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The skin and the sun, a troubled relationship ever since


Freelance writer


Nowadays, getting a tan skin is mostly considered a matter of personal choice: there are plenty of products which can either make our skin darker or protect it from sunlight, thus looking tanned or keeping a pale complexion basically depends on personal taste. However, there are also cultural and historical reasons that guides our choice…
Biologically speaking, the ability of skin to darken when exposed to ultraviolet light is the result of skin adaptation to protect the DNA of cells from the damaging effects of sun rays. When it comes to humans, however, there are also cultural, historical and even sociological factors to be taken into account to explain our behaviour towards what, in the end, remains a natural phenomenon, with these factors being so important through the history of man that sometimes seem to have turned man’s approach to sunlight rather “unnatural” actually. Over the centuries, the way people reacted to seeing either dark or pale skin has changed dramatically, and the fact that people likes a nice tan in our time doesn’t mean it’s always been like that, actually it was quite the contrary just a few decades ago. Exposing skin to sunlight has indeed been influenced by cultural and sociological factors, as stated earlier, and the way we see sun exposure today is the result of a long and interesting process.


If we look at how the ancient Egyptians and Greek represented women and men in art, one can easily understand that females were often depicted with rather pale skin, while males had darker skin. Was it a “naturalistic” choice? Were women less exposed to the sun than men? This might have been true for the higher social classes, since women probably spent most of their time inside their homes, doing their chores and housekeeping, while men stayed outside, hunting, battling or participating to the social life. This, according to dr Mary Ann Eaverly, explains the use of “color differentiation” in artworks, which is an effective manner to illustrate how artists (and the civilisations they belonged to) constructed the world (1). As professor Jeffrey M. Hurwit has observed color differentiation "is primarily an ideological tool for distinguishing men and women at a cultural and political level, for inscribing gender relations”. A clear example of this can be seen in a statue representing a high-ranked couple of the XXVII century B.C: prince Rahotep, the high priest of Heliopolis, and his wife Nofret (“Beauty”). The statue, fo ...

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