‘I didn’t even notice you’d had a spray tan done’: The role of distinction in the production of femininities in the beauty salon.
At the time of year when we're encouraged to get "glowing holiday skin", we revisit this thoughtful exploration of the spray tan from 2016.
3. Where possible, always shave or wax at least 24 hours prior to a spray tan appointment, as hair removal after a spray tan will remove the tan.
6. Try to avoid activities that involve excessive perspiring for 12 hours after a spray tan.
7. Try to avoid activities that naturally exfoliate the skin – such as baths and chlorinated pool swimming – for at least 12 hours after your spray tan.
12. Exfoliate from head to toe the day prior to a spray tan, paying particular attention to areas such as your knees, elbows and ankles.
21. After a shower, try to gently pat your skin dry and avoid vigorous rubbing when towel drying.
Pre-twentieth century, ‘pale skin was often perceived as a mark of beauty, wealth and refinement’ (Martin et al. 2009: 2140) and ‘a tan was considered a mark of the lower classes’ (Segrave 2005: 5). However, since the 1920s, amongst white Europeans, this has been reversed with a tan becoming desirable and even worked upon: taking up sunbathing as a hobby, using sun beds under UV light or, increasingly, turning to artificial tanning products to achieve the desired look. In 2011, the BBC reported that ‘retail analysts Mintel estimate that Britons spend £35m a year on fake tan products from shops, and spend millions more on lotions and sprays in salons’. During a half hour trip to the beauty salon, you can have this marker of health, wealth, leisure and style (and indeed class) literally sprayed onto your body. Except, if it is too orange, too obviously artificial: the glamour of the (fake) tan ‘easily slid[ing] into tartiness’ (Holliday and Sanchez Taylor 2006: 192) or ‘tackiness’ (Skeggs 1997: 76). In my research into the diversity of beauty treatments in London, one of my white, middle-class respondents commented that a spray tan 'should look like you've just returned from a week in Ibiza'. Consider the difference between this and, as The Sun describes, ‘the Towie ‘you’ve been Tango’d’ look’.
In this post I want to explore ethnographically having a spray tan in order to consider not only, in Bourdieu’s terms, ‘the sign-bearing, sign-wearing body’ in which ‘the body is the most indisputable materialization of class taste’ (1984: 192, 190) but to elaborate on this to think through how meaning, materiality, emotion and sensation are equally entangled in the production of femininities in the beauty salon.
Before attending a wedding in early August, I have decided to have a spray tan to even out my tan lines and to look good in my wedding attire. I have started writing this blog post on the morning of my appointment and will continue during the day as I ‘fake bake’ at home: an experiment in ‘live sociology’ (Back and Puwar 2012).
Photo 1: #sexybrownskin
I have followed the instructions: I have depilated, exfoliated and moisturised, I have planned the clothing I will wear so as not to rub the tan and I am relieved it’s not raining (not the case on the occasion of my first spray tan when I arrived at the salon with a huge umbrella, a change of clothes, a baseball cap and a waterproof jacket – desperately trying to avoid getting wet and streaking the tan which would have given away its artificiality). The labour that goes into the spray tan, into avoiding streaking, rubbing, smudging, tell-tale dry patches, and uneven colour, is labour to ensure that the artifice of the tan remains invisible.
Photo 2: Tell-tale orange flecks on my palm
As I leave the salon after the spray tan and wait for the bus, I am feeling faintly ridiculous, as if my suddenly-very-brown skin is extremely obvious and the other people at the bus stop will surely know. I find myself looking for other tanned people as if to reassure myself that this could pass as natural. Despite wearing loose clothing, as I walk along I can feel my trousers sticking to my inner thighs and I worry they are going to make the tan smudge. I am also feeling slightly sticky with a not unpleasant but vaguely chemically woody smell emanating from my skin, a scent that will linger for as long as the ‘tan’.
Photo 3: The sleeve of the jacket I wore home from the salon
Arriving at home, I now have to wait between 2 and 6 hours (depending on how ‘tanned’ I want to be (look) before showering. I have decided to ‘bake’ for around 5 hours as, of course, I want the tan to be noticeable however I am also anxious that this will be too long resulting in an unnatural orangey colour. I worry that leaving the colour to develop for too long will not only mark the tan as artificial but also distinguish me as the sort (class?) of person who uses fake tanning products.
Photo 4: Beginning to wash off the ‘tan’
4 ½ hours have passed and I decide to wash the colour off, I shower until the water runs clear. Looking down at my body at first I am disappointed, there doesn’t seem to be any noticeable effect. Then looking in a mirror, I begin to worry that I am looking exactly the shade of orange that I had hoped to avoid; in another room, in another light, I look like I have a healthy glow. Again, walking down to the shops, I appear at first to have overdone it and then to look ‘natural’, are those admiring glances? or looks of ridicule? (or more likely neither).
Photo 5: A panicking reaction
Through recording my own experience (as a white, middle-class, cis-gendered woman) of getting a spray tan done, I hope to have opened up a way of thinking about the production of femininity, and in this case, the production of a purportedly ‘respectable’ femininity – ‘white, desexualised, hetero-feminine and usually middle-class’ (Skeggs 1997: 82) – as more than the meanings projected onto and by a body, Bourdieu’s ‘sign-bearing, sign-wearing body’. Rather I have sought to highlight the spray tan as a process in which both meaning and materiality are inextricably entangled. It is in this ethnographic exploration of a spray tan, the account of the (invisiblised) labour that goes into it, the tanning product itself as a lively force, my anxiety not to be misrecognised as some ‘tasteless’ Other, and my reactions to the ‘finished product’, that the production of (classed) femininities has revealed itself as a thoroughly material, sensorial, embodied and affective process.
Back, L. and Puwar, N. (2012) ‘A manifesto for live methods: Provocations and capacities’ in Back, L. and Puwar, N. (eds.) Live Methods, Malden and Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell/The Sociological Review.
Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction, London: Routledge.
Holliday, R. and Sanchez-Taylor, J. (2006) ‘Aesthetic surgery as false beauty’, Feminist Theory 7:2, 179-195.
Martin, J.M, Ghaferi, J.M, Cummins, D.L, Mamelak, A.J, Schmults, C.D, Parikh, M, Speyer, L-A, Chuang, A, Richardson, H.V, Stein, D. and Liégeois, N.J. (2009) ‘Changes in skin tanning attitudes: Fashion articles and advertisements in the early twentieth century’, Public Health Then and Now 99:12, 2140-2146.
Segrave, K. (2005) Suntanning in the Twentieth Century, Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc.
Skeggs, B. (1997) Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable, London: Sage.
Louise Rondel is a PhD student in the department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, her interests include: production of space; bodies-cities; promises of monsters; be(com)ing beautiful; haptic geographies; space invaders.