Social Question

OpryLeigh's avatar

Why is tanning for "beauty" considered less offensive or racist than skin lightening products?

Asked by OpryLeigh (25300points) September 28th, 2009
39 responses
“Great Question” (11points)

In certain parts of the world where people have naturally dark skin there are plenty of products available to help lighten the skin purely for cosmetic reasons but many people consider them to be offensive to people with darker skin. However, no one seems to worry about the amount of artificial tanning products there are available to people with lighter skin and many people (where I am from at least) seem to believe that you are more attractive if you have darker skin and so they will use sunbeds, tanning products etc (we don’t have much sunshine here even in the summer so we are lucky if we see enough sun to get a natural suntan).

Why is one considered more offensive than the other?

Taking away any health issues that either may cause. I am talking purely about the cosmetic aspect.

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dpworkin's avatar

I have never heard that lightening products are offensive. I do think that they are poignant, and unnecessary, because what they imply is that darker skin is not a factor for beauty, a thought with which I disagree. I’m sorry there are people who internalize this sort of cultural norm, but if they do, and lighter skin makes them feel more attractive, who am I to disapprove?

Saturated_Brain's avatar

What an interesting way to look at our conception of beauty. GQ for that.

I’m actually inclined to agree with you that there’s probably a racist undertone in there somewhere. Probably people saying/thinking, “Why would you want to be more white? Aren’t you proud of your own colour?” Yet we don’t really care when people want to tan themselves. Very very very interesting….

However, do you have any facts/figures to back the claim up that people would consider it racist to lighten your skin?

I’m just trying to be objective here. If basing it on anecdotal evidence, I suppose I could just cite Michael Jackson


Of course, there’s another cultural aspect to this. The Japanese actually traditionally considered light skin to be beautiful. And as far as I know, the West had comparatively little to do with that.

aprilsimnel's avatar

For a lot of people of all shades, naturally dark skin = low class. As long as, in aggregate, Northern Euros are socially on top, then pale skin that can go back and forth because the person in it is rich enough for leisure will be the most desired, openly or not so openly.

People of colour who see the skin -lightening products for the dangerous shell game that it is are angry that there’s millions of people out there thinking if only I were as light as white people, then I’d be worthy. And it’s a crock. They are already worthy.

And then there’s tons of white people out there who think, if only I looked like the type who could holiday in St. Tropez, then I’d be worthy. Also a crock. They’re OK too.

Both tanning booth outlets and skin-lightening companies are feeding on peoples’ insecurities. It’s sad. But there’s enough information about how dangerous these things are and enough validation out there for anyone who wants it, so adults doing this are making a choice.

I’m recalling being screamed at as a kid to get out of the sun so that I wouldn’t tan. And all the adults around me who cooed over my relatively paler skin and straighter hair as a child. It’s all about who’s top dog socially.

OpryLeigh's avatar

@pdworkin That’s true but do you not think that tanning products do the same in reverse? Do they not imply that lighter skin is not a factor for beauty?

Btw I didn’t realise they were concerned offensive until recently either but that’s probably because I didn’t realise that skin lightening was that bigger deal in certain countries

MissAnthrope's avatar

@Leanne1986 – You have a good point here.. tan is now the beauty ideal. I know this from the number of times people feel they have to point out how white I am, sometimes with a mocking tone, as if I’m personally responsible for my natural skin color, or that it’s some sort of defect I have control over. I have to pointedly explain myself, that I’m ¾ Scottish and I don’t tan easily, on top of that, my grandfather died of melanoma at 39, so why the hell would I purposely expose myself to the sun?

OpryLeigh's avatar

@Saturated_Brain I have no facts or figures but the reason I am lead to believe that skin lighte4ning products are considered offensive is because of a discussion I had on another forum about a year ago on this very subject. I knew little about it then so didn’t really participate but just read what others had to say. Apparently skin lightening in Asia was particularly popular for cosmetic reasons but then political correctness stepped in and, as @pdworkin said claimed that by encouraging people to buy these products it is basically telling them that beauty comes with having fair skin.

I can understand this but believe it should work both ways. I feel that beauty comes in all skin colours. I am naturally “olive” skinned and wouldn’t choose to lighten it at all but I have friends with very fair skin that are stunning but they want to be tanned regardless of how often they are told that there skin is beautiful as it is.

noodle_poodle's avatar

because people are bonkers…incidentally why is there no cosmetics for me when i want to go blue huh? or orange i mean if you want to change your colour why not really go for it?

