Is tanning 'cultural appropriation'?

As a girl living in the UK, this is a topic I was itching to address, since it’s true that we use a disproportionate amount of fake tan in this country. My Spanish and French housemates have noticed too: “Why are girls so orange here?” I’d be quite intrigued to get to the bottom of this national obsession (I suspect TOWIE has something to do with it), but that’s a question for another time.

Before you roll your eyes and dismiss this as another case of political correctness gone mad, spoiler: it’s not just about fake tan. The short answer is no, for a lot of people tanning is just a means for them to look their best i.e. trying to evoke that sun-kissed, carefree, healthy summer look. One girl tanning her legs so they don’t look like marshmallows isn’t the problem, the problem seems to be the trend of looking racially ambiguous and the subsequent rise of those capitalising on it via social media. Instagram is full of them: “slim thicc” girls with plumped lips, halos of gravity-free curly hair or gelled edges, thick eyebrows and caramel complexions. You assume they’re non-white or mixed race, but do a little research for their before pictures and you’ll see it…

Swedish Instagram model, Emma Hallberg.

This photo of Emma from 2016 reveals that although she was not naturally pale, there is a noticeable difference on the right.

 Take 19-year-old Swedish model Emma Hallberg, who is just shy of 300k followers, even post-controversy. A photo of her from 2016 was recently dug up by internet sleuths, showing her to be rosy-cheeked, sleek-haired and thinner-lipped rather than the mixed-race Instagram baddie she made herself out to be. She responded to the accusations by asserting that she never claimed to be anyone but herself and did not assume another race. However, Lynda Cowell’s article for Gal-dem (titled, “’Blackfishing’ isn’t modern-day blackface, but it needs to end now”) interestingly brought up that although Emma may not have claimed another race, she certainly didn’t correct the black-woman-appreciation accounts that reposted her photos on social media. 

This photo from Instagram model Jaiden Gumbayan was seen as particularly problematic since the caption she used to accompany it spoke of embracing her natural beauty (which, if you look at the picture below, you can spot the problem with).

 Then there’s Jaiden Gumbayan, a Floridian Instagram model who boasts over 40k followers. It seems that being called out has left her quite shaken, since a quick scroll through her account revealed that the most controversial photos are gone and she’s looking a lot paler again. Or Polish-born British woman Aga ‘Alicja’ Brzostowska, with almost 30k followers, who came under fire last year for her over-tanning and adoption of black features. The swarm of hate got so intense that she took to video to defend herself. Although her actions certainly did not warrant the death threats she received, I cannot say she is completely in the right either. She was adamant that her lips and figure were surgery-free and that she was naturally olive-toned anyway. That’s all fair enough, but even an olive-toned white person is still white/white-passing, meaning they get to avoid the societal and institutional ramifications of having darker skin. Which is why masquerading as a “mixed thickie” is a bit insensitive. And don’t get me started on, “I might be Polish but I’m not white white.” 

A photo which Alicja posted to her Instagram and still remains, except with the comments disabled.

An old photo of Alicja. I remember having a t-shirt like this in Year 8. Oh, the fashion staples of 2013...

 Beauty standards change along with popular culture, and the pendulum has swung from the blonde, white and skinny “heroin chic” of the 90s, perpetuated by the heyday of the supermodel, to the curvy, bronzed, “exotic” ideal of the Instagram age. Among the choreographers of this shift were, no doubt, the Kardashians. This clan, who have mastered the art of staying ever-relevant, are no strangers to accusations of cultural appropriation. From ass augmentations and perpetual tans (things which could be deemed a reach) to quite obvious appropriation of traditional black hairstyles. I recall seeing an Instagram comment along the lines of, “But the Kardashians aren’t white, they’re Armenian.” Coincidentally so am I, and I’m white because ethnicity is not the same as race. Anyway… The fact remains that their aesthetic has helped birth a new beauty trend, which is most apparent in the racially ambiguous influencers trying to achieve a more interesting, sexy look. 

Kate Moss, a vanguard of the heroin chic look. Famously said "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." (But if you had a Tumblr account in 2013, you already knew that.)

Kim has come under fire on a few different occasions for her braids.

Kourtney, too, was criticised for her use of bantu knots, a hairstyle traditionally worn by women of African descent.

