Between 1988 and 2007, indoor tanning among young adults in the United States increased from 1 percent to 27 percent, driven in part by propagation of images of tanned “celebrities” circulated widely in the print and electronic media. Beginning in the 1990s, many people began turning to sunless tanning agents to compensate for the lost glow and minimize their risk of skin cancer. This ushered in the era of the bad fake tan and light-skinned people looking like they had been treated with deck stain. There is little margin for error when the social calculus behind the most desirable level of artificial tan goes wrong. The last thing that most light-skinned people want to look like is a naturally dark-skinned person. This is the painful truth of this side of the paradox of pigmentation.
People can’t be stopped from wanting to change their looks in order to correct what they perceive to be deficiencies in their appearance, but we can do better at laying bare the fallacy of these deficiencies and the social forces behind the aspirations. Many perceived inadequacies of appearance – like having skin that is “too dark” – are rooted to social injustices of the past, while others spring from our perceived need to emulate those who are more popular of higher status. Bleached skin may temporarily relieve the immediate personal anxiety felt by the unempowered, insecure or self-conscious, but it ultimately reinforces the most sinister of social hierarchies. Nina Simone once said that, “Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.” Her meaning can be extended into an understanding of the enslavement of the senses and the unceasing pressure to attain a skin colour that will somehow make life better. How much anxiety could be spared then if we just put down the mirror?