Facade's avatar

Because for a long time, having dark skin was considered ugly. Some people still believe that. Using skin bleaching products implies that there is something wrong about your skin tone.
Also, “tanning” happens naturally when you are out in the sun, unlike lightening your skin.

dpworkin's avatar

I wasn’t asked about tanning products, but I feel precisely the same way about them.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m not sure about racism, but I am sure about stupidity. I don’t know how black folk lighten their skin, but I can’t imagine it is a healthy process. Similarly, tanning is turning out to be pretty dangerous for light-skinned folk. It raises the risk of skin cancer, especially for those who are the lightest of the light.

Funny this question should show up, because I work on a college campus, and this morning I was noting to myself that there seemed to be a ton of women who looked like they just got back from Spring Break. I wondered if they could have jetted off to Florida for the weekend, and then I remembered about those spray-on tans and UV light tans. I was even considering asking a question about it.

Anyway, notions of beauty seem to be strongly influenced by cultural preferences (although I do think some of it is innate). Clearly, the more beautiful you are, the more income you’ll make and the higher your status will be. Another thing that’s strange to me is that beauty is correlated with intelligence. Perhaps people strive to enhance their beauty in order to get folks to pay attention to their intelligence?

Hmmm. That was a toss-off line, but now that I think about it…. Yeah, in a racist or sexist society, women may be overlooked or dismissed as irrelevant unless they can get attention by being beautiful. To the extent that beauty is controllable (or fakeable), it seems like it would be an advantage, status-wise, to enhance it. It could result in higher income as well as higher status.

The fact that beauty is correlated with intelligence does not tell us whether intelligence brings along beauty, or beauty brings along intelligence. It could be a purely cosmetic thing—smart people are more likely to pay attention to their appearance.

In any case, as to this question—I’m not sure it is at all easy (or even possible) to disentangle the impact of racism, sexism or economic stratification from each other with respect to the impact of beauty in our lives. My guess is that people who see the world through highly race conscious eyes will call it racism. People who think gender is the most important difference will see this as sexism. Economists might see it as a reasonable response for people who are trying to improve their economic circumstances.

Now I have to take back my first paragraph. At least, partially. Attempts to conform to cultural prejudices with respect to beauty may be stupid in terms of health consequences, but they could be smart in terms of status consequences. If it is primarily about status, then I don’t think it will ever change, no matter what “ism” people attach to it. No matter what our cultural standard of beauty is, people will always try to emulate it as a route to raise their status.

If we want to change this practice, I think we have to change our standards of beauty. Personally, it color of skin doesn’t detract from anyone’s beauty. In fact, it enhances it. I think I’m more attracted to women who look more different from me than I am to those who look similar to me, skin-color-wise. There’s evidence that my preference is innate. When people study choices in mates, they find that there is a preference to go outside the tribe, and to seek out differences. This may be because mating folks with more genetic differences leads to healthier children.

As much as people want to conform to conventional standards of beauty, it seems to me that there is also the opposite inclination. People want to look different, as well. I believe that looking different can confer status as much as it can reduce status. It’s a crap shoot, I guess. People will choose a strategy with respect to beauty that conforms with their prevailing view of human preferences, I think.

Thus, I have to, at least partially, disagree with the premise of this question. Some people may lighten or darken skin, and some people may consider lightening to be more racist than darkening. However for every person who thinks this way, I’m pretty sure there are an equal number of people who think that covering over natural beauty actually makes the person look less beautiful. I mean, look at Michael Jackson! Quod Erat Demonstratum! I rest my case.

MissAnthrope's avatar

I’ve noticed a trend over the course of history—beauty trends seem to follow whatever the wealthiest echelon of society does. Hundreds of years ago, it was quite fashionable to have milky, flawless white skin. Any sign of sun exposure was considered a flaw, much less a tan complexion on the whole, which would indicate you spent time laboring outdoors.

It also was more fashionable to be plump or overweight, which was an indication of being well-fed, hence, also one of wealth.

These days, tan is considered the ideal, as is being skinny, because people with money can afford to buy high quality whole foods and to hire dietitians and personal trainers. They also can afford to tan, go on more vacations to sunny destinations, etc. etc.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Because light skinned people are in power in a lot of places and they can do whatever they want to their skin

JLeslie's avatar

I have found that even within the black community lighter is scene as better or more attractive in America. I had one work friend who was black from the islands and she loved to get very black, went out in the sun to “tan.” It seems to me that black people pay more attention to it than white people regarding black people, if that makes sense? I saw an Oprah episode where this black woman was very upset her son was so dark. I felt awful for the kid, he was attractive and thank goodness on his way to college; I wanted him to get away from his mother and family that was putting this crap in his head.

