In Asia, the mantra “the fairer, the prettier” has long dominated conversations about female beauty. The persistent pursuit for fairer skin is particularly strong in China, where old sayings like “一白遮三丑 (white skin can covers seven flaws)” still dictate the mainstream linking fair skin color to desired femininity.
But today, a niche tanning community is rising to challenge the status quo. A heated discussion about tanning first ascended in late July when He Sui, a Chinese supermodel famous for her flawless, ultra-fair complexion, posted a group of Weibo selfies with tanned legs. “My tanning was a success. Am I a hottie from now on?” she wrote under her photos. The post quickly rose to Weibo’s top trending list, while the simple answer “why would you?” remained the top comment with over 230,000 likes.
He Sui has joined a growing number of Chinese celebrities embracing tanned, glowing skin despite inciting such reactions from mainstream audiences. Other celebrities are joining too. Wang Ju, a “plus size” singer from the 2018 TV show Produce 101 that challenged the mainstream expectation for pop idols has adopted a tan-skinned, sexy diva persona. Jike Junyi, a Chinese actress from the Yi ethnic group in Sichuan province, often accentuates her natural darker skin with bright makeup and bold jewelry on social platforms.
Most female stars in the country painstakingly strive for the prevailing Chinese beauty standard of being fair skinned, wafer-thin, and innocent looking. But a subset are embracing different ideals by showing off a glowing tan, a toned, more athletic body, and a daringly confident attitude.
For many in China’s tanning communities, the act is one of rebellion, to liberate themselves from a rigid beauty standard that demands women appear as white, youthful, and skinny as possible.
“When I first started to attend tanning sessions in a salon, my relatives would scold me for being stupid. The more they are unable to understand my choice, the more rebellious I feel and sure of what I am doing,” said Jasmine Li (@ChocoJasmine), a 28-year-old beauty blogger who has been publishing her tanning journey on social media since 2020. She tells Jing Daily, “I feel much more confident after I began tanning, since I completely broke away from what other people expect of me.”
Li is not the only one proclaiming the “transformational” quality of darkening skin. Another tanning blogger Cheng Min, who goes by @BlackPearlDani on Xiaohongshu, described a similarly liberating experience. “One of the most important changes that tanning brought me is that it gave me absolute confidence. I would often get dissed for not being white enough or pretty enough when growing up. Now I can completely ignore these noises and live for only myself,” she said in a Xiaohongshu video.
Tanned skin’s alignment with fitness, outdoor sports, and healthy lifestyles has also been key in driving public interest in recent months. On social, most bloggers discussing the topic are the same ones posting about fitness, sports, and other active lifestyles. Photos of playing frisbee, surfing, and hiking often go hand in hand with a tanned body selfie. As outdoor trends continue to thrive since the start of the pandemic, having a sun-kissed body has grown in appeal to young trendsetters.
“We saw a big jump in customers after the fitness trend took off around 2019,” Liu Yunshu, the founder of the Chengdu-based salon Sun Star Tanning, tells Jing Daily. “Our typical customers are those interested in outdoor hobbies like camping, hiking, cycling, and Frisbee. They want to look outdoorsy and tanned on the outside too, which is why they come to us”. He also stated that the number of professional tanning salons increased from two to at least eight in Chengdu since last year.
Just like fitness and outdoor lifestyles, tanning is a new status signifier among China’s affluent urbanites. “Most people in my tanning salon regularly workout and want to show off their bodies. Tanned skin really helps to make your body look more toned and fit,” says the beauty blogger Jasmine Li, who also saw tanning salons as a selective social club. “They are a great way to socialize and meet people that frequent the gym, take care of their bodies, and enjoy outdoor lifestyles.”
Yet despite its growing momentum, the practice remains very niche in China’s skincare market. The hashtag #SkinTanning has 50,000 posts on Xiaohongshu so far whereas posts with #SkinWhitening number over 250,000. The reality is that tanning’s popularity has grown in tandem with reverse trends such as “hardcore sun blocking” — referring to people wearing full-coverage outfits to block sunlight entirely. In July this year, a 27-year-old woman from Zhejiang province hit headlines after being diagnosed with osteoporosis due to a lack of sun exposure following a rigorous sun-blocking ritual.
It might still be too early to forecast whether China’s mainstream consumers will embrace tanning as much as some westerners do. But, as niche as it is today, its rise reminds us all that younger generations are looking for a break from China’s rigid beauty standards. Many are seeking something deeper beyond a glowing tan: diversity and the freedom of saying no to prescriptive beauty norms.