Old Egyptian hieroglyphic painting showing men and women depicted with different skin colours
Old Egyptian hieroglyphic painting showing men and women depicted with different skin colours

Chasing the sun: a journey through the history of tanning

Under the scorching Moroccan sun, people from various corners of the world bask in its golden rays, lounging on the beach or by the pool with one common goal: achieving the perfect tan.

Working for a charter airline, this month I find myself stationed in Morocco, where I have the privilege of being part of the operational team during the Hajj, one of the most significant religious events in the Islamic calendar.

The Hajj is an annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, undertaken by millions of Muslims from all over the world and must be carried out at least once in their lifetime.

Whilst everyone else stationed in Morocco is chasing the perfect tan, my mission is to track down the ultimate spot of shade. The concept of tanned skin has undergone a remarkable transformation throughout history, evolving from an association with labour and low social status to becoming a highly sought-after symbol of health, leisure and beauty.

The perception of tanned skin varies across different cultures, each influenced by unique historical, social, and environmental factors. In most ancient cultures, fair skin was often associated with high status and nobility, with women being especially revered for their delicate and virtuous appearance.

Mars and Venus Suprised by Vulcan - Alexandre-Charles Guillemot (1827). Mars has bronzed skin whilst Venus is depicted with fair skin
Mars and Venus Suprised by Vulcan – Alexandre-Charles Guillemot (1827). Mars has bronzed skin whilst Venus is depicted with fair skin

In Ancient Egypt, men and women were depicted with different skin colours, with women portrayed as lighter-skinned and men as dark-reddish brown. This contrast was believed to reflect the different lifestyles of men and women. Women with fair skin were associated with higher status, indicating that they did not engage in outdoor labour and fair skin became the feminine ideal in Egypt.

In Ancient Greece, women were also depicted with pale skin. In Homer’s Odyssey, princesses and divine figures, such as Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, were portrayed with fair or white skin, reflecting their ethereal and feminine nature. This fair complexion was associated with ideals of beauty and purity for women in ancient Greek culture.

On the other hand, male warriors like Odysseus were often depicted with tanned or bronzed skin, indicative of their active lifestyles and exposure to the sun during battles and voyages. This tanned or bronzed complexion symbolised their physical prowess, resilience, and strength as they engaged in arduous activities.

Writers such as Plato and Aristotle, also considered men with pale or light skin to be weak and effeminate, and even stated that Greek soldiers believed that war with such men would be in no way different from having to fight with women.

The Romans, influenced by Greek culture, held similar ideals regarding fair skin. Pale or light skin was seen as a reflection of refinement, sophistication, and an elevated social position. Wealthy Romans, particularly women, sought to maintain a fair complexion and, like their Greek counterparts, would employ various methods to protect their skin from sun exposure such as whitening their skin with lead paint and chalk.

During the Age of Exploration, fair skin was still considered fashionable and desirable among the European upper classes. Explorations and colonial expeditions exposed Europeans to new cultures and environments, but it was not until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries that the trend started to shift.

The rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of society meant that a significant portion of the population, particularly the working classes, moved into crowded cities and worked in factories and mines. Their daily lives were characterised by long hours spent indoors, away from natural sunlight, as they sought refuge from the smog and pollution of the industrialised cities.

Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander (April 16, 1936)
Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander (April 16, 1936)

The detrimental health effects of prolonged indoor living, such as vitamin D deficiency and various bone deformities, became increasingly recognised. Medical professionals and researchers began to understand the crucial role of sunlight in promoting overall health and well-being, including the development of strong bones. This growing awareness prompted a re-evaluation of the value placed on fair skin.

The 1920s witnessed a significant shift in the perception of tanned skin in Western societies. It was during this era that tanning became popularised and associated with leisure, travel, and luxury.

Coco Chanel, an influential fashion icon, unintentionally sparked the tanning trend when she caught too much sun on a Mediterranean cruise. The media celebrated her bronzed complexion, and tanning quickly became a symbol of wealth, adventure, and sophistication.

While Western cultures embraced tanned skin as a symbol of beauty and status, other cultures held different views. In many Asian countries, particularly East Asia, fair skin still remains highly valued, associated with traditional ideals of femininity and societal hierarchy.

However, here in Morocco, the Algarve, and countless other locations, the pursuit of the perfect tan remains as prevalent today as it was during the emergence of sunbathing in the 20th century.

As I finish writing this article from my hotel room, everyone else has spent the day on the beach, basking in the sun. But as the afternoon winds down and the sun’s intensity mellows, it is the perfect time for me to grab a beach towel and go down to join them.

By Jay Costa Owen

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Jay works for a private charter airline, and is also a UX designer and aspiring author who enjoys learning about history and other cultures