I am very pale white, easily burn, and I would love to be naturally two shades darker. My husband is darker than I am and I look WHITE in pics beside him, which I don’t like; part of this is because of the SPF stuff in lotions and make-up foundations show up white in photos. It kind of makes sense that maybe tan skin looks healthier, because now that I know what I know about vitamin D, exposure to some sun is a good thing. Kind of like women with long hair and an hour glass figure are perceived as healthy and fertile.

But many cultures see being sun exposed as lower class, working in the fields, etc. In America in th elast 100 years it is associated with having enough money to have leasure time and vacation.

Now, most dark skinned people can be lighter just by putting on SPF like us white afraid of a sunburn people do. My husband is pretty fair naturally, but an hour in the sun and it kisses him to a perfect bronze—I hate him. And, darker people naturally hold onto their tans much longer than us pale white people (they also have more trouble getting rid of discoloration marks like pregnancy brown marks because they hold onto their color better). If you are dark, but the parts of you that don’t see the sun are the color you want to be, I think it better to just wear the SPF, it is safer than lightening creams.

In my opinion I think pretty is pretty regardless of skin color. If you have facial features that are considered attractive (this changes a little over time and by country) no matter what color you are you look good. Halle Berry with darker skin is still pretty and still has a hot body.

deni's avatar

Wha? Either of them are offensive?

aprilsimnel's avatar

@deni – I don’t know about tanning for white people, but I grew up in the US with the idea that trying to lighten naturally dark skin with chemicals = trying to look like white people = betraying/trying to run away from your heritage and identity, and to a lot of people of colour, that’s highly offensive.

Facade's avatar

@aprilsimnel Yet, not many people are offended when black people change the chemical makeup of their hair so they can look more “european.” Except me, it offends me.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@aprilsimnel @Facade and me and Alex and my best friends

aprilsimnel's avatar

@Facade – You’re not alone in that, no fear.

Buttonstc's avatar

As long as the hair issue has been brought in, I’m curious about something. How come we never see Afros like there were back in the 70s.

I just thought they were really beautiful and when some of the little girls in my class came strutting in to school sporting
their first Afro they just looked so happy and proud and relishing all the compliments they received. It just brings back fond memories for me.

I do realize that styles go in and out of fashion in both white and black cultre, but there are usually a few who keep a favorite style regardless of what fashion dictates.

You just never see them at all anymore which is kind of a shame. I just wonder why.

aprilsimnel's avatar


Hair is so fraught with stereotypes and issues, especially in corporate environments.

Buttonstc's avatar

Oh gosh, I was so wrapped up in my little nostalgia trip down memory lane that hair politics was miles away.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this culture allowed that to be all the time. A constant vacation from hair politics. :)

deni's avatar

Why does this have to be about offending an entire race? I’m sorry, but if I see a white person who is extremely fake tan, I think “wow, that person looks bad”. I don’t think “why are they trying to look like another race? I am very offended by this!” I’m not so sure I’ve ever seen a black person who turned lighter, except for Michael Jackson, whatever his deal was which none of us will probably know. But it’s a personal thing. If I’m one color and for some reason I want to look another, that really isn’t anyone else’s business.

RedPowerLady's avatar

Here is my initial reaction without reading anyone else’s responses.

I think the answer has to do with the reasoning behind the use of the products and the histories of oppression involved.

With skin whitening creams people are attempting to be of a lighter skin tone because lighter skin is considered more beautiful. But why? Often their are caste systems where light-skinned people are treated better. This is about oppression. People are lightening their skin to make their lives easier and to make themselves more beautiful.

Now the opposite is true for tanning. First of all we must make a distinguishment that has been missed. When people tan they are absolutely not trying to make themselves the same color as the people who have faced histories of oppression. Tanning is seen as a sign of affluence, not as a sign of being “darker” per say. In the past, before tanning booths, the light skinned people who would get tanned are typically upper-class citizens who would summer at expensive beaches etc… It is something others started emulating likely to be like the upper class. It is absolutely not done however to look “dark”. Just to look like they’ve been in the sun, tanned.

JLeslie's avatar

Now that we bring up hair…I do see around Memphis, especially some of the younger men and women, even teens, afros and more natural hairdos and they look great. What I think looks bad and is a hair style that looks very assymetrical, drastically different in the front than the back, or different from one side to the other, but this is true on white women also. It looks low class. If you have a mullet you are probably not bringing home an income of $250K or more, you just don’t look appropriate for executive positions in my opinion. If you have what I call a reverse mullet, like Kate Gosselin you also look kinda lower middle class, although she makes a ton of money. And, by the way, us white girls have to do a ton of crap to our hair to make it look the way it does also. I don’t know if we can say that there was a trend to have black girls style their hair like white girls, when I have been permed, straightened, buy expensive products, curlers, and more. I don’t think it has much to do with race and more to do with social class.

