Tanning in demand as darker skin gains greater acceptance
Chinese women traditionally prefer fairer skin, but increasing numbers of them are diversifying their approach to feminine beauty.
Li Xiaoyin, 25, a bodybuilding enthusiast from Shanghai, said that after her boyfriend broke up with her because she had darker skin, she sought medication to give herself a fairer complexion.
However, this failed to have the desired effect. "My physical and mental health actually worsened after taking the medication, so I decided to accept and love my appearance," Li said.
"Initially, this was hard. I had to persuade myself to accept the way I looked, my figure and my skin color. I told myself that not everyone is born to have light skin. It sounds ridiculous, but it took me quite a long time to accept my appearance," she said.
"Sunshine used to be my enemy, but now I ride bikes and go surfing and hiking. All these activities expose me to the sun, but I feel relaxed, rather than afraid of getting a tan."
Li is not alone. More women are redefining their approach to beauty by choosing to get tanned in beauty salons.
Maggie Xue, a 45-year-old sales manager at a sports product company in Beijing, has been tanning regularly in salons for nearly 10 years. During this time, she has witnessed changes in people's perception of darker skin and beauty tanning.
"I started visiting beauty tanning salons in 2012, when this market was beginning to emerge. Many of my friends and family members told me it was not feminine to have darker skin, but I wanted to be unconventional, trendy and fashionable," Xue said.
A bodybuilder in her spare time, she loves to tan, and has never felt uncomfortable with criticism of her approach to feminine beauty.
"It's all about appreciating a different kind of beauty, and perhaps a different lifestyle. Some women look beautiful with fair skin, but I feel good with my skin tanned. We need to accept who we are and respect other people," Xue said.
She added that she feels her tanned skin has gained increased public acceptance.
"Few shops used to sell beauty tanning products, which I bought on my overseas travels. Now, we have more such choices at home," she said.
With more women tanning and pursuing physical fitness, the beauty tanning market has grown rapidly despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Xue said she treats her skin carefully to get an even, glossy and lasting tan. "I pay great attention to body cleansing and body care before and after tanning. I go to the salon twice a week, or three times in two weeks, to tan in a vertical booth," she said.
She became worried when tanning salons suspended business due to COVID-19 restrictions. "At the time, I couldn't go anywhere for tanning, and the sun is not strong enough for this during winter in Beijing. I remember rushing back to the salon after hearing it had resumed business," she said.
Xue added that it takes nearly an hour to complete the entire beauty tanning process.
"First, I wash myself. I then take five or six minutes to apply tanning oil and cream to my body — including the soles of my feet. I stand in the booth for 10 minutes to get the tan, before transferring to another vertical booth — an anti-aging one — to tighten and compact the skin. After completing these processes, I apply lotions to my skin."
She said she spends about 10,000 yuan ($1,395) a year visiting salons and buying tanning lotions and creams.
Yu Xuefei, 36, a communications engineer in Beijing, said she first visited a salon this summer, as she feared earlier that sunbathing may give her an uneven tan.
"I used to sunbathe on a roof during summer, but it can take quite a long time to get a tan this way. As I don't have that much time to spare, I started going to a salon," she said.
"The tanning machine saves time, and it gives me an even skin color. I visit the salon once a week in summer and every two weeks in winter. It costs me 500 or 600 yuan per month on average."
Yu took her time deciding to get a tan. "I was afraid I might not look good with darker skin, and that the process would be irreversible, but now I really love my skin color, and I look well toned," she said.
According to analysts, the tanning industry in China and elsewhere in Asia has still to be fully explored.
According to Market Monitor, a consultancy in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, Asia comprises a small proportion of the global tanning spray business.
The consultancy said that in Europe, tanning spray sales reached $131 million in 2019, or nearly 41 percent of the global market, while the Asian market that year saw revenue of $47 million, or about 14.6 percent of the world market share.
Diesel Long, who runs a tanning salon in Haidian district, Beijing, said the public has shown a more friendly and inclusive attitude toward beauty tanning in recent years.
"European countries used to advocate fair, or even pale skin colors. Beauty tanning became popular in the United States in the 1920s as the country grew into a manufacturing power. This market also grew in Europe at that time," Long said.
"People used to view light and fair skin as symbolizing prosperity, but now tanned skin has become more popular, as wealthy people have more spare time for such beauty treatment."
Long took to beauty tanning even though his fair skin was constantly admired by his family members.
"I thought that a man with fair skin was a sissy, so I attended numerous outdoor events to get a darker skin, but failed to do so. In 2015, I spent a holiday in Shanghai going for beauty tanning, and was amazed that the machine gave me a lasting tan. I love my skin color and have made many friends in the tanning community," Long said.
In 2017, he invested nearly 1 million yuan on opening his own tanning salon.
"To my surprise, we made good money in the first month, and business didn't suffer that much when COVID-19 emerged early in 2020. We reopened the salon on Feb 15 that year, when most businesses in the area remained closed due to the epidemic," he said.
Long added that safety is always the priority in beauty tanning. "We usually have a discussion with new customers to get to know their skin type, age, medical history and current health condition to ensure they are suitable for tanning. We then introduce them to the tanning products to give them an even and long-lasting skin color," he said.
The salon now has about 500 members and is making a good profit.
"The customers' ages range from 18 to about 60, with those in the 28 to 45 age group comprising the majority. Women have the same, or even higher desire for beauty tanning compared with our male customers," Long said.
"We organized three tanning competitions for customers to vote for their favorite skin color. It was purely for entertainment, but many of my clients joined in," he said.
Zhao Yinong, a 32-year-old sports and fashion blogger who has about 3.66 million followers on Sina Weibo, said beauty tanning enables women to stop being self-conscious and ashamed of their bodies.
"I have witnessed a significant change in the appreciation of skin color. When I was 12, I was told that beautiful women should have fair skin, so I started to lose weight. When I was 22 and living in the United Kingdom, I regularly went to the gym, and when I was 30, I took part in outdoor sport events," she said.
"When I was in the UK, I posted selfies of my shoulder muscles, but my family members messaged me to say that I looked ugly and that women shouldn't be that strong.
"I then took up outdoor activities, which darkened my skin, but I was told by women about the same age as myself that my skin was too dark. When I had a short haircut, my husband's friends even jokingly asked whether he could tolerate a wife without any feminine charms."
Zhao said she viewed herself as an "experiment" in the struggle to free herself from traditional perceptions of feminine beauty, adding: "I feel extremely good now and fully accept myself. I live my way and follow my own will.
"But many women still adhere to the mainstream concept of beauty — dressing well and wearing fine makeup to find a good job or even a husband.
"There are women who try to pursue the lifestyle they really want, but fear that no one will love or accept them if they have a tanned skin. Then there are the women who don't care about comments or judgments from the public, and who are determined to find their real selves.
"I've gone through all these exacting experiences. Skin color is a good way to test whether you can follow your preferred lifestyle."
Zhao added that women worry much more about their bodies and appearance than men, and she hopes the public can accept a more diversified form of beauty.
"I really wish that different lifestyles and skin colors win respect and praise," she said.