Cross-culturally, men prefer women who are lighter-skinned than average (Symons 1995; van den Berghe and Frost 1986). "Milk-white" complexions seem to be preferred in traditional European and Asian societies; "yellow" or "red" complexions, in sub-Saharan Africa.
But this cross-cultural trend has one exception. A big one. In modern Europe and North America, there has emerged a sustained preference for women with tanned skin. An English study has recently found that the degree of tanning significantly correlates with the perceived attractiveness of young women (Smith et al. 2007).
We know how the tanning fad started. Around the turn of the 20th century, the medical community became interested in the bactericidal action of ultraviolet light, especially for treatment of lupus vulgaris (tuberculosis of the skin). This "heliotherapy" earned Niels Finsen the 1903 Nobel Prize for Medicine and was soon used to treat pulmonary tuberculosis (even though UV light cannot reach the infected lung tissues). It increasingly became seen as a panacea, particularly after the discovery that UV light also helps the body synthesize vitamin D. By the mid-1920s, tanned skin had become a badge of health for large numbers of Germans, Britons, and North Americans who would tan themselves outdoors or under sunlamps. The fad snowballed. By the end of the decade, it had become so popular that the fashion designer Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel incorporated the tan into her new look for modern women (Frost 2005:48-53)
Since the 1980s, the dominant medical view has been that sunbathing does more harm than good. Yet, despite awareness of the health dangers, tans are still popular among women in Europe and North America. Such persistence is all the more puzzling because this fad has not lasted elsewhere.
In Japan, there was a time when tanned skin in summer was considered highly desirable; in the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, as soon as the fashion for tanned skin among western women came in, with images of women enjoying sunbathing on a beach in trendy places such as Nice, many Japanese women became keen on getting a tan in summer … but by the late 1990s Japanese women no longer unreflectively followed the western fashion. Tanned skin is still very popular and much admired among European people, whereas now very few Japanese women want to get a tan in summer (Ashikari 2005: 85).
When asked why they stay light-skinned, Japanese women say they wish to look 'pretty' (kirei) and 'proper' (chantoshita). They deny any desire to look European and affirm they are adhering to a traditional aesthetic (Ashikari 2005: 85). Indeed, Japan seems to be returning, after a brief hiatus, to a gender norm that existed long before its first contacts with Westerners (Ashikari 2005; Wagatsuma 1967).
In Japan, the tanned look came and went. In Europe and North America, it has proven much more tenacious. Are we looking at something that is more than just a fad? When modern European and North American women deliberately darken their skin, are they tapping into an alternate mode of sex appeal that is repressed in more traditional societies?
Before tans went mainstream
Before female tanning became fashionable, we find instances in literature and oral tradition where darker-skinned European women are perceived as sexually attractive, but almost always in a context of brief, stormy relationships. Victorian-era novels, for example, portray the 'dark lady' as an 'impetuous,' 'ardent,' and 'passionate' object of short-lived romances (Carpenter 1936:254). This theme goes back at least to the Middle Ages and appears in the literary traditions of many European languages: the nut-brown maid in English, the braunes or schwarzbraunes Mädel in German, the fille brune in French, and the barna kislány in Hungarian. Vasvari (1999) discusses the 'dark girl' motif in German and Hungarian folk ballads:
… dark girls … are inevitably imagined as sexually more available than their fairer sisters, with whom they are implicitly or explicitly contrasted. In addition, the change of a girl's complexion, such as being burned by the sun, is to be understood as symbolic of her having crossed a sexual threshold without the benefit of marriage. Doris Massny (1937) characterized the dark girl in German tradition as verführungsbereit (ready to be seduced). In many poems the dark girl can be a real sexual tease and, similarly, young men who approach her can be free with their language in telling her what they are after.
In Hungarian tradition we also frequently see the preference for the more available dark girl over the fair one, as in the following example, where a young man at first has difficulty making up his mind about what he desires. … "The hut is ablaze, the reed crackles,/ how I love the dark one! Once I loved a blond girl,/ didn't care the least for the dark one./ Now I long for the blonde, / just like I long for grapes;/ but I long even more for a dark one,/ like I long for a tart cider apple." … "The reed by the fence is ablaze,/ I love only the dark one;/ softly shines the moon,/ dark is certainly more beautiful than blonde" … In a Hungarian example, the young man roundly rejects fair girls but tells us in rather vulgar terms that he plans to sample as many dark girls as he can.
These 'dark girls' are, lest we forget, German and Hungarian women. They are not exotic others. Nor is the difference in skin tone due to differences in social class. The fair girls of these ballads, no less than their dark counterparts, come from the peasantry, as do the male lovers. Dark and fair are simply opposing ends of the normal range of European pigmentation.
To be sure, Vasvari (1999) sees an echo of attitudes to the Moors in Spain or the Gypsies in eastern Europe. It is likelier, however, that we are dealing with an in situ development that predates the movement of either group into Europe. This alternate preference for darker women has been documented by Siepe (2004:160-164, 185-190) for earlier periods of European history, with apparently the same characteristics that we see above.
