Can fake tan be taken too far?

What you need to know about Blackfishing

April 14 2021

Over the past year, we’ve talked about racism more than ever before, with many of us questioning our own views and having to both learn and unlearn what made us think a certain way in the first place.

And while there have always been elements of beauty that quite clearly cross a line, one topic that tends to draw in dramatically different views is whether or not fake tan is a form of cultural appropriation or racism.

For those of us who tan regularly (and love it), the thought of this weekly ritual being seen as an offensive act may be incomprehensible. But it’s not the first time it’s been debated.

Ariana Grande is one such celebrity whose depth of tan has been contentious for some time, and largely contributed to the singer being accused of Blackfishing. In a Reddit thread on the topic, one user (who identified as white) wrote: “My personal opinion though is that Ariana is not trying to pass as Black or any other race for that matter. She is very clearly white. Her fake tan is a little out of hand, sure, but she still appears white to me.” 


While another, who identified as Black, responded with: “I think that she uses the tan to look racially ambiguous. She is just exotic enough to pique curiosity but not so exotic that she's scary.”

Others cited her Italian heritage as to why she chooses to tan so dark: “As an’s definitely an Italian thing. Wrong or right, it’s the culture.”

Parallels have also been drawn between Jersey Shore and the level to which the Italian cast would take their tans. But the same argument can’t be used for the British version Geordie Shore, which was made up of a predominantly white cast, and similarly had a large tanning culture.

In Australia, a golden, bronzed ‘beachy’ complexion has too, long been sought after. And now that many of us are clued up on the detrimental effects of the sun on our skin, fake tanning is a frequent Thursday night activity.

So is there a line when it comes to fake tan? And how do we know where it is?

Blackfishing vs Blackface

Blackfishing, firstly, should not be confused with Blackface. Pema Bakshi and Sukriti Wahi — two women of colour — help to clear that up.

“Blackfishing is a relatively new concept (at least the dialogue around it is, anyway) and does not exactly mean to necessarily mock qualities of BIPOC people, but rather seeks to emulate those identifiers,” says Bakshi.

“While many may argue that it's a good thing that these stereotypically-Black features are being celebrated and coveted, the issue with Blackfishing is that it is white women who are being celebrated and white women who are capitalising on these traits. White women who have never had to experience the racism and daily injustices that Black women have endured.” 

The fact too is that Blackfishing can be completely unintentional. “Though a lack of intention does not excuse the problematic outcome,” says Wahi.

Is using fake tan considered Blackfishing?

While fake tan can definitely be a major factor when it comes to Blackfishing, Wahi says it’s not to say all use of fake tan is automatically Blackfishing, nor cultural appropriation.

The origin of tanning isn’t one derived from racial discrimination or cultural appropriation (although one could argue that it is classist),” she tells BEAUTYcrew. “However, I have seen cases that, in my mind, could very much be seen as being on the same spectrum as cultural appropriation, with non-POC going well beyond how they would naturally tan and entering into ‘ethnically ambiguous’ territory, intentionally or otherwise.”

She says this level of fake tanning is also often made more questionable when it’s paired with certain hairstyles, makeup looks and even cosmetic procedures – a point Bakshi highlights as well.

With the new beauty standard of extreme fake tans, larger derrieres, and full lips, all with a tiny waist, button nose and smooth hair, there is a Eurocentric spin to ‘the new normal’ that, rather than putting Black women in the spotlight, still manages to exclude them from the equation.”

So where’s the line when it comes to fake tanning?

Some do say if you’ve gone past the colour you would naturally go in the sun, you’ve gone past the line. But really, there are no hard and fast rules about tanning and for many BIPOC it’s more about the intention. 

If you are non-Black or a non-POC, I think it is worth paying attention to how you tan and asking if you are going beyond what is natural and normal for you, and if yes, why you think that you should tan to that point,” says Wahi. “These sorts of things seem insidious on the surface, but over time, can contribute to a colourist beauty standard where BIPOC are still underrepresented and continuously shut out.”

“While a white person can wipe their tan off at the end of the day when they are sick of it, people of colour cannot.”

Main image credit: Getty

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