What a suntan can tell us about insignificance

When I was at school I was told that rich Elizabethans tried to make their faces look as pale as possible. In doing this, many of them died of lead poisoning as it was the principal ingredient in their whitening make-up.

The reason they did this was that a tan was seen as a sign of poverty. Peasants who had to work all day in the fields would have colour in their faces, so the theory went that the richer you were, the more you stayed indoors and the whiter your face would be.

Fast forward to the Twentieth Century and the reverse becomes the status quo: with the advent of air travel, it is seen as a sign of wealth to have a tan as it suggests that you can afford to go abroad and enjoy the sunshine that is less prevalent in the UK. And although it’s no longer that expensive to travel to sunny places, the tan’s place in society has largely remained the same: a symbol of some ability to travel and find the time to lie beside a swimming pool for a week. And the make-up situation has switched from white to brown as fake tans become more and more popular.

So there’s no intrinsic value to a suntan. We collectively decide whether it’s good or bad to have one and act accordingly. As a naturally pale person who doesn’t really tan much, I have tried and failed many times to get a tan. Why have I wanted one? Thinking about it, I have no clear idea. I suppose there’s some thought in the back of my mind that it looks better, but as the above proves, that is some temporary aesthetic value based on somewhat arbitrary criteria. In fact, as we all know, a tan is an indication of unhealthiness because it’s a sign that your skin has been mildly burned, so perhaps the pendulum is due a swing in the other direction (I can only hope).

But if there’s no intrinsic value to something that so many of us spend a great deal of time, money and effort to achieve, what else are we buying into based on an ultimately pointless pursuit of a collectively trumped up notion of superiority?

When you think about it, loads of things:

Almost all music, food choices based on flavour, colours, books, movies, paintings, weather, the position of cheekbones, wine, religion, conversation topics, Edwina Currie, most of politics, newspapers beyond their facts, football teams, scientific theories, wallpaper, age, race, sexual orientation, moustaches etc. etc. etc.

It’s all just one person’s white make-up over another person’s brown, and yet these opinions lead to very real consequences, sometimes including death.

Here’s a rule of thumb: if you can have two different opinions about it, it doesn’t matter. Obviously, what people can do with those opinions can matter a hell of a lot, but at its heart any dispute of that kind is simply a load of fuss about nothing.