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The fairest of them all is tanned?

Updated: 2012-09-06 09:15
By Sarah Marsh ( China Daily)

My own personal love affair with tanning started after I spent three months in Borneo off the eastern coast of Sabah, in northern Malaysia.

For three weeks, I camped on a diving island called Sipidan and every morning, I would wake up to a glorious sunny sky. The hot weather cleared my skin and turned it a gorgeous brown immediately, I was hooked.

Walking along the beach in sandals and a shell necklace - the absolute stereotype of someone on their gap year - I remember thinking how much better I felt tanned! This feeling was compounded by the fact I had been working for months through the miserable cold, gray British winter, to save money for my trip.

After "finding myself" in Malaysia, I went home vowing that I would do anything to keep myself brown and that's when I started buying bottles of fake tan. I graduated from Nivea to Fake Bake, finally settling on my favorite tanning product Rodial Brazilian Tan. It might seem extreme to you but I am not alone in my obsession.

The fairest of them all is tanned?

A survey conducted in 2011 by the health and beauty chain Superdrug revealed that the average woman in England would spend one whole month of her life putting on the best fake tans - that doesn't seem like time well spent.

What has surprised me since arriving in Beijing is that there is no sign of our British addiction to getting darker skin here. Rather, girls in Beijing will buy whitening creams to make them lighter. Ironically, the first whitening cream I encountered was in Malaysia, the very place I fell in love with the tan. Since arriving here, I have even spotted a whitening gel that you put on overnight, for maximum effect.

In Britain we now have "tanarexics", a word used to describe those who are hooked on tanning. In the popular TV show The Only Way Is Essex, having a tan is "reem" (trendy) and, on a weekly basis, the British media will take great pleasure in photographing z-list celebrities falling out of cars having over done the bronzer with screaming headlines like, "The future's bright, the future's orange".

I wonder if Chinese girls are as obsessed with making themselves pale. I am curious as to where their interest in whitening cream originated. I have read that a preference for pale skin comes from the traditional idea that white skin is a sign of youth and fertility, but is this still the case?

Our obsession with tanning, started with Coco Chanel who, in the 1920s, got unintentionally sunburned on the French Riviera. Coco was the "queen of chic", so a tan suddenly became desirable.

How the tan is viewed in the Western world has changed dramatically over the years. In the Victorian age, dark skin was a sign of working in the fields, a fair skin indicated that a woman belonged to the leisured class and if you had a tan it was a sign that you were a worker.

But today, it is associated with the social elite - people who are constantly going on holiday. It is thought to be a sign of health and vitality. Although, just how healthy a tan ever is, is dubious.

In England, some argue that the trend for bronzed skin is on its way out and that the natural look is coming back. However, there have been numerous bizarre tales in the news recently of mothers giving their young children spray tans or taking them to tanning booths.

Being in Beijing and away from the pressures I face back home, I wonder how I will survive without fake tan. So far, I feel strangely liberated being in a country that has no concept of St Tropez or Fake Bake, and perhaps it will even give me an appreciation for my own natural complexion. It has certainly made me realize how much cultural forces affect how we define beauty and has left me wondering just how similar, or indeed how different other Chinese makeup products are.

Contact the writer at sarah.marsh0@gmail.com.

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