TikTokers Are Using Extra


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Aug 07, 2023

TikTokers Are Using Extra

By Chloe Laws Every so often, a phrase will enter TikTok vernacular and throw me

By Chloe Laws

Every so often, a phrase will enter TikTok vernacular and throw me for a loop. This happened recently, when a video about "tanning dysmorphia" popped up on my FYP (or For You Page, if you aren't on the app).

I’m from the UK, where there's an extreme culture of sun beds and beauty standards that encourage tanning; whole regions, like Essex, are world-renowned for their love of deep-orange tans. Across the pond we even have a very icky but common turn-of-phrase to describe this preoccupation: "tanorexia." "Indoor tanning" has been on the decline in the US, but there are still millions of people across this country who use sun beds every year. [Editor's note: And, unfortunately, people say tanorexia here too.]

So, when I first heard people talking about tanning dysmorphia, I dismissed it as another ignorant phrase. In the past few weeks, however, I have seen the same TikTok video format again and again, (mostly) of teenage girls using the term sincerely, alongside a viral filter.

The videos start with people who look ghostly white under the cast of a filter, and then quickly the screen changes, revealing their actual (very bronzed) skin. One video is captioned, "Tan dysmorphia? Not after this filter." There is no evidence that the filter was designed for this use, but a trend has been born from it nonetheless. People are using the filter to "feel better" about their tan — and put them off going darker.

The original filter being used for these videos has since been removed from the app, but the videos that feature it are still up. And a lot of similar filters are still available, such as Cotton, with 202k videos, and Ratu, which has 40.3k videos.

On noticing this trend, my feelings were nuanced: My knee-jerk reaction was to roll my eyes, but after I scrolled through more videos, I felt a mix of sympathy, confusion, and genuine curiosity. Sympathy because it's clear these young girls do feel dysphoric about their tans, confusion because tanning is a controversial topic on many levels, and curiosity because I wasn't sure the term "tan dysmorphia" had any real merit.

Tanning, in general, is problematic, as are these videos. It's not just tanning beds that can be dangerous — the normalized activity of tanning naturally, in the sun, is extremely detrimental to our skin and health. As the Skin Cancer Foundation succinctly puts it, "It's a fact: There is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan. Tanning increases your risk of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma."

The statistics are shocking, with skin cancer being the most common cancer worldwide. Having five or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma, with about 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Sun beds, or indoor tanning beds, are even more dangerous than natural sunlight. To put it in perspective, a sun bed used by someone under the age of 30 increases their risk of skin cancer by an alarming 75%.

And yet, many of us continue to bake our skin on vacation and put tanned skin on a pedestal, even as colorism and racism persist against people with naturally darker skin tones. Even if you are using self-tanning lotions and creams, which are, in fact, a safe alternative to UV exposure or sun beds, it can be taken to an extreme.

Skin cancer is the biggest concern here, but it goes further than that. "Tanning can have a negative impact on body image for some individuals," says Dr. Ifeoma Ejikeme, a skin expert and founder of Adonia Medical Clinic. "Society's perception of tanned skin as desirable or attractive can create pressure on individuals to achieve a certain skin tone. This pressure can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction or inadequacy with one's natural skin color, potentially affecting body image."

There's a consensus among the experts I spoke with for this story that "tanning dysmorphia" isn't the correct phraseology here, but it is possible that feeling the need to darken your skin tone could be connected to body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). In 2006, Dr. Katharine Phillips, professor of psychiatry at New York-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, studied this specifically and found that "darkening one's skin color by direct exposure to sunlight or artificial light is motivated by a desire to improve a perceived appearance defect." She added, "About 25% of people with BDD excessively tan. Most often, they do this to darken what they consider to be too pale, or ‘ghostly’-looking skin."

As with many body-image related matters, social media is an exacerbating factor. "Social media has made it possible to constantly compare ourselves to idealized others, and to think of ourselves as potentially ‘on display’ in front of an audience," Dr. Dara Greenwood, an associate professor of psychological science at Vassar College, tells Allure. "The irony with these kinds of preoccupations and perceptions is that they can function as a self-fulfilling prophecy — the self-focus, however negative, that comes with body preoccupation can make genuine social connections more challenging, which can then bring about the very alienation that someone seeks to avoid by looking ‘perfect.'"

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Reactions to these videos have been largely dismissive, including joking comments that say "I'm struggling with money dysmorphia" and "Existing dysmorphia here." There's a palpable feeling that using the words "tanning" and "dysmorphia" together is facetious, with other users adding that "everything dysmorphia now" and "Y’all said tan dysmorphia 😂😂 people be comin up wit whatever they be feelin like."

But this conversation needs to go beyond a TikTok comment section. Dr. Ejikeme suggests that "while tanning dysmorphia may not be a widely recognized or diagnosed condition, it is crucial to acknowledge that societal beauty standards can impact individuals differently based on their cultural background, experiences, and racial identity."

All of this begs the question: When has a person gone too far?

It's imperative to any conversation about tanning that the cultural impacts of colorism are addressed. There's a fine line between tanning and Blackfishing; one that has been crossed many times — and sparked debate on TikTok.

If you’re feeling dysphoric about the color of your skin, Dr. Ejikeme encourages having a consultation with a doctor or mental health provider to "provide guidance on safe and healthy ways to care for skin and help individuals develop a healthier relationship with their appearance." Adds Dr. Phillips, if you’re thinking about the appearance of your tan or skin tone for a total of at least an hour a day, it's important to see a doctor who can help manage any emotional distress or interference in day-to-day functioning that the perceived flaws are creating.

And, as always, remember to wear sunscreen.

More on tanning:

Now watch RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars S8 queens react to TikTok trends.

Don't forget to follow Allure on Instagram and Twitter.

More on tanning: Now watch RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars S8 queens react to TikTok trends.