I’ve noticed that when a case of “blackfishing” is called out over social media, the comments will flood in telling the denouncer that they’re a nasty person who isn’t following their own message of female empowerment and “it’s just a bit of tan, I go that dark on holiday”. No one’s saying that fake tan is inherently racist, but there’s a line where it becomes distasteful. The line in question is subjective (often depending on race or socio-political opinions), and every case is different, but if you consistently dismiss every example as a reach, then you just might be part of the problem. And those who shout “I thought you were all about females supporting each other” as a lazy comeback clearly don’t care about the “cause” either since female empowerment would entail listening to what their "sisters" have to say if they are offended by something. Would you let a man lecture you about why catcalling isn’t offensive because it’s just a compliment? Then why should white women explain to black women why over-tanning isn’t offensive?

I understand that the politicisation of social media makes it seem like “everyone’s just trying to be offended these days”, so rest assured that no one’s a racist for simply wanting to look more tanned, healthier and happier. The problem arises when someone adopts multiple physical features which are not naturally theirs in order to project a more edgy or seductive look. The real insult is that these adjectives are positive when talking about a white or light-skinned woman, yet when the conversation shifts to a woman of colour the words can quickly change to “ratchet”, “unprofessional”, “slutty”, “tacky”. Afros being worn by white women in high fashion photoshoots is “unique”, “ground-breaking” or “innovative”, yet in schools black girls can be discouraged from wearing their natural hair because it’s not seen as “appropriate for a working environment”. 

I can't exactly blame Gigi Hadid or Kendall Jenner for these hairstyles since, as models, they would not have had artistic direction over the photoshoot or runway. But the fact that these hairstyles are being used for fashion purposes reinforces the image of black features as trends to pick up at will.

When concerns about fake tan being taken too far are voiced, there are often retorts of “But it’s ok for black women to bleach their skin?” Skin bleaching should not be trivialised as a harmless beauty practice like the weekly self-tanning ritual that many girls take part in whenever Friday rolls around. The reasoning behind tanning and bleaching is different. Sure, the white girls who tan may also harbour some insecurities about being pale, but feeling less sexy or desirable without your tan does not equate to the historical shame that has been placed upon dark skin for centuries. There are women who bleach because they believe it will provide them with better economic or social opportunities; it's more an act of assimilation. I don’t care how scarred you are by that one time a boy called you Casper the Friendly Ghost, I doubt it compares to being deemed inferior, ugly or subhuman because of your race. 

And if you’re thinking, “We live in the 21st century, no one actually thinks that about black/brown people anymore…” (except some still do): discrimination is not always so blatant. In fact, it does a great job at being insidious, whispered behind closed doors rather than shouted in the street. It seeps into magazine editorials, where often there’s only one token black model (if any). It crawls its way into beauty counters at your local make-up store, where up until recently (thank you, Rihanna) there may have been 3 brown shades for 10 white. It’s in the conversations lads might have when they think no one is listening: “I wouldn’t date a black girl. I’m not racist, just not attracted to them.” 

Katy Perry sporting slicked edges, a beauty practice that has been used by black and Latina women for decades.

Take LaToya Jackson's laid edges in the 70s.

“But shouldn’t they be flattered at the imitation? Surely if non-European features are being copied then it means that they’re not undesirable anymore, problem solved.” Just because gelled edges are in fashion doesn’t mean a person of colour might not run into a racist boss, or a bigoted, drunk, middle-aged man on the tube. Plus the imitation of features is more of a cherry-picking than a total acceptance. Adopting the ones which suit you but side-lining those which are too far out of the Euro-centric box. Further still, I think it’s the imitation feigning innovation that’s the bigger insult. For instance, a 2015 article in Elle cited Katy Perry as evidence that slicked baby hairs were the hottest new beauty trend. Or the fact that Kylie Jenner is seen as an architect of the recent big-lip craze, when black people have traditionally faced caricature for that same facial feature. And although the shift in beauty ideals has led to progress regarding body positivity, it is often limited by all-too-familiar constraints. The idolised “slim thicc” look (large breasts, tiny waist, big bum and thighs) can be just as unattainable as the heroin chic aesthetic of old. 

Kylie Jenner's old vs. new lips. I understand her lip-plumping had more to do with insecurity than racism, but you get my point.

Black and brown women had these features before they were trendy and faced derision for them (in the words of a Huffington Post article, “context and history are everything”), so you can’t roll your eyes and say the anger, annoyance or complaining is unwarranted. I’m not saying we need to subscribe to cancel culture as our new philosophy and bombard every white girl that fake tans with hate. That’s absolutely not what I’m suggesting. I just hope that people will be more open to discussion rather than a quick dismissal that the new generation is entirely comprised of "social justice warriors" or "snowflakes", and in particular those discussions voiced by women of colour.

Written by Anastasia Vartanian


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