Should Tanning Be Considered Appropriation?

Emmaatan experienced a backlash for selling "black face" self-spray tanners.

Swedish company Emmaatan came under fire on Friday for selling a dark-colored self-tanner called "Dark Chocolate," after pictures were posted to its social media pages that featured white models with skin that appeared to mimic black skin. With other products that have names like "Caramel" and "Dark Ash Onyx," some black people argued that Emmaatan was yet another example of white people appropriating black features.

Now, we're living in an age where the phrase "cultural appropriation" tends to get thrown around with wild abandon, so much so that some people are weary or even defiant when certain things get called out as such. When it comes to tanning, there's the valid argument that it is, for the most part aside from potential health risks, a harmless and solitary practice. But before dismissing the backlash against Emmaatan all together, let's consider why a reaction like this even happened in the first place.

The history of colorism within the black community, especially as it relates to black women, is deep and painful. Traditionally black features like dark skin, big lips, wide noses and kinky hair have often been used to justify the idea that black people are not beautiful, inferior and even subhuman. So when things like lip plumping kits, "afro" tutorials, and "Dark Chocolate" self tanners enter the mainstream, it's easy to understand why emotions might run high.

But this isn't purely emotional. It's subtle and it's systemic, and while Emmaatan is taking much of the heat, this isn't the first time that super dark, "unnatural" tans have become fashionable or trendy.

In a statement posted by Emmaatan via their Instagram on Sunday, the company's owner Emma Patissier apologized for "the misunderstanding." But she insisted that her products weren't designed to mimic black skin, she wrote: "I never want my customers to look unnatural or to [sic] dark since we usually have a lighter skin tone."

Read the full statement below:

I'm a small tanning business in Sweden and I've been working with beauty for 2 years in August. I'm a hard working owner of emmaatan and love working with beauty cause I get to appreciate all types of looks and figures. It's a difficult job because you always gonna hear different opinions, positive and negative. I'm in chock for the response I've gotten and may have responded and commented the wrong way because I expect Ppl to know how Spraytan works . I've got a lot of feedback and mostly been called "black face" and racist. Ppl looks at my pic I've posted and without a blink assuming we desire to look black, I understand why it might seem that way and I apologise for the miss understanding my pic may have approached. Tanning is very popular these days because of the cancer factor, everybody is talking about how dangerous the sun beds is and therefore looking for a healthier option. I will never understand how "black ppl" is facing the world and it's sad to know ppl don't get respect just because of their looks. I do feel I need to explain the factor of a spraytan, first of all it never gets black, a lot of my pic is a result of a few sec after applying the tan. fake tan always gets really dark because of the activation of the result of the color. 20-30% washes of and the color will get much much lighter and won't look as "black" as it seems on my pic. My color isn't going for black it's going for a natural golden tan when you wash it off. I never want my customers to look un natural or to dark since we usually have a lighter skin tone . You also have to understand I have ppl with dark and pale skin tone and therefore look darker or lighter. I love all skin types and that's why I think ppl should be able to choose for what they feel good in, as long as you respect ppl around you. I understand a lot of you don't agree with the tan industry but I don't want you to think we want to go for a crazy black tan, we don't! At least not all of us. I can't speak for everyone but I personally are trying to keep it natural. Please reconsider calling ppl names, it's not helping to communicate and trying to understand. 👆🏽👆🏽RESULT OF BEFORE AND AFTER SHOWER

A photo posted by •Spraytan Specialist• (@emmaatan_) on

Was Patissier's intention to create a kind of modern day blackface? Probably not. Is she (and all others who use dark self tanners) a racist, evil person? Probably not -- that's not what this discussion is about. Let's be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with tanning (some black women, for the record, also tan for a bronzed glow). Any white person who tans isn't committing the crime of cultural appropriation.

But context and history are everything, and they should be considered when passionate reactions like the one to Emmaatan arise. The general popularity of products like this, and the backlash that they often get from the black community, points to an important, larger conversation that we aren't having.

Tanning is probably a widely accepted means of beauty enhancement and an admired beauty practice for lighter skinned women, but for dark women, it isn't so harmless. There are some who would argue that skin lightening or bleaching is no different and, indeed, just as bad as tanning. How can dark skinned black women complain about white women tanning when they wear straight blonde weaves and use skin bleach, right? But skin lightening has often been an act tied to and influenced by the fact that European beauty standards are the ideal. The act of skin bleaching is usually an act of survival and assimilation by those whose natural skin color has been considered undesirable, ugly, and even a hindrance to upward mobility -- a far cry from just another harmless beauty practice.

And that's where the outrage comes from. For the black women who are able to embrace their dark chocolate skin, the black women who had to fight to assert and celebrate the beauty of their skin in a global society that often tells them that it's ugly, seeing a tanning spray called "Dark Chocolate" may feel like a mockery of their struggle. It's almost too easy, too simplistic, to merely slap the label of "appropriation" on this sort of tanning tanning. Because it's far more complex than that. The rage that sprang up from black women in response to this product wasn't blind. It wasn't trivial, either, no matter how you feel about tanning. It was a natural, gut reaction to centuries of erasure.

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