From Bardot to Beckham: The Decline of Celebrity Tanning

by Nina G. Jablonski, PhD

The 1960s gave us many things — like The Beatles, birth control pills, and photos of Brigitte Bardot on the beach. The iconic French film star epitomized the freedom of the era by flouting traditions of modesty and sun avoidance. Photos of Bardot circulated widely, and “le topless” became an institution on French beaches. Her suntan itself became a statement. It was the seamless tan of a woman of leisure, and it announced that she controlled her own body, and wasn’t confined by the social norms of past eras. At the time, people who protested were not considered prudent, just prudes, and in the 1960s that was as good as being dead.

Bardot’s look was youthful and sexy, and inspired thousands to follow her example. Before long, magazines and movies were filled with tanned celebrities of both sexes, including men like George Hamilton, whose year-round tan became synonymous with a life of leisure and privilege, along with sex appeal. Through the 1980s, tanning was de rigueur, and the tanned look came to denote both the good life and good health. Pallor was for corpses.

The sun-tanning phenomenon of the mid-20th century, and the many kinds of tanning available today, are not anomalous fads. They were instigated and are maintained by celebrities, whose images are widely propagated by the media. Celebrities command our attention and induce imitation. After all, we as a species are highly imitative: As infants we observe and imitate our mothers, and we imitate others throughout childhood. Imitation teaches us to survive; it also helps insure that positive behaviors are directed toward us. As teenagers, we increasingly imitate people outside of our families, creating and cementing connections within peer groups. As teenagers and adults, we imitate to gain and maintain higher social status, an effect that is more pronounced in women than in men.1

The celebrity-inspired rise of sun-tanning behaviors from the 1960s through 1980s had two major consequences. The first and most important was the increased incidence of melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers.2-4 This trend became a matter of public concern first in Australia, which has the highest skin cancer incidence and mortality rates in the world.5 The prevalence and high costs of skin cancer in Australia spawned the first widespread public health campaigns — including the current “SunSmart” program — aimed at promoting sun protection and sun avoidance.6 This campaign notably didn’t invoke celebrity promotion, but was propelled by the memorable cartoon figure of “Sid the Seagull,” whose actions were widely imitated, even if his appearance was not.

The second consequence of the post-60s tanning craze was the rise of technologies for customized, on-demand tanning. This began with development and widespread marketing of ultra- violet (UV) radiation-emitting tanning lamps, beds, booths, and facilities — often glamorized by the name “salons” — where these devices could be used. Then followed the development of non-UV artificial tanning agents (“self-tanners”), which could simulate the tanned look for people who were unable to tan or who for the sake of safety or convenience, preferred to tan without exposure to UVR. Whether from booth, bottle, or spray, on-demand tanning established and maintained popularity thanks to celebrity adoption and highly effective marketing. The so-called “healthy glow” — achieved by UV exposure, spray-on tanning, or cosmetics — became and still is big business.

The appeal of the tanned look comes not only from its association with glamour and sex appeal, but from the physiological reinforcement of UV-based tanning behavior.7 Researchers have found that UVR exposure releases mood-lifting hormones called endorphins that can literally create a dependency known as “tanning addiction,” stimulating tanners to seek more UVR exposure. [For more on tanning’s addictive qualities, see p.28.] This dangerous combination of addiction and so-called glamour means that many people at greatest risk of skin cancer remain highly motivated to tan,8 even when they know the dangers.

Today, highly imitated female celebrities such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton famously mix and match real and fake tanning, giving much impetus to booth-and-bottle, look-good-feel-good promotions at tanning establishments.

The Bronze Age Ebbs

However, more female celebrities today are proudly pale, including some — like Victoria Beckham and Nicole Kidman — who have explicitly abandoned the bronzed look in favor of their natural color. Their renunciation of even the spray-on fake tan, as they opt instead to “go with their own glow,” is significant because they are taking the glamour and prestige out of the tanned look. Female celebrities increasingly appear to realize that their looks and behavior have immediate ramifications on hundreds of thousands of young women. More celebrities need to understand that their every word and action can influence the behavior of devoted followers, many of whom are slavishly imitative young women whose skin is highly vulnerable to potentially carcinogenic sun exposure. Australian model Elle Macpherson’s recent declaration, “I tan safely,” was strongly criticized by dermatologists9 but was taken as encouragement by many people seeking reinforcement for their unsafe, outdated approach to sun exposure. When a behavior is as popular and consistently reinforced as tanning, celebrities don’t have to engage in egregiously “SunStupid” behaviors to negate hard-won gains in sun safety.

We have not yet reached the “End of the Bronze Age.”10 Although models and celebrities with susceptible, pale-skinned and light- eyed phenotypes are less likely to be portrayed with dark tans today than they were two or three decades ago,11 continuing promotion of the tanned look is worrisome and dangerous. As long as implicit messages about sun protection run counter to medical facts and public health messages, we will be fighting an uphill battle against skin cancer.


Dr. Jablonski is a biological anthropologist who conducts studies on the evolution of humans and their primate relatives using fossil and other evidence. Her greatest interest is in reconstructing parts of human evolution that don’t have a fossil record, like skin. She is the author of Skin: A Natural History (University of California Press, 2006), and is Professor and Head of the Department of Anthropology at Penn State, University Park.

Published on February 7, 2012


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