Emily Lordi, English professor, UMass Amherst
Vacations to sunny locales didn’t start in the 1920s, but the desire to get a tan did. The tanning fad not only prefigures our orange-tinted president but also stands as a silent admission of white people’s lasting fascination with dark, exotic “others.”
Um. Fascination with exotic others? Maybe not so much.
Back in the pre-industrial days, a tan was the mark of someone who labored outdoors, in the fields and whatnot; a pale complexion, contrariwise, meant that the wearer had no need to do menial work, but led a comfortable indoors existence.
As work shifted from farms to factories and offices, the working troglodytes became pale from spending all their daytime hours cooped up indoors. The leisure class could afford to spend time lounging around in the sunshine, and thus a tan (if not combined with the worn and leathery skin of someone who worked outdoors all the time) became the mark of the privileged.
It's a class thing, not a race thing. (Also, how many of the people with carefully-cultivated tans are dyeing their hair glossy black and wearing dark contact lenses? If it were racial melanin envy, wouldn't you expect a lot of that?)