How tan lines got sexy

I once fell asleep in the sun wearing a crucifix around my neck. It wasn’t deliberate, but for the next three weeks I walked around with a white cross emblazoned on my chest. I can’t say it was a good look, but it certainly got looks. Most people will have similar tales of tan line fiascos, especially in the UK, where we get so little sun that everyone completely overdoes it, gets sunstroke and ends up painfully pink.

Now I’m not championing the lobster look, nor am I championing tanning for that matter (it’s still as dangerous and damaging as ever), but picture this. You’re on the tube and someone lifts their arm to hold onto the railing above their head. As they do, their shirt rides up to reveal a glimpse of waistband, and with it, a tan line that points to where briefs or bikini-bottoms once sat. That’s hot. But why?

From bra-straps to logoed-boxers, a flash of side-boob, or even — at one point in time — a bare ankle; sex appeal can always be found in the places most commonly concealed. To have the privilege of seeing part of someone usually hidden from the world, is undeniably steamy. It makes sense then, that tan lines would get our pulses racing.

More than just a marker of where clothes used to be, tan lines are a gentle reminder of who we used to be. Washed out, tired, likely struggling with SAD (seasonal affective disorder brought on by dark, cold, winter months), bundled into woolly jumpers to try and convince ourselves that happiness can be found in ‘cosiness’ too. Not only is it warmer and brighter now, the days are longer, the trees are greener, nights out are livelier, people are friendlier and London is doing what London does best: summer.

Whilst typing this article, I’m in direct view of my own stripey fingers. Pale bands left where I once wore rings; my wrist is haloed by a larger stripe, the memory of a hairband that’s now keeping hair out my face. I can almost taste the sea air just looking at them. The reigning queen of swimwear selfies — as well as founder of her own bikini line ‘Inamorata’ — Emily Ratajkowski is no stranger to contour lines left behind by the sun. Late last year, the model posted a photo on Instagram wearing nothing but the tan lines left behind by her bikini. It got 1.2 million likes.

Meanwhile on red carpets, Bella Hadid, Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna have all been pictured wearing strapless dresses with the added accessory of an accidental bikini strap tan line.

On TikTok, a different type of tanning is taking over. Gen Z today is using fake tan to contour their face before bed. They’ll apply a line of fake tan lotion beneath their cheekbones, collar bones, jawline and temples and wash it off in the morning to reveal a sculpted, bronzed, “natural” contour look (those that get it right at least).

Rihanna showing off her tan lines

/ Getty Images

And who can discount the universal appeal of Jeremy Allen White, aka Carmy from FX’s hit series The Bear, jogging through LA with a distinct shade difference highlighting his spectacularly ripped torso?

I repeat, you should not be lying in the sun, and you absolutely should be wearing sunscreen on a daily basis — even during winter months. But, maybe, just maybe, like a semi-permanent tattoo that signifies good times, the next time I get a spray tan I’ll be leaving that hairband on my wrist.

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