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Bronzage on the beach in Les Sables Vigniers
Bronzage on the beach in Les Sables Vigniers
Pascal Ory

-Essay-

PARIS — For a superficial observer, it is one of the lesser-known cultural revolutions and a rather trivial one at that: the dramatic shift in the Western physical ideal, in just over a generation, from one skin ideal to another, from one tone to another. It is what we in French call "bronzage," similar in other Latin languages — indeed a far more aesthetically appealing term than the English "tan."

"The deepest thing about a man is his skin," French philosopher and poet Paul Valéry rightly noted in 1931, unaware of the phenomenon was unfolding around him. Chronologically, it all was happening then, between the two world wars, as can be seen in beauty-care manuals, which shifted over three decades from an outright phobia of the sun, freckles included, to its exalted worship. Geographically, it all happened in France, a country that was at the time the world reference for feminine elegance. And indeed, everything revolved around one space: the woman's body.

Factory workers were condemned to paleness

This is where the shift began, first in the 1920s, through women's magazines for the elite (the French edition of Vogue), at first very cautiously, before gaining popularity in the 1930s. Then you can see the difference between the reticence of the magazine Petit Echo de la Mode, for older women, and the enthusiasm of Marie Claire, the new magazine for their modern daughters.

But how can such a radical reversal in customs and aesthetics be explained? Certainly not in pure business terms: cosmetic company founders like Helena Rubinstein or Elisabeth Arden, were caught off-guard by the developments and took time to catch up with the new trend. The first sun products, such as the elitist "Huile de Chaldée" by Jean Patou and the more widespread "Ambre Solaire" by Eugène Schueller, accompanied and amplified a phenomenon that had started before and without them.

The key to the mystery also cannot be traced to the chic avant-garde crowd (Coco Chanel), or from a vast popular movement (paid leave). No, it happened where it had to happen: deep in the heart of society, in the culture.

Three trends would result. The most explicit one was medical. It reflected the extension of a new concept of "naturalism" in relation to the human physical and mental health, which encouraged outdoor exercise (Patou was the first sportswear designer), and sun bathing, with the touting of numerous therapeutic qualities of the sun (against tuberculosis, mainly).

The second trend was purely social: henceforth the distinction of the elites, anxious to prove their capacity for leisure in the face of common mortals, would no longer be compared to sunburnt peasants, but to poor factory workers, condemned to paleness.

The third was fundamentally political: tanning meant the gradual unveiling of the female body, until then condemned to be covered by thousands of years of puritanism. Tanning was the contemporary of shorter hair, shorter skirts and freedom from the corset.

A good tan still has a bright future.

But where are we today, at a time when we are fighting skin cancer and the hegemony of white people, who are most affected, at least in appearance, by this managed tanning. Is the white person who tans somehow a reversible "black person"? What does this mean as we debate the wearing of the headscarf and the burkini by Muslim women? Clearly, this revolution is not over yet.

Le Havre, circa 1930 — Photo: Olivier Sydney

In fact, from the 1970s onward, the total dominance of tanning was challenged by a new punk avant-garde and later by a new, widespread awareness of the health risks, which had already been cited in the 1930s.

We haven't gone back to the situation before 1914: Here and elsewhere, postmodern society juxtaposes contradictory cultures, collections of individuals bound to grow ever more individualistic.

Meanwhile, we have magazine covers, along with the success of tanning salons and city beaches, there to remind us that a good tan still has a bright future. It still appears to us as an outward sign of health and beauty, making each one of its believers a golden work of art.

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Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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