Though fair ('white') skin has always been - and in many places still is - sought after, Europe and its offshoots have gone off it lately. This has been due to the increasing popularity of long-distance 'holidays', typically to warm and sunny places.
This wasn't always so (and still isn't for many). Throughout the pre-1950s world, fair and un-calloused skin was a sign of having the money not to need to do outdoor work or manual labour. Great lengths were taken to maintain pale and dainty skin, including using lead and arsenic based makeup and, during certain fashion cycles, ladies carrying parasols whenever going outside. There's a reason that in pre-modern times the word "fair" came to be a synonym of "beautiful."
Tanned skin was one of the new "beauty standards" promoted by Coco Chanel in the early 20th century, but it didn't quite take off until the '50s and '60s, when people actually had the money and the means to do this kind of thing. Tanned skin was a sign that you had both the money and the free time to visit nice places with fresh air and sun, something just not possible for Europe's middle classes in the twenties and thirties.
Tanning reached its apex in The Seventies, where every actress and model had to have a dark orange tan in order to be considered attractive. Tan lines from swimsuits were not considered unattractive, but a "farmer's tan"—the kind you get by actually working outdoors— is still considered a sign of low social class. This has also led to the rise of tanning salons, sunbeds and hours of sun-exposure without any form of UV protection, which consequently led to a rise in skin cancer, particularly in young people.
Today, the extent of this trope varies from country to country. In most of Asia paler is better, but in the UK "a bit of brown" is considered healthy. A surprising number of people have no idea that many (perhaps most) redheads are physically incapable of tanning because their skin cells don't have enough of the compound (melainin) required to defend themselves from UV radiation by darkening. A pale redhead could burn themselves lobster red, but once the burn goes away they'll be just as sickly-pale as before. Many blondes and even some brunettes have this deficiency as well, especially those of Nordic-Germanic descent.
Usually this trope is Played for Laughs at the expense of someone's 'sickening paleness'.
Also see Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette, Evil Albino, Undeathly Pallor. Contrast But Not Too Black - despite the name, mind, this trope is not strictly its opposite. Compare But Not Too Foreign.
Not to be confused with Dark Is Not Evil.
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The famous (and somewhat sleazy) ad for Coppertone sun lotion features a nicely tanned little blonde girl having her swim trunks pulled down by a dog, exposing her pasty white buttocks. The ad's slogan? "Don't Be a Paleface!"
In an inversion, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart from the Twilight movies have been praised for their pale looks and many hope they can lower the skin cancer rates for teens due to excessive tanning. But considering the silly and sometimes dangerous things people have tried in order to make themselves more pale, others think that replacing one unrealistic beauty goal with another is not going to make anyone healthier.
Hannibal (to Face, who just stepped out of a tanning booth): You are really, really tan.
In Final Destination 3, two of the would-be roller coaster victims are a couple of shallow blondes who decide that the best way to prepare for their graduation is to go to the tanning salon, just like when they tanned to get ready for the funeral of their classmates who died in the coaster crash. This being a Final Destination movie, this ends really badly for both of them.
Bromley from Daybreakers mentions that Edward looks good with a tan after he turned back into a human.
Iron Man 2: If you look closely at Justin Hammer's palms, you'll notice that they are bright orange. Apparently Justin was a little overzealous with the fake-n-bake and forgot to wash his hands afterwards.
The Noughts & Crosses series runs with this. It takes place in an alternate universe where whites (the noughts) were subjugated by the blacks (crosses). In this world, having any coloured skin that's paler than a chocolate brown will not do you any favors.
Live Action Television
In an episode of Happy Endings, when Brad hears that Dave's new girlfriend wants to make a sex-tape, he warns Dave that he's very white, "like the ghost of Tilda Swinton."
Joked with in an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati when Venus, Andy and Andy's visiting sister get to talking about skin color:
Venus: You know, I'm not really black, I'm sort of cocoa brown. [points to Andy] And you're beige. [points to Johnny Fever] But that dude is white.
On Degrassi, Paige and her boyfriend (who is also her teacher) are in the park enjoying themselves and they ridicule a guy's pale white legs — and then they later find out it's her other teacher Mr. Simpson.
Cheers. Carla used to mock Diane Chambers for being whitebread, and mocked her as "whitey". Diane would defend her pale skin as "alabaster". Then came Lilith (played by Bebe Neuwirth, whose real skin tone was very pale.)
Frasier. Lilith's paleness was often mocked, and even lampshaded by Lilith herself late in the series in the episode "Lilith Needs a Favor".
Albert (played by the ultra-pale Brent Spiner, aka Data): No, actually, I'm always this pale. My ex-wife used to say she could tell when I was embarrassed because I'd turn off-white.
Lilith: I can empathize. Sometimes after a late night, I cover my under-eye circles with Liquid Paper.
The BBC comedy sketch show Goodness Gracious Me had a sketch which poked fun at the Indian idealisation of pale skin, with a deathly pale but quite obviously Indian shop assistant touting cosmetics to make skin look paler. When the customer asked what she used she indignantly insisted she was that pale naturally. Like several other sketches on the show, it was poking fun at Indians who basically didn't want to be Indian, but wanted to be white (see also the Kapoors, sorry, Coopers).
