Alicia Vrajlal

Pictured: Alicia Vrajlal

The complex relationship between being brown and tanning  

I’d often try to stay out of the sun, with the conscious intention of ‘not getting darker’. It’s taken years of unlearning this. 

As the weather gets warmer in Australia, we tend to hear many people saying that they’re looking forward to ‘working on their tan’. Not only can we attribute this to the country’s long-standing, world-famous beach culture, but also decades of certain beauty standards favouring the tall, thin, bronzed and tanned white woman. 

Despite knowing about the dangers of tanning and the risk of skin cancer, and the growing popularity of fake tan as an alternative, the desire for sun-tanned skin is still very much ingrained in Aussie culture. We see the glamourisation of tanning continue to thrive in the media, marketing and social media spaces. Influencers proudly showing off their tan lines, businesses capitalising on tanning oils.

When I ask Dr Prasanthi Purusothaman, a Sydney-based General Practitioner and South Asian woman, about the phenomenon behind sun-tanning, she links it to those aforementioned western beauty standards that idealise a bronzed, sun-kissed complexion. 

“I think people want to avoid looking ‘pasty’,” says Dr Purusothaman. “Having a tan gives the impression of a ‘glow’, you can appear slimmer, and it is associated with beauty/privilege in Western society.”

Dr Prasanthi Purusothaman

Dr Prasanthi Purusothaman.Photographed by Kristina Yenko

But a day of basking in the sun at a local beach has never appealed to me like it has to some of my white female friends. I grew up in Sydney as the daughter of Fijian-Indian immigrants. As I’ve previously written, I recall older relatives constantly commenting on my complexion during my childhood.

"You've become so dark in the Australian sun. Try and stay in the shade,” I’d hear. Another comment I heard about many other South Asian women was, "Did you see who he married? She's so dark."

Many years ago, I’d often try to stay out of the sun, with the conscious intention of ‘not getting darker’. After years of hearing these comments, I’d been somewhat conditioned to subscribe to these traditional, though questionable values in my South Asian community. It’s taken years of unlearning this. 

“Tans and being dark in colour are deemed unattractive in a culture of deep-seated colourism in darker-skinned populations,” explains Dr Purusothaman. 

Many South and East Asian communities have a widespread culture favouring fairer complexions and skin-lightening products. People are in fact encouraged to stay away from the sun to avoid getting sun-tanned, while colourism and discrimination based on skin tone is rampant in countries like India. It can even impact relationships and employment prospects. 

In 2019, the Miss India pageant made headlines when Times of India published a pageant headshot collage, where the 30 women pictured appeared to be fair-skinned and with similar features.   

Skin lightening is a multimillion-dollar industry in South Asia, and we’ve even seen Bollywood stars be the face of skin-lightening products such as ‘Fair & Lovely’ – which is primarily sold in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Middle East.  In 2020, Unilever announced it would rename ‘Fair & Lovely’ in order to be a more “inclusive vision of beauty”. It is now called ‘Glow & Lovely’.  

As South Asian culture gradually dismantles its colonised view of beauty, our relationship with the sun and tanning is still complicated. Many people with darker complexions hold the belief that they can’t get sunburnt if their skin tone is darker. However, this isn’t true. According to Dr Purusothaman, “all skin needs sunscreen”, not only to protect ourselves from sunburn, but the risk of developing skin cancer. According to Cancer Council, Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with about two in three Australians being diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70.

“Whilst darker skin is less prone to burning due to with some natural Sun Protection Factor (SPF) from more melanin (this probably maxes out around an natural SPF of 13-13.5 in very dark African ethnicities), our skin is still sensitive to UVA radiation which is responsible for premature ageing.

“Both UVA and UVB and visible light from the sun also cause the most common skin concern in darker skin tones, hyperpigmentation, and sunscreen is the best way to prevent this,” says Dr Purusothaman. 

“There is also a myth that non-white skin won’t develop skin cancer but statistics show later diagnosis, more unusual locations (palms of hands, soles of feet) and more advanced, severe cases of skin cancer in darker skinned individuals, as well as less than usual locations (palms, soles of feet etc) likely owing to a combination of poor sun safety behaviour and awareness/delay in time to diagnosis due to this false sense of security.”

Knowing how to approach our complicated relationships with tanning is complex in itself. But through the decolonisation of beauty ideals, and more diversity in education and media surrounding sun safety, I think we can make a valuable start.