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White women want to be darker, while dark women want to be lighter — but why?

Explore any beauty forum online, or indeed just have some conversations with women you know, and one thing becomes immediately apparent — most of us aren't happy with the way we naturally look, and skin tone is tremendously high on the list of things we'd like to alter about ourselves. While Caucasian women often chase a tropical tan, women of color frequently turn to skin lightening products to look paler. Both tanning and skin lightening can carry severe health risks, so why do they do it?

"Just be happy with yourself the way you are, already," you'll hear some people say. Unfortunately, some of the reasons for which people go to great lengths to alter their natural skin tones are highly political, and deeply rooted in racism, making the issue a whole lot more complex than "love yourself". 

Why Do White Women Seek Darker Skin Tones?

Toxic skin lighteners weren't always the exclusive domain of those who had darker skin — you just need to look to the ancient Greeks and Romans, not to mention the Elizabethans, to see that Caucasian women chased pasty white skin too, not all too long ago. The reason is socio-economic in nature: while slaves and poor folk toiled on the fields all day long, their rich counterparts could show off their higher status with their pale skin. White skin meant skin untouched by labor-induced sun exposure, instantly giving a person's status away. 

It wasn't until the Industrial Revolution came along that this really started to change. Now no longer stuck out in the fields but instead confined to factories and dark alleys of polluted cities, pale skin became the norm for poor folk. Smog, in industrial cities like London, made spending time outdoors rather undesirable and kids developed rickets due to a lack of sunshine. It was the rich who, in contrast, got to enjoy holidays abroad and summers spent in the unpolluted countryside. 

By 1923, the modern white sun seeker became a true phenomenon. It was Coco Chanel, trend setter of the time, who made it popular after she accidentally got sun burnt on a cruise. 

Self-tanning products have been around much longer than you may think — since the 1950s — and sunbeds made their appearance in the 1970s. Some were warning against the dangers of that much intentional UV exposure since the 1980s, with a piece published in the Evening Independent in 1985 stating: "It is commendable that people want to keep themselves attractive. [...] But is a deep tan worth the risk of developing malignant melanoma, a tumor which, at its worst, may spread so fast that it is fatal a few months after it is recognized?"

Britons, especially, still haven't taken note. Spending around £40 million a year on sunbeds and tanning lotions, surveys reveal that half of the adult UK population feels healthier and more attractive with a tan. Yes, self-tanning lotions are generally considered safe, with no evidence to the contrary. Spray tans are believed to have the potential to cause damage to the mucus membranes when inhaled, however, and using sunbeds can double the risk of skin cancer. People, it's time to take the proper precautions when you do go out in the sun, and to avoid exposing yourself to dangerous UV rays in large quantities on purpose. 

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