Burn Notice features Gabrielle Anwar playing a tanned, sun-worshipping Irishwoman living in Miami. The odds are pretty good that any real Irishwoman living in sun-soaked Miami and wearing the clothes she wears would look like an overgrown lobster.
More as a way of venting her disgust, Deb uses Lilah's paleness as one way of insulting her, asking Dexter what kind of person is pale in Miami. "A pale, English, titty vampire." Dexter, of course, being Dexter, says, "You just described my ideal woman," in that voice. You know the one. Batista also comments favourably on her china-doll complexion and gets burned (no pun intended) by Lilah in the end.
Glee frequently draws attention to Kurt's fair skin. Not only does he have a mildly obsessive skincare routine, but when he asks Coach Sylvester to stop calling him 'Lady,' his new nickname becomes 'Porcelain.' Emma also called him "an eleven-year-old milkmaid" a few times.
In Jeremiah, the black nationalist group Shadow of the Crescent dislike seeing Elizabeth when she comes with Kurdy to forge links with them for Thunder Mountain, because she's light-skinned, of mixed race and has a "white" name. Kurdy calls them out on this soundly, noting how many leaders in black empowerment (including the nationalists like Malcolm X) were themselves of mixed race descent, and certainly didn't reject those who were.
Played with in that many white-American pop stars since Elvis gained fame by not singing in an entirely "white" musical style, drawing from traditionally African-American styles as blues, rock'n'roll, R&B, rap, etc. Elvis, The Beatles, Eminem, Christina Aguilera, and Robin Thicke are examples, and there are probably hundreds more. American Idol is largely based off this idea that you can't sing too white if you want to make it.
Nicola Roberts of the British pop group Girls Aloud was often derided as "the ugly one" in the press because her extremely pale skin and bright red hair made her stand out in stark contrast◊ to her bandmates' tanner complexions. It's mostly abated by now as she has used her paleness as the basis for starting and marketing a successful make up range for pale women.
Jazz singer Renee Geyer was advised to release an album without a photograph of her on the cover, since she was very white and the music genre she was singing for was black dominated. She refused to listen to the advice and the album tanked.
Bobby Caldwell was advised not to release his portrait with his music to hide his skin color. Many of his new fans were not aware of his ethnicity until they saw his music videos or live shows.
Even Madonna fell victim to this trope early in her career. Her debut single, "Everybody," had an "urban" sound, and her producers thought listeners would be put off if they knew she was white, so the single's cover art was just a collage of a city street and didn't show her face. She had to fight to be featured in the music video. But obviously, Madonna has since fared better than Ms. Geyer mentioned above.
Sheamus plays up his Irish heritage with his pale skin. This makes him stand out amongst almost every other Caucasian WWE wrestler, most of whom have tanned skin. Of course, Sheamus's skin is often poked fun at on wrestling online forums. Sheamus has said in interviews that he actually tried to get a tan early in his pre-WWE career, but would just turn red then back to white. Realizing that his pale skin and red hair gave him a unique look, however, he decided to just go with that. On an episode of Raw, John Cena referred to him as a big tub of mayonnaise. Also mentioned in NXT. Edge has also gotten a chance to poke fun at Sheamus's paleness, remarking that Raw had apparently "been taken over by an evil Ronald McDonald!" As has Santino Marella in a few hilarious segments, joking about Sheamus's "lack of skin pigmentation.* He's nicknamed "The Great White". Not the great white anything, just the Great White. Although a fan once held up a poster with Sheamus' name and a drawing of a shark fin.
Eighties wrestler King Kong Bundy also had particularly pale skin, which he accentuated by wearing a black one-piece wrestling costume. Legend has it that one commentator, seeing this over 400-pound, milky-white monstrosity dressed in black, promptly dubbed him "Shamu."
When he first debuted, The Undertaker was very pale as well; combined with his dyed black hair, dark clothes, and mannerisms, it made him very creepy. Being a natural redhead, he was probably also naturally that pale.
"I'm getting sick and tired of all these people giving me crap about what color my skin is. Do you know what? Yeah, I'm pale - what's the big deal? Samoa Joe made a big deal about it in Connecticut, Christian made a big deal about it in Long Island, but you know what? It doesn't matter what color my skin is, because I'm the best wrestler in the world! I beat Homicide, I beat everybody that Ring of Honor has put in front of me! And d'you know what? THAT is what makes me a MAN! And do you know what's unmanly? All these idiots talking about my skin color, going and sitting in front of a bunch of fluorescent lights with goggles and a Speedo!"
Subverted with Aksana who is a pale skinned Lithuanian. Old photos from her Fitness competition days show her tanned and looking rather unnatural compared to how she looks now. Next to all the other girls on the roster she's quite pale but the announcers don't acknowledge this and talk up how attractive she is. Photos from her fitness competition days will make her look unnatural. Because of the incredibly harsh lighting (and the fact that darker skin highlights muscle tone better) most fitness athletes use several layers of a very dark sunless tanner (like Pro-Tan or Dream-Tan) to darken their skin to bizarre levels. They'll look normal on stage but backstage will look like they're covered in rust. Look up photos of any fitness model or bodybuilder, and there will be a mix of onstage, backstage, and off-season photos that will show this. There are pictures of her from her modeling days as a blonde, though.
