data point: The student who brought this up was from India. He said he was surprised that women in American intentionally made their skin darker. This definitely suggests that the tanning exception is linked to wealth and being white.

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    fabiorojas

    April 21, 2011 at 1:53 am

  4. Fabio,

    Thorstein Veblen’s theory of CONSPICUOUS LESISURE (from his book THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS) may offer an explanation. In 19th Century European society, fair skin demonstrated not only that you didn’t have to be outside, but that you didn’t have to work — it conspicuously demonstrated that you had time for leisure. In contemporary society, where more middle-class people have indoor jobs, it is tanning that conspicuously demonstrates leisure. If you have time to get a tan, then you must not have to work much. If you add this explanation on top of a contagion one, then you might have a pretty powerful explanation.

    Michael

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    Michael T. Heaney

    April 21, 2011 at 4:45 am

  5. I believe that in Europe, the shift from the idealization of lily-whiteness to the preference for a tan had to do with foreign holidays. Returning home tanned showed that you had the time as well as money to spend several weeks on a beach someplace sunny in a time before air travel was affordable to the masses. So it is a case of conspicuous consumption, but not only of leisure per se but also of travel.

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    Sebastian

    April 21, 2011 at 4:55 am

  6. The conspicuous consumption of leisure idea works, but only to a degree. I’m thinking that as memberships to tanning salons become cheaper (and as tanning salons increased in number) the association of tanning with extended travel to warmer locales decreased. There is a limit to what we might consider tastefully tan, and that it is getting lower, not higher.

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    Melissa

    April 21, 2011 at 12:27 pm

  7. I don’t think it has as much to do with colonial-era exotic travel and conspicuous consumption.

    Here’s a more parsimonious explanation: we live in a u-shaped world. it’s not good looking to be pasty white (associated sickliness). But, given humanity’s blotted record with the subjugation of of people of color, once you start adding “too much” color, you return to the lower status world.

    Color and status is non-linear.

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    Harold

    April 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm

  8. >The conspicuous consumption of leisure idea works, but only to
    >a degree. I’m thinking that as memberships to tanning salons
    >become cheaper (and as tanning salons increased in number) the
    >association of tanning with extended travel to warmer locales
    >decreased. There is a limit to what we might consider tastefully
    >tan, and that it is getting lower, not higher.

    hence the fact that it is acceptable to ridicule someone for being “orange” whereas it would otherwise be offensive to speak critically of someone’s color.

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    gabrielrossman

    April 21, 2011 at 3:23 pm

  9. “But, given humanity’s blotted record with the subjugation of of people of color, once you start adding “too much” color, you return to the lower status world.”

    I come from a different culture than the one being discussed, but believe it or not, many bronze-skinned girls actually want to get *darker*, not whiter.

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    Guillermo

    April 21, 2011 at 7:23 pm

  10. […] Follow up to last week’s question about skin color. Are there any communities where natural dark skin color is prefered to light skin color? If so, can you specifiy under what conditions this occurs? […]

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