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Updated 28 March 2014

A history of tanning

Think of the Baroque paintings that graced the pages of your art history book. You'll remember seeing plump, white ladies posing naked on comfy armchairs. So, what happened?

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Think of the Baroque paintings that graced the pages of your art history book at school. You'll probably remember seeing plump, white ladies posing naked on comfy armchairs.

Those were the days when a lighter shade of pale was the thing. Today, most women would die of embarrassment should anyone see them in their birthday suits after a bleak winter season. But as recently as 100 years ago, the word "tanning" wasn't part of the vocabulary.

So, what happened? Why are we at a point where up to 60 000 deaths a year are caused by too much exposure to the sun?

We take a brief look at how things developed over the years:

  • Pale, white skin first became popular in ancient Rome. At the time, it was popular to "bleach" skin with lead-based paints and chalks.
  • In 16th century England – the time of Shakespeare – pale skin was associated with a higher social status. Some pale-faced women even painted blue lines on their skin to make it appear translucent. Tanned skin was a feature of the working class, who worked outdoors, while the rich preferred to stay indoors.
  • In the 18th and 19th century, untanned skin remained fashionable. During this time, French aristocracy powdered their faces to ensure an even lighter complexion.
  • In the 1920s, French designer Coco Chanel became the first woman to make a tanned skin more acceptable. She accidentally tanned while on holiday and, on her return, a trend was set.
  • By the 1930s, darker skin became even more popular – the result of a growing interest in outdoor activities, such as walking and cycling.
  • At the time World War II ended, the tanning trend continued as more and more people could afford cheap package holidays to sunny destinations.
  • In the 1950s, bikinis were introduced and self-tanning products became popular.
  • By the 1960s, the situation of the earlier centuries was totally reversed. During this time, most jobs were done indoors and a tanned skinned actually signified wealth and higher social status.
  • In the mid-1980s, the first warnings of the dangers of tanning started to emerge. The American Academy of Dermatology set a campaign in motion to warn the public about the risks of sun exposure. But the beaches remained packed – a deep brown tan was still associated with being healthy and beautiful. During this time, tanning beds also became popular.
  • By the 1990s, more and more warnings were issued as skin cancer rates grew dramatically. Greater awareness was created in terms of the depletion of the ozone layer and its negative effects. But while the use of sunscreen lotions became more popular, many people still chose to spend their days in the sun.
  • At this moment in time, we know that Australia and South Africa have the highest incidence of melanoma, a dangerous type of skin cancer. We also know that sunbeds are just as unsafe as the midday sun and that the best way to protect yourself is to minimise your exposure to all forms of UVA and UVB rays.

(Carine van Rooyen, Health24)

Read more on myths on the skin and sun

References:

  • Hawk, J.L.M. McGregor, J. (2000-2005) Understanding your skin: sunlight & skin cancer. Family Doctor Publications.
  • Author unknown. (2006) Sun tanning. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

 
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