I agree with @deni that we are not trying to become a different race when we tan or lighten. We are trying to become what we feel is most attractive within our own race in my opinion. And, when it goes too far most people view it negatively. I have seen more than one tanarexic in my day.

Interestingly, I seems everyone is going for a middle brown color.

Facade's avatar

@Buttonstc I have a fro, but with my hair type, it doesn’t look like the fros you mentioned
@aprilsimnel Tyra pissed me off with that move. That’s not her “real hair.” It’s processed.

JLeslie's avatar

Tyra did say that her hair is kinky down by her roots, she just meant it was not a fall, wig, or weave. I don’t think she tried to deceive anyone.

Facade's avatar

No, but her thinking that she did something fantastic by not wearing a wig is…not right

JLeslie's avatar

I think she has always been kind of full of herself. But I like that she has been consistently honest about fake hair.

Facade's avatar

I agree.

Buttonstc's avatar


Ya know when I thought about it a little more after posting I thought that part of the reason that fros haven’t been resurrected as much as other 70s styles in clothing and such might be due to the huge amounts of time and money required for proper styling and maintenance. They certainly needed a lot of both. :)

However, I realized that some of the current styles popular now which rely upon “locking” and complex braiding patterns take easily 2–4X the amount of effort time and money sort of negates that theory.

So I’m still wondering but realizing that for me it has most to do with how much I miss the 70s. It was just such a happy and creative time in my life and many others.

Facade's avatar

Wearing your natural texture takes no more time/money than processing it, unless you have locs or braids… the 70s sound so fun

Buttonstc's avatar

The fros from back in those days definitely did require a lot of maintenance as they had to be precisely shaped, clipped etc without any stray hairs. Sort of like the art of Bonsai for trees. I assume you’ve seen photos of some of the singing groups or the TV series Mod Squad. Not a hair out of place. A real work of art. Not processed at all but definitely high maintenance. But gorgeous.

OpryLeigh's avatar

@JLeslie and @deni I agree with you both. I am never personally offended when I see a dark skinned person who has cosmetically lightened their skin or a fair skinned person who has tanned their skin (wither naturally or from a bottle). Likewise I don’t care what a black woman does with her hair because like @JLeslie said, white women do an awful lot to their hair in order to fit in with what may be fashionable at the time. If you feel something makes you more attractive that is your business just please don’t kill yourself or cause serious health problems in the process.

OpryLeigh's avatar

@Facade I’m assuming that is you in your picture and, in which case, I have to say your hair looks awesome!

Facade's avatar

@Leanne1986 Lol, no, that’s just a picture I found on google. My hair does look awesome though, so thank you :)

tiffyandthewall's avatar

i don’t know! plenty of people were upset that michael jackson lightened his skin, and when beyonce’s skin looked lighter in that one makeup ad, but no one throws a fit over anyone’s tan.
i guess it’s because being ‘white’ has been a ‘beauty standard’ for so long, that now it’s as if you’re not proud of having dark skin. but i think that’s stupid. not that i’d encourage to lighten their skin, but i think it’s a wacky double standard.

L0v3miam0r's avatar

To Leanne1986, not to sound too criticizing but regarding your comment stating that lightening skin was unnatural whereas tanning was natural is competely false. There are numerous of natural occurring ways your skin lightens for instance, when after tanning which your skin only does because it’s your skins way of defending it’s pigmentation and being tanned is just a physical matter of the damage caused to skin, some just sunburn where the skin doesn’t even have enough I believe it’s melanonin to protect the skin whereas people with melanin tan thus able to prevent the skin from being damaged as much and as quickly but they too can get sunburned as well. Also, there really is no such thing as unnatural because whether its manmade or not, however it’s made, every part of it’s foundatioj derives from this earth so when people refer to “unnatural” it really means toxic/full of toxins or its harmful. So as I was saying, after tanning your skin lightens from healing b peeling or fading the damaged tanned skin, so this case scenario right here alone goes to show that tanning if anything is “unnatural” per say, also if you just stay out of the sun your skin will lose color, that also is a natural way of lightening you skin, and i can go on and on, titanium dioxide a natural light reflecting mineral so much so it’s white itself and is used in (natural/organic/nonpreservative) sunblock products, this also is a way to lighten your skin, allinall, just protecting your skin from being damaged by the sun is a way of lightening your skin naturally tanning, is only your body’s way of defending itsel and specifically it’s vital organ being skin.

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