Skin Tone as a Tool of Intimidation

Sep 18 2009 Published by under Cycling

"Uh, dude? The sunscreen goes on the part that sticks out, not under your clothes."


BikeMonkey Guest Post
Let me tell you about a recent observation from a member of a very large and productive GlamourPub research group. "Gee, BigPIDude sure is looking pale these days, isn't he?". And he was. Translucent. Let's be honest here. When you have a big group headed by one domineering PI with lots of people who are there essentially for their careers (as techs or doctoral level resident scientists) they get a little nervous about the PI's health. As well they should. This business doesn't always come with a succession plan for taking over an established research group.
But this guy is hale and hearty, comparatively speaking. Gets out and exercises fairly frequently. Still likes to compete in the physical games at the company picnic. And dude's parents lived to a ripe old age. So what gives? Someone else pointed out that he's obsessed with sunscreen- lathers up copiously before venturing out into the sun. They thought it was because he has some sort of anti-skin-cancer obsession.
I think otherwise.


This comment at the top of this post was directed at two members of my cycling team, lo many a year ago, in some bemusement. They were applying the sunscreen carefully on the lily-white parts (which makes sense) of their upper limbs but avoiding applying any to their lower limbs.
It did not help that, thanks to a certain regional accent in one case and an upbringing in a stereotypically salt-of-earth region of flyover country in another, these two guys were occasionally the butt of jokes in the nature of FWDAIRL, if you knowwhatimean.
bikertan.jpg
source
There was a point of this perplexing use of sunscreen, as it emerged. That point being to emphasize the ol' biker tan (which amazingly has a Wikipedia reference). Competitive cycling takes a fair bit of time to acquire and maintain the requisite fitness levels. Even at the strictly amateur and scholastic levels of competition. Time spent out on the roads (or trails), putting in the miles. Unsurprisingly, there is some correlation between fitness/seriousness and the suntan delta from normal skin tone. So it becomes a point of pride. And, people being what they are