Why Are Black Women Tanning?
It's not about color, it's about tone
Cancer can be the unfortunate (and sometimes fatal) result of sun tanning, as study after study has consistently documented. In the latest study to delve into the phenomenon, indoor tanners were almost 70 percent more likely to develop melanoma, the most common type of skin cancer, before reaching their 40th birthday. Those in search of a bronzed body have not been so easily discouraged by the alarming statistics, instead, they have opted for sunless procedures like airbrushing and spray tanning.
The obsession over tanning among white youth has been well established on popular shows like "Jersey Shore." After all, the eternally copper-skinned cast did coin the acronym "GTL," created in honor of their favorite activities--"gym, tan, laundry"--a phrase they repeat like a sacred mantra. But African Americans in search of the same sun-kissed glow are often met with more challenges than clarity. Do a simple Google search and you'll find worrisome inquiries like, 'Could they? Should they?!'; a few helpful how-to guides; and definitive declarations that "Yes, they can!" And perhaps more interestingly, that more and more do--by choice--despite the already high level of melanin coloring their skin.
So, what gives?
Dr. Dina Strachan, a New York dermatologist who specializes in ethnic skin, said, "I would imagine that women of color would be interested in tanning for the same reason as everyone else. Having a tan is a social status symbol. In a society in which people who have to work mostly do so indoors, having a tan is a sign of leisure and wealth, i.e. 'I was in Rio on the beach while you were stuck in the office.'"
But African American women have also discovered that tanning services can help improve unique conditions specific to darker skin.
Mary Glymph, owner and operator of Atlanta-based Bronz Mobile Tan, which provides at home airbrushing, said, "I have seen a trend. When African American women tan, we really don't do it for the same reasons that Caucasians do, which is really trying to get darker. We're looking for even skin tone and glow."
Makeup artist Ursula Augustine agrees. As the owner of About Phace Make-Up Studio & Phacial Suite in Philadelphia, Pa., she offers Golden Stockings, an increasingly popular airbrush tanning service. Priced at $40, the sugar-based, FDA-approved system gives legs a sheer pantyhose-like sparkle. A "godsend," in her opinion, as it gives the illusion of a textured nylon stocking without the discomfort.
Augustine said, "The basic thing that most of my black clients have issues with is the rough skin around the knees. They just want their knees to not be a darker complexion than their thigh and their calf. The warm tan balances everything right out. I also had a client that had just gotten surgery for her spider veins, but it takes from 4 to 6 weeks for them to really disappear, so the tan helped."
Still, not everybody understands how a a simple tanning session can give a blast of confidence. Last year Texas-based fashion designer and stylist LaToya Chenelle Crawford posted a YouTube video titled "Yes, Black Women Can Spray Tan...I Do." Now, with over 18,000 views, Crawford recalls the criticism she received.
"I've had people ask me, 'Why do you want to be darker? The ideal image is to have a fair complexion,'" she said. "And it's not that I have a problem, it's just that I'd rather be darker and have an even tone, than lighter and not. It's not a big deal to me. I don't have to wear as much makeup when I tan. Black women tend to be darker around our eyes and our mouth, and when you get a spray tan it eliminates all that--stretch marks and everything."
While it's clear many women are making tanning their latest must have beauty accessory, Glymph maintains that it was her clients' safety, paired with a hard economic hit on business, that inspired her to launch Bronz Mobile Tan.
"I started because when Barack Obama's healthcare reform took effect, tanning salons that had beds were being taxed another 30 percent per bed," she said. "So a lot of people were being charged extra for laying down and yet still putting themselves at risk for cancer. Customers were starting to stray from the main money maker, so I wanted to create a way that women could tan but in a healthier fashion."
There are still those who continue to throw much shade over the growing trend of women of color seeking tanning services. It was even a beauty brain-teaser for Augustine at first, but the tanning convert insists that, ultimately, a glorious glow is just good for the soul.
She said, "In my almost 30 year career, 95 percent of my clients have been white women. They've been getting my tan forever. But when my African American clients started asking for it, I was curious, like 'You guys already have the golden color, what more could you want?' But it's just fun, there's no psychological profile to it. We're obviously not getting the complexion we already have, but we don't want to just look okay, we want to look fabulous."