A few summers ago, I found myself people-watching in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood in Montreal, Quebec. The sun was blisteringly hot and every parent, child, and dog was slurping on a cool beverage. Despite the sunshine, most of the residents still donned their winter whites; they were not tan, unlike the European-descending Californians I have grown up alongside. Actually, compared to the caucasian Quebecois, Californians seemed unnaturally, and perhaps dangerously, dark.
As it turns out, unnatural and dangerous are fairly accurate descriptors of the Californian tan obsession. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, around 70 percent of tanning salon users are white girls and young women, with melanoma persisting as the second most common cancer in 15-29 year- old females. When used before the age of 35, tanning beds increase the likelihood of developing melanoma, the most fatal form of skin cancer, by 59 percent. With each use, the risk increases. Sensibly, our culture has moved away from bronzing by means of radiation; the percentage of white non-Hispanic women age 18-21 using tanning beds, the largest group of artificial tan-seekers, has dropped from 31.8 percent in 2010 to 20.4 percent in 2015 [Reuters].
This dip doesn’t mean Californians, and Americans, no longer desire picturesque tans. As long as our copper-coated northern neighbors extend lean, spray-tanned legs onto red carpets, the tan lust among those of us without personal spray tan artists will endure. Hollywood is the epicenter of idealistic appearances and lifestyles. Even if you only watch indie films set in wintry Brooklyn, chances are the actors and actresses have been tanned to some extent. Being so close to all the airbrushing and artificial lighting, Southern California locals are particularly susceptible to chasing after the Hollywood look. Hollywood Tans is one of the largest indoor tanning services in the country, and smarttan.com endorses spray tans by prompting potential clients to “Look at the celebs on the red carpet at Hollywood events. Look at the host on your favorite guilty-pleasure reality show.”
Within the American Dream, there is a California Dream. The Mamas and the Papas longingly sang for it in music that rode chart-topping waves, impressing an unblemished image of the golden state on the country. The Beach Boys doted ove
r the Dream too, wailing about surfing and dozing on the sandall day, blissfully ignorant of sunscreen applications, age spots, or potential death. Dermatologists insist on applying one ounce, or an entire shot glass-full, of sunscreen every two hours and after sweating or swimming. Tanning oils actually tell users not to apply sunscreen, as the two products would counteract one another. Besides, reapplying sunscreen until o
ur skin turns even whiter than before we set out to the shore would ruin the untroubled, lax ne plus ultra of the carefree Californian we have been persuaded to pursue.
In addition to the silver screen, our generation now has phone screens, yet another toxic ray of light convincing us that one must be tan to be beachy, and beachy to be authentically Californian. At-home tan products, such as Cocoa Brown and Tan Luxe, have been endorsed by stars with millions of followers such as Kylie Jenner and model Lily Donaldson. While dihydroxyacetone (DHA), the active ingredient in most self-tan lotions and scrubs, has not been found to pose any major health threats, teens are not as likely to buy them than they are to lie out at high noon to achieve longer-lasting results. Quality self-tan products can stack up to hundreds of dollars and require upkeep. Spending a full day at the beach, on the other hand, costs only gas money and lazy time off, a very California way to spend summer.
Over the past three decades, the number of melanoma patients has doubled in the United States [The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. How historically karmic would it be if this were the universal forces finally attaining vengeance for the heartbreaking skin bleaching outbreak among the African-American community. Today, the societal connection between lighter brown skin and power persists; in slave-owning America, slaves with a fairer complexion were identified as containing a master’s blood, which was perceived as the superior lineage. Mass advertisement then led to widespread skin bleaching in the African American community over the past four decades. Colorism Healing reports that up to 52-77% of women in some African cities still used skin lighteners in 2012. But fake tanning is not an attempt to look less racially white, although I have caught myself saying that I feel more “exotic” with a tan. Tanning is an attempt by society to look the same culturally: glistening like those in billionaire-dollar enterprises based heavily in appearances and, unknowingly, withered by sunspots and cancer in old age, hidden under sun hats we now find unfashionable.