The True History of Sunbathing

As you prepare to cover up on the beach this summer, lie back and enjoy the real story behind sunbathing.

It is received wisdom that Coco Chanel accidentally invented the suntan on a yachting jaunt back in the early 1920s. Like flapper dresses, bobbed hair and automobiles, the suntan seems iconic of the new freedoms of the epoch when the Victorian age was finally put to rest and the bright young things danced a Charleston on its grave.

A UK cancer charity website sets out to debunk various ‘Tanning Myths’, including the proposition that ‘Being tanned is a sign of health’. ‘False’, it bluntly declares, but fails to enquire into the origins of this misguided belief. To do so would reveal the Coco legend to be the classic urban myth it is – and uncover a far more interesting story. ‘Cover Up’ is the public health headline that tells us how we should respond to the sun. The true history of the suntan reveals just how ironic that headline is. 

If Coco isn’t the founder of the modern cult of sun-worship, then that distinction might well fall to John Harvey Kellogg (1852–1943), inventor of the cornflake and subject of the 1990s book and movie The Road to Wellville. Kellogg has come down to us as a prime Victorian humbug, supposedly embodying the repressions of that age as much as Coco does the freedoms of the one that vanquished it. Yet Kellogg was a renowned surgeon, an early advocate of holistic medicine and the inventor not just of cornflakes and peanut butter but the electric blanket and sunbed too.

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