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.”