Enter the quintessential Australian rite of passage: For the first 13 years of my life, my parents insisted on slathering me in SPF50+ before heading to the beach. I resisted most times, to the point of sobbing. So, when my parents started to let me go to the beach with my friends, I would skip the sunscreen and bake like a potato.
Frankly, I have the pandemic to thank for my induction into the world of sun protection. During the initial lockdown of 2020, I would doom-scroll through TikTok. Despite the detrimental effects TikTok has had on our collective attention spans, it has taught me a lot. Landing on ‘SkinTok’, I found out that, unlike myself, many people wore sunscreen every day, not just when they went to the beach (imagine the shock! the horror!). I could not fathom that someone would willingly subject themselves daily to the greasiness I had despised.
After much self-reflection on my sun habits, I realised that simply changing locations, be it the beach or the Alumni Green, does not allow me to escape from the dangers of sun exposure. If anything, I was more protected on the occasional days I would go to the beach than during my day-to-day commutes around Sydney. Notably, research from the Cancer council
I recently asked some friends if they use sunscreen daily. They don’t. In fact, most of them still tan whenever the UV is high despite knowing the dangers of prolonged sun exposure. The tanning phase that ended for me had not ended for many people I know. As someone who lives near the beach, I know tanning is socially acceptable and somewhat of a pastime for many – but should it be? Should children as young as ten be comparing tan lines and complaining about how pale they are (something I have experienced first-hand)?
Where did tanning even come from?
According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, fair skin has been a recurring symbol of "beauty, wealth, and refinement"
The 1920s saw a shift in people's attitudes towards the relationship between status and tanned skin. US Vogue and Harper's Bazaar were some of the most notable archives from the time which illustrated this shift. A study published by American dermatologist Dr Jo Martin reveals that during the summer months of 1927 in the United States, Vogue published just one article in their magazine that advocated tanning. In 1928, a total of ten articles advocating tanning were published in their summer issues. This increased to twelve in 1929. Thus became the genesis of a culture of tanning heavily prevalent to this day.
Overlooking this, there is an interesting tension between Western culture and suntanning. Since these summer issues of Vogue, suntanning has evolved into an act associated with class. Like the women pictured in these archived articles, suntanning is luxurious. Women lounge in beach chairs, relaxed by the ocean with sunglasses to shield their faces. Laying in the sun and relaxing by the beach are activities affordable only to those who do not need to prioritise working or surviving. Thus, the suntan symbolises a degree of wealth.
Deeper than this, in a modern landscape, to tan is to opt into having colour. Colour that can fade. A tan is mutable. Hence, to tan is to endow white people with the power to play with the aesthetics of people of colour. In America, the soul of the United States was built on the backs of the enslaved people brought over during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Journalist Wesley Morris maps the evolution of music in the United States and how Black music has become the backbone of the country's holistic culture, from the minstrel roots during the Jim Crow era to contemporary Hip Hop culture. Ultimately, he highlights how even the culture of white America, most visually recognised through the aesthetics of white country music, is indirectly inspired by minstrel music made by enslaved African Americans during Jim Crow. At its essence, Black culture has historically and contemporarily influenced the mainstream culture within the United States and, arguably, the world.
Contemporaneously, the evolution of suntanning and its counterpart, fake tanning, can also endow lighter-skinned people with proximity to Blackness without experiencing the systems of oppression that Black people face in being born with darker skin. The act of suntanning is a subtle acknowledgement that white people can wear the colour of Black and Brown people temporarily but without abandoning their whiteness. Tanning is the tool with which white people can indulge in the culture of Blackness, which is the soul of contemporary culture, but, due to their whiteness, remain palatable to their white peers. This idea is observed in the appropriation of Black culture by the Kardashians, an ethnically Armenian-American family with no individual ties to African American culture outside of the partners they are now married to.
Perpetuation of the suntan
From a safety standpoint, suntanning is unsafe. According to Cancer Australia, melanoma was the 11th most common cause of death from cancer in 2022. Amongst many older generations, the culture of suntanning is primarily frowned upon -- these generations being the ones habitually exposed to preventative cancer TV commercials throughout their life. However, with the rise of 'watch later' services like Netflix and the surge in popularity of quick video entertainment like TikTok, younger generations have been missed in the targeting for melanoma awareness campaigns due to the preference for alternatives to television.
It is unsurprising then that younger children are idolising the ritual of suntanning; TikTok’s algorithm regularly feeds us content of It-Girls sitting at the beach or dancing with their tan lines on show. With trending hashtags like #Europeansummer garnering hundreds of millions of views, the resurgence of the culture of suntanning is self-evident. The lack of skin cancer awareness combined with the aestheticization of summer tans popularised on TikTok has led to the materialisation of melanoma and the perspective that:
Skin cancer is something that happens to other people, not me.
After much backlash from the Melanoma Institute of Australia at the tail-end of 2022, TikTok partnered with the institute to raise awareness of the vulnerability of young Australians to melanoma under a campaign titled ‘Tanning. That’s Cooked’.
In a media release on December 1st 2022, the Melanoma Institute of Australia announced the campaign was to be rolled out over the summer of 2022-2023, using humour to deromanticise the culture of tanning and “highlight the dangers and the craziness of cooking yourself in the sun like a sausage on a BBQ.”
They further highlighted that “TikTok is confident that every 20 to 39-year-old Aussie using their platform will see the Tanning. ‘That’s Cooked.’ messaging.”
So how can we change?
Ultimately, covering up and wearing sunscreen is one of the most effective ways to prevent the dangers associated with sun exposure whilst still being able to enjoy the outdoors. According to Terry Slevin for the Cancer Council, SPF50+ Sunscreen filters out 98% of UV radiation, meaning just one-fiftieth of UV radiation gets through the sunscreen to our skin. Sunscreen’s purpose, as Slevin notes, is to filter UV radiation and prevent the biological process of tanning. So, if you are still getting a decent tan even after applying sunscreen, you need to use more sunscreen, reapply more often, or spend less time in the sun.
This piece isn't to boycott the beach or cancel anyone with a tan line; I still get them too. During the summer months, my Korean skin turns three shades darker by simply being out and about. However, perhaps it is important to unpack our obsessions with tanning in a cultural sphere, if not to take sun exposure more seriously for the sake of personal health.
If your skin doesn’t naturally darken to the colour you desire during the summer by simply being under the sun, and you have to toast your body for lengths at a time, perhaps it isn’t a safe thing to inflict upon yourself.
About two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer in their lifetime, and according to Arpansa, UV-induced skin cancer is almost entirely preventable. If not for yourself, consider your attitude towards the sun for the impressionable youths around you. If not for them, do it so I still have friends at 70. Please.