Last Friday’s post about steroid use among Bangladeshi prostitutes elicited this great comment from a longtime Friend ‘o Microkhan:
It seems like there might be an interesting parallel between perceptions of fatness and tanning. In both cases, there seems to be a general trend that as cultures move away from subsistence living. Lower body mass and tanning have become attractive in first-world cultures, whereas being skinny and tan are usually seen as low-class in subsistence cultures.
Okay, good point. Microkhan doesn’t tan very well—our two main shades are white and red—so we’ve always kind of resented the First World’s obsession with bronzed bodies. So how might one of the primary banes of our existence arisen in the first place?
We’d like to place the blame squarely on a great man, the Danish physician Niels Ryberg Finsen, who suffered from an undiagnosed case of Pick’s disease. Finsen’s personal medical situation inspired him to contemplate the effects of the Sun:
The disease was responsible for my starting investigations on light: I suffered from anaemia and tiredness, and since I lived in a house facing the north, I began to believe that I might be helped if I received more sun. I therefore spent as much time as possible in its rays. As an enthusiastic medical man I was of course interested to know what benefit the sun really gave. I considered it from tbe physiological point of view but got no answer. I drew the conclusion that I was right and the physiology wrong. From this time (about 1888) I collected all possible observations about animals seeking the sun, and my conviction that the sun had a useful and important effect on the organism (especially the blood?) became stronger and stronger.
Finsen was eventually awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in using phototherapy to treat lupus, a honor that fundamentally changed the Western world’s attitude toward skin tone. Previously, anyone with the means to avoid sunlight did so—thus all those Victorian parasols and long gloves. But once Finsen’s work confirmed the health properties of sunlight, the tanning die was cast.
Of course, beauty aesthetics tend to cycle, and we may have hit the outer limits of tanning’s heyday. Is Snooki’s change-of-heart the event that will mark the end of Finsen’s influence on tanning preferences? Or perhaps it’s this photo.
Whatever happens, at least Finsen will forever enjoy this awesome tribute to his genius.