Mongolia Ember relaxes at Blue Bay Beach.

Although tan skin has become an increasingly popular cosmetic look in recent years, women first began intentionally tanning their skin as early as the 1920s. This was a stark contrast to the pale-faced feminine and masculine images of beauty popular in centuries past. Pale-skin was once idealized because it represented a person’s high social status and wealth; a person with pale skin did not work as a laborer outdoors. However, this ideal was reversed when the fashions and lifestyles of women changed in the 1920s. Designer Coco Chanel was creating fashions that raised hemlines and bared arms while women of the house began to enjoy outdoor activities (Cool Nurse). Now tan skin had come to represent wealth and leisure; a person with tan skin could afford to take a vacation in a warm, exotic climate.

French sunbathers in the 1920s.

My friends and I on vacation in Costa Rica this year.

While the sun itself is not a technology, harnessing its power has become one. Tanning methods are technologies that have evolved over the decades. In the 1950s women used sun reflectors to direct the sun's rays towards their faces in order to receive a darker skin tone. Then, the first sunless tanning oils and lotions were developed.

(Photo by Gerry Cranham/Getty Images)


As time progressed, and people's schedules became increasingly busy, the first tanning salons were created in the 1980s in order to meet the demand tans in the winter for people who could not afford to take vacations to tropical climates. In today’s busy world people have become accustomed to instant gratification. Most people do not have the time, and many do not have the money, to take vacations to warmer locales. Instead, we have invented artificial methods that are quick and easy to tan our skin in order to achieve the sun’s darkening cosmetic effect. These artificial tanning methods allow you to change the color of their skin to a darker tone; to invent an appearance and perception of yourself that you weren’t born with. In American society tan skin has become a social standard of beauty. Models, actors, and various celebrities paired with the media have fueled America’s obsession with achieving the perfect golden-brown skin tone.

The technology of indoor tanning beds; they are designed to emit UVA and UVB rays to mimic the sun.

There are many methods that can be used in order to invent the illusion of tan skin. The most popular method among American youth is indoor tanning beds which are available in salons and can even be purchased for private in-home use. Most people are able to achieve a darker skin tone, but tanning sessions can be costly and have the same damaging effects of the sun: harmful UV rays that can cause redness, irritation, burning, and even lead to skin-cancer. More recently the beauty market has become saturated with sunless tanning lotions and products that promise a darker skin tone without the harmful effects that UV rays cause. There is the revolutionary MysticTan spray system, along with various foams, lotions, and creams that temporarily dye the top layer of the skin. However, health hazards or not, indoor tanning and sunless tanning products both contribute to the beauty illusion in American society.

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The beauty illusion is nothing new; it is an antique invention created to distract people from the content of who we are, and focus on what we look like instead. Although the beauty ideal may change with the times, its meaning does not. It is a social invention that allows people to easily separate themselves from one another and group themselves with others. A tanned physique has become a key component of today’s beauty illusion. It portrays a person as physically active and healthy, because darker skin is cognitively linked with working outside and exercising. It is also said to make you look thinner and your skin appear smoother. I do agree that there are cosmetic benefits to tan skin, and it does appeal to me. However, I do not use tanning beds, sunless tanning products, or sit on the beach for hours without sunscreen in hopes that my skin will burn to a golden-brown. The technology of tanning has become dangerous because tan skin has become a requirement to achieve today's beauty ideal, and today's beauty ideal has been given great social value.

Aside from the significant health problems that tanning with UV light poses to your personal health, inventing your concept of self based on physical appearances prohibits you from connecting with other people on a meaningful level. The same is true when it comes to judging other people solely based on appearances. I found this truth to be evident in our course reading “Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole and in Second Life.

The character Ignatius Reilly finds that his personality and physical appearance do not allow him to fit in with most people. He is fat, sloppy, and unfashionable, not to mention eccentric and narcissistic. However, most people judge Ignatius on his looks before they get the chance to discover his unsavory personal qualities. The character Burma Jones, an African-American man, is judged negatively based on the dark color of his skin. He is arrested for a crime that he clearly did not commit and exploited all because of his physical appearance. While Jones is viewed as unintelligent by his employer, it would have been worthwhile to have taken the time to connect with and get to know him because it is his at his hands which the characters are brought down in end.

Another invented world, Second Life, also demonstrates the insignificance of physical appearances. The beauty, no pun intended, of Second Life is that you can choose what you want your avatar to look like. In Second Life you can be tall, short, fat, dark-skinned, or even an animal. The fact that SL avatars are not real and do not necessarily represent anything from the real world allows people to use their avatars to connect with other real-people on a deeper level. SL helps strip people of their vanities, and their preconceptions, because it is very clear that what is seen on a computer screen in SL is not real. I must confess, however, that I have found myself to be guilty of committing the judgment that I so adamantly abhor. Just the other day, for example, I was visiting a beach and saw an avatar dressed in all black, with long, dark hair wearing a big hat and oversized trench coat. I tried to avoid this avatar because in my mind I had already made assumptions about the avatar's real-life person based on his appearance. Society has engraved in our minds that physical appearances are more valuable than the inner self, which is evident in my reaction to the way some avatars appear.

In Second Life I visited several beaches like Brasil Voice, Blue Bay Beach and Italian Dream, and Tropical Island Beach Resort. I found that at these places, people did not go there to tan, but rather relax and meditate. I found several beaches with beautiful scenery and some that even had designated places to meditate. Second Life has shown the reason that people visit these places, in reality and virtual reality, is to enjoy the beauty of nature, and take time to focus on them.

While the virtual technology of Second Life frees people from the vanity that plagues the real-world, the real-world technology of sunless tanning constrains people to their outward appearances. Instead of utilizing the beauty ideal of tan skin to fuel the more than $4.2 billion dollar sun tanning industry, a better alternative would be to use the power of the sun to invent who you are on the inside (American Demographics). Take a trip to South America and learn about another country; your skin is likely to tan in the tropic sun, while more importantly your mind will be cultured by your experience. Just recently I traveled to Costa Rica and received a deep tan, but I did so traveling to the National Park, swimming at the beach, and horseback riding. If you cannot afford to take an international trip, take a walk to your local park or take-up an outdoor activity. Doing so will allow you to achieve a tan skin tone, but will also keep you physically and mentally healthy as you get to spend time with yourself. Use the sun in a way that will improve your inner self, and not just your physical appearance, and you just might benefit from both.

While I do not support the beauty illusion that society has created, I do believe that the technology of harnessing the sun's power can be turned into something meaningful. So throw away your sunless tanner and tanning salon membership card, and get outside and live your life. The greatest beauty is one of a healthy body and soul; the eternal sunshine of the mind.

"Eternal Sunshine." A picture of the sunset in Costa Rica.

"Old Technology; New Use." My friend and I horsebackriding up a mountain in Costa Rica. We got great tans, but more importantly we were able to view amazing scenery and wildlife!

Works Cited:
*note: Some photographs are taken from outside sources in order to retrieve photos from different decades. In other cases, I was not permitted to photograph some of the tanning bed equipment.


A Great Enough Life
Eternal Sunshine of a Metaverse Explorer
Virtual Vacation
American Beauty