History of tanning I: tanning is a modern trend
Tanning is a fairly recent trend and even today the ‘ideal’ skin colour varies among different cultures.
Tanned skin is not, nor has it ever been, a universally accepted ideal. Caucasian women in western countries often love tanning, while women in China, Korea, and Thailand want to look fairer. In India both men and women use “fairness creams” to lighten the complexion; these are supposed to guarantee success in business and love.
Historically, pale skin has indicated high status. Well-bred ladies protected themselves with long sleeves clothes, hats and parasols. Dark skin was associated with serfdom and working in fields all day. Using whiteners to create pale skin has been popular throughout history – particularly during the ancient Greek, Roman and Elizabethan eras.
The ancient Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra but they were not fond of tanned skin. Women are depicted as paler than men in Egyptian art, their fair skin a sign of beauty. Meet Prince Re-hotep, high priest of Heliopolis (circa 2,580 BC), and his wife Nofret, whose name means “the beauty.”Nofret, whose statue was discovered near Memphis in 1871, has the pale, smooth skin so admired by ancient Egyptians. Nofret’s fair complexion reflects her high rank. She maintained her skin tone with powders and lotions made from vegetal resins like myrrh and frankincense, and used yellow ochre to make her skin pale and clear.
The Middle Age
In the Islamic culture pale skin is highly appreciated as an ideal of beauty. The Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta wrote in 1356, “Bardama women are the most perfect in terms of beauty — outwardly most extraordinary, flawlessly white and very plump.” To protect pale complexion women stayed in their tent avoiding the harsh sun. In Europe also, pale skin was a sign of privilege, and when the upper classes went out for a walk or riding they applied lotions made of violet and rose oils to protect their skin from the sun. Upper class women (and most famously, Queen Elizabeth) used lead-based cosmetics to make their complexions as white as possible, and some even drew on blue veins to mimic skin so pale it’s translucent. In Japan from the eighth century on, female beauty was associated with a white face — the so-called white mask, or o-shiroi. This was pursued with lead- or mercury-based powders, which were applied to the face. Red tints (beni-bana) then coloured the cheeks.
As in Japan, Chinese women powdered their faces white, and applied colour to their cheeks. A pale complexion was the accepted aesthetic ideal. In 1671 the writer Li Yu wrote about wearing dark blue clothes, since “it makes light complexions even lighter, and if those with darker complexions wear it, the darkness of their complexion is less easily discerned.
Lead and mercury powders for whitening the skin often led to untimely deaths.
The trend for whiteness changed after the industrial revolution. The working class had moved to unhealthy suburbs. They lived in cramped dwelling and worked indoors. White complexion was no more a sign of upper status …. (to be continued)
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