Life in the bronze age: the great tanning debate

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Tanning is now a fully fledged part of our beauty routines. So does this help – or hinder – coming to terms with the skin we’re in?

Photography: Francesco Carrozzini

Our temperament, tastebuds and eye shape are decided long before we take our first gulp of air, but our true skin colour doesn’t emerge until we’re about six months old. It’s part of our genetic make-up yet, for centuries, women have slavishly struggled to control the colour of their skin to fit the beauty trends and expectations of the day.

In the 1500s, for example, the milky white complexion was so revered that ladies used white lead on their faces to banish any signs of colour. Fast forward 500 years and the desired skin colour has danced through the sunbed rays of the Eighties and fake-tan devotees of the Noughties, and is currently settled somewhere around a subtle golden hue.

Although paler skin is edging back into fashion – the natural look is synonymous with fashion editorial and runways – there’s no denying that ‘tanned’ and ‘healthy’ go hand in hand. Being tanned is often linked to self-esteem, with many women saying they feel more confident, slimmer and healthier when they’ve ‘had a tan’. (Indeed, the paler members of the Stylist team still speak of negative remarks when summer comes around.)

Thankfully, this season the overriding trend is not about matching your own skin colour to what you see on the catwalks – instead, it’s about simply enhancing your natural colour. Products such as intelligent highlighters packed with micro-fine reflective pigments boost skins natural luminosity, while glow-giving face masks infused with anti-ageing skincare ingredients work as you sleep so you wake up to naturally sheened and rested-looking skin.

Here, two women with very different approaches to tanning, The Guardian columnist Hannah Betts and Stylist’s deputy beauty editor Samantha Flowers take a fresh look at the idea of feeling comfortable in your own skin.

Hannah Betts explains why, despite the pressure of others, she fully accepts her pale hue

I am ashen, bright white, anaemic looking, always the palest foundation in a range, invariably the pastiest person in any room. A make-up artist once described my skin colour as “ethnic”, and it is: my subgroup being wan white woman in a culture obsessed with tanning its hide. I am entirely content with this and would no more expect to darken my skin than I would a black friend to lighten hers. Instead, I advocate valuing what nature gave us – black, white or, in my own case, a sort of pale green.

Yet others find my pallor somehow offensive. There is a multi-million pound global industry backing tanning – real or otherwise – and, lemming like, the Western world has embraced it. Those who refuse to conform face censure or, at least, satire of their skin shade in a way people would (hopefully) be too politically correct to resort to in other cases.

I have been derided as ‘moon face’, ‘goth girl’, ‘the Wicked Lady’. I have been trailed about by British schoolboys clicking The Addams Family theme, and Italian youths chanting ‘White’. Before I discovered rouge, people would ask whether I was consumptive or leukemic. When I appeared on radio to discuss tanning and skin cancer – shamefully, a more fatal condition here than it is Down Under – listeners called in screaming that I was just jealous because I could not acquire this coveted leatheriness.

I can, in fact, tan – did so as a child – I just won’t. I consider genuine tans unhealthy, being as they are, a badge not of health, but the mark of traumatised skin attempting to rectify injury. The faux ones strike me as unpleasant, tawdry, an affectation that future ages will look back on as a bizarre historical blip. My only run-in with fake tan was on the day of Live Aid. It was a grubby, nicotine orange and smelled foul. From then on, I embraced my skin colour, revelling in its difference from the Tango-ed majority. Where other girls basted themselves in oil and foil, I larded myself in sunblock – in those days, a blue gunk, lending my complexion the sheen of a dead fish.

Since that 14-year-old flirtation, I have never wavered, nor felt remotely insecure, even on the beach. I feel as confident about my body as the next woman; more so, perhaps, as I am not fretting about colour-matching it. People tell me that I am young looking. Certainly, at 41, I lack the damage that besets former ray slaves. It is the beauty industry’s most lucrative paradox that the same women who will spend any money on anti-ageing snake oil baulk at offering their skin the smallest degree of protection. Moreover, grooming is quite time-consuming enough without having to muddy myself up.