Indeed, there is good evidence for the echo being in the other direction, i.e., ethnic/racial attitudes to skin color appropriated earlier attitudes based on gender. The saying "The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice" is today associated with African-American women, yet the same sentiments appear in a Venetian folk-song where a young man debates the merits of lighter versus darker Italian women: "My lady mother always told me that I should never be enamoured of white roses … she told me that I should love the little mulberries, which are sweeter than honey" (Martinengo-Cesaresco 1886: 105-106). This motif appears even earlier in an ancient Roman graffito that refers to a dark woman called Nigra: "Whoever loves Nigra burns as upon black coals. When I see Nigra I could easily eat blackberries" (Snowden 1970: 328). In general, if we look at the metaphors that now describe white skin as a sign of European identity (snow-white, lily-white, milk-white), we find that they originally described white skin as a sign of female identity (Curry 1916:80-84).
What is "preference"? Parameters of a mental algorithm
So far I have discussed this alternate preference for darker women as an exception to the cross-cultural preference for lighter-skinned women. The fact that it is an exception—and a huge one at that in contemporary societies—seems to preclude an innate basis for the cross-cultural preference. Yet plasticity in the expression of a preference does not necessarily imply plasticity in the mind's initial response to different stimuli. The same mental response—in other words, a "feeling"—may be appreciated in different ways in different contexts. "Preference" is a product of interaction between an individual's inner feelings and a cultural environment that determines how these feelings are interpreted and expressed.
If this mental processing is culturally determined in its final stages, why might it be hardwired further upstream? One reason is that our adaptive landscape has long been characterized by a difference in skin tone between men and women. Over time, natural selection tends to hardwire responses to any stimuli that appear regularly with the same characteristics, in order to eliminate the costs of learning a response that will almost certainly be needed.
Indeed, a real sex difference mirrors the cross-cultural preference for lighter-skinned women: in all populations, women are paler and less ruddy than men are, their skin having less melanin and less superficial blood circulation (Frost 2005: 54-63; van den Berghe and Frost 1986). The relationship between the two species-wide trends is still unclear. Is fair skin preferred because it is seen as normal for women? Or has this preference itself gradually lightened women's skin via sexual selection?
A third possibility, and one that I favor, is that of a coevolution where both the signal and the receiver have assumed new functions in a new adaptive context. In ancestral humans, lighter skin seems to have been one of several infant-specific stimuli (smaller nose and chin, smoother skin, higher pitch of voice) that enabled young children to arouse feelings of care and inhibit aggression in nearby adults. As the period of juvenile dependence lengthened, selection pressures increased on women to intensify male provisioning and make the sexual bond last longer. Since this outcome closely matches the one triggered by the 'infant schema,' natural selection favored women who presented a more childlike appearance, including a lighter complexion (Frost 2005: 64-66; Guthrie 1970).
This kind of infantile mimicry is reported for other primates, specifically for coat color. The "natal coat" is usually shed after weaning but may in some species persist into adulthood, almost always in the female sex. Of the eight primate species where adult males and females differ in coat color, seven involve the female keeping the infant's lighter coloration. Interestingly, 63% of the dichromatic species are monogamous, versus only 18% of all primate species (Blaffer-Hrdy and Hartung 1979). Retaining the natal color may help the female cope with the riskier social environment of monogamy, specifically the increased risks of male aggression (because cohabitation is longer and more continuous) and insufficient provisioning.
Skin, and not fur, largely covers our body surface. Human skin tone may thus have acquired the signaling function that coat color possesses in our primate relatives. In fact, although infant coloration is usually limited to the natal coat in other primates, it also extends to the skin of langurs, baboons, and macaques, whose epidermis is pink in newborns and almost black in adults (Jay 1962). Infant coloration apparently does more than help parents find wayward offspring. As it disappears with age, infant primates do not attract the same interest, are less often sought out and held by adult females, and no longer arouse defensive reactions from adults when humans approach (Alley 1980; Booth 1962; Jay 1962; Sternglanz et al. 1977).
If lighter skin has been favored in the human female because it inhibits aggressive impulses in her male partner, could it also be inhibiting certain impulsive components of sexual desire? And wouldn't tanning release this inhibition? This hypothesis is consistent with a finding that sunbathers are more action-oriented and have a more positive attitude to risk-taking; they also associate tans with a more adventurous approach to life (Keesling and Friedman 1987).
Such "hyperarousal" may also explain why the tanned look has remained so popular among modern European and North American women since the 1920s. But why was this look so marginal previously? And why has it not caught on elsewhere in the world?
In earlier generations, the preferred model of sexual behavior was one of stable, fecund, and long-term relationships. Other forms of erotic expression did exist and are attested in the literature, but at a lower level of prevalence than would be expected if allowed free and unfettered expression. They were discouraged by social custom because, in one way or another, they were less optimal in producing stable families.
One of these alternate eroticisms was the practice of deliberately darkening women's skin. Rightly or wrongly, the preferred model of sexual behavior encouraged women to keep their skin as fair as possible. This "meme" has proven highly successful in most human societies, and, like so many other memes, has succeeded without its practitioners fully knowing why. During my fieldwork in a rural community of eastern Québec, I asked retired farmwomen why they took such great pains to keep their skin untanned. Many had no idea at all. One simply said: "It was important. My sisters were the same. I don't know the reason. They never told us" (Frost 2005: 60-61).
With the 20th century, there developed in Europe and North America a new sexual environment that presents marriage and family formation as one of many possible life choices, thereby allowing alternate eroticisms to compete with the mainstream ideal on more equal terms, particularly among young single adults who tend to set fashion trends. For many people today, the aim is no longer to maximize reproductive potential. Rather, it is to maximize erotic stimulation. It is this new sexual environment that may have allowed the tanned look to make its breakthrough into the mainstream of women's fashion.
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