Winter from TNA is a pale-skinned German born English woman who frequently gets "get a tan" chanted at her from crowds. However many fans do find her attractive so she might count as a subversion.
It's a staple of Pro Wrestling that many wrestlers will have to tan when competing on shows as the lights in the arenas will make them appear more pale than they actually are, as Sheamus demonstrates. This is especially glaring (no pun intended) in larger arenas where high intensity lights are needed and are thus not flattering to those with pale skin. According to Maria Kanellis, the wrestlers in WWE previously just used fake tan but when they switched to HD they had to start tanning naturally. Randy OrtonmockedChristian for continuing to use fake tanner in the HD era, as it makes his skin appear yellow.
FCW's Paige (also known as Brittani Knight from Pro Wrestling EVE) has opted for the no tan look as well which fits her Anti-Diva character. She previously tanned normally in EVE and SHIMMER.
MsChif was still getting jeered for her pale complexion even in 2002, after she had been with Gateway Championship Wrestling for a year. It appears wrestling fans did get used to it eventually though, as she was voted "sexiest" at Missouri Wrestling Revival in 2012. Sean Vincent and Ryan Ash never seemed to get past it though, while Billy McNeil seemed to get a free pass for being redheaded and Irish.
Mixed Martial Arts featherweight Erik Koch had noticeably pale skin for a fighter before getting a sponsorship deal with a tanning company. Since then, he's sported an unnatural orange complexion.
Bill Hicks had a bit where him going to the beach would be accompanied by shouts of "Bill put your shirt back on! We can't find our towels!" He also comments that "There are all these beautiful people with tan skin and white teeth. I have white skin and tan teeth."
A major portion of Jim Gaffigan's act is him making fun of his own paleness.
In one Teen Girl Squad comic in the Homestar Runner universe, when Cheerleader complains that she wanted to go to "Coach Conrad's Sit-Up Camp For Shirtless Boys" instead of ending up at "Cosplayover Camp," Science Fiction Greg says, "Oh, I can take my shirt off!" Cheerleader is instantly charred in the "Blinding Voip" that reflects off Sci-Fi Greg's pasty white skin. Which is an Informed Deformity of course, since the whole cartoon looks like uncolored stick figures on white paper.
When Francis of PvP takes off his shirt to attach mechanical arms to his back, his pale complexion becomes a point of mockery and amusement for those observing.
Ctrl+Alt+Del also has a strip where Ethan is so white he goes red from massive sunburn from a few seconds of exposure to beach daylight.
The South Park episode "Ginger Kids" revolves around the premise that Cartman believes all children who look like this to be soulless vampires who want to kill non-"ginger" children. Angered that pale-skinned kids at the school start to get bullied because of this bigotry, Kyle and Stan decide to teach Cartman a lesson by dyeing his hair red and painting his face with pale makeup and fake freckles while he sleeps. When Cartman wakes up, he believes himself to be actually "ginger" and mounts a supremacist crusade for "Red Power." Hilarity Ensues.
Metalocalypse: Even when not wearing their onstage corpse makeup, the members of Dethklok are implied to be pale-skinned, as two of them are Scandinavians, the red-headed drummer is "very Irish…American", and they rarely step outside their poorly lit castle. This trope is averted in the "Bluesklok" episode, where they all burn to a bright pink because blues is about suffering. Except for Toki. He tans quite nicely, which compliments the fact that he's the only member of the band who's in shape.
Page image comes from an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, where Craig Mammalton (a hilariously overtanned seal) comes to town and everyone is in a tanning frenzy in order to be popular enough to get into his party. Spongebob ends up tanning too much and becoming "sun bleached", and the episode is about his efforts to hide this fact until his secret is revealed at the party and Craig, recognizing his pale state for what it is, worships the ground upon which Spongebob walks for his devotion to tanning.
This appears to be the case in Victoria's Secret campaigning and marketing where usually black, Latina, or mixed-race models like Tyra Banks, Adriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio, Ana Beatriz Barros, Izabel Goulart, and Isabeli Fontana received more attention and publicity than their more "conventional" Northern European counterparts. And on annual fashion shows they wore the most posh costumes, always had maximum walks and usually walked either in the beginning or in the end of they show. This practice seemed to finally cease when Behati Prinsloo, Candice Swanepoel, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Erin Heatherton and Lily Aldridge joined in 2009-2010 (although they still had to wait years to become Angels, while Black/Korean Chanel Iman became one immediately as soon as she got signed). But than again guess who stole the show in 2010? Ale & Lima, who else?
Light skinned Indigenous Australians have been discriminated against by anti-discrimination hiring policies, such as those for an Indigenous liaison officer. One woman was turned down for the job because she was too light skinned, and the (white) employer thought a darker skinned Aboriginal would be better, despite the fact that Indigenous people identify each other as Indigenous through their connection to their people and their ancestral lands, rather than the pantone shade of their skin. See here.