Besides, I actively like being pale, enjoy playing with my natural contrasts of light and shade. It makes me part of a long history of sunshielded females, before pallor was supplanted by honeyed homogeneity; complexions described as snow, milk, pearl, alabaster, before we were hit by the current great drabness of wheats and fawns. The fact that tanning is such a recent phenomenon gives me hope that we may surpass it, not least in an age in which satsuma skin feels increasingly low-rent.

In the end, there is something fundamentally liberating about revealing one’s true colours. A lover once said he found my body more erotic than Fake-Baked girls’ because my pallor made me seem more naked – the bronzed bodies felt clothed, what he craved was skin.

Samantha Flowers is in full support of a self-tanned life

I can’t tell you what my true skin colour is. It’s not that I’m keeping it a secret, I just don’t know. In the last year, I’ve seen myself sans-self tan (or real sun tan) just once, and that was only due to a particularly nasty bout of norovirus that saw me bed-ridden for five days too weak to reach up as far as the ‘golden’ shelf in my bathroom cabinet. Ah, that shelf. Even thinking of it makes me happy. It’s my safe place; my furry wall, if you will. Those who’ve seen Get Him To The Greek will understand. Visiting here gives me the kind of respite a two-week holiday gives other people.

Fake tan is my crutch. My beauty crack. I may be naturally olive-skinned but I have no desire to embrace my ‘natural’ skintone. I am aware that the coolest girls – think Diane Kruger, Jessica Chastain or Michelle Williams – don’t spend their evenings with a pair of plastic gloves and a biscuit smelling mousse, but I don’t care. Without my twice weekly application of Sienna X, I feel pudgy, I feel unconfident and I don’t feel myself. I wouldn’t dream of turning up for a job interview or a work meeting without a spray tan. While I’d love to have the confidence to reveal the ‘real’ me, I don’t believe I’m either interesting looking or quirky enough to pull off pale as a statement. Being tanned is like being granted a super-power. I’m happier. I truly believe everyone looks better with a tan.

I first discovered the fake stuff 10 years ago at university and my life, (and white bed sheets), were never the same again. My friends and I would go through bottles of it, topping it up with a little Rimmel Sunshimmer just before we went out. I looked like I’d been dipped in Ronseal. Today those Noughties days of double-dipping my way to bronze goddess are finally behind me and now my daily goal is a subtle St Bart’s glow. I have since explored and experimented with gradual tanners, glow-givers and soaked up advice from the only men to have seen me naked in the last five years apart from my fiancé: tanning gurus James Harknett and James Read.

Twice a year I spend a month travelling the globe to report on the latest backstage beauty trends but it’s the spring/summer seasons I have a soft spot for. I get excited when I spy a spray tan gun languishing on the side. It means the tan is back. Rather than autumn/winter’s penchant for all things pale and gothic, those glowing skins, bronzed limbs and healthy washes of gold are made for me. From spring/ summer 2011’s deep and dusty Seventies-inspired Farrah Fawcett tan to the luxe, metallic sheen of last summer, the reality is that they are getting progressively lighter. A backlash against the TOWIE tan perhaps?

This season, I saw bare skin adorned with faux-freckles backstage at Kinder Aggugini, House of Holland and DKNY. It was less of a ‘tan’ tan and more of an outdoorsy glow. While tanning may not always be chic, it will always be around; its guise just keeps changing. So that’s what I’m embracing. I use BB Gradual Tan Pen in Light James Read, twice a week on my face, I book in for Sienna X spray tans on my body and I’m working with bespoke spray tanner James Harknett to perfect the holy grail of wedding tans; one that doesn’t look fake, won’t rub off on my white dress and looks ‘glowy’. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it. Self-tan aficionados rejoice.

What do you think? Is pale interesting, or is self-tanning the only way to go? Join our debate - post your comments in the box below or tell us your thoughts on Twitter @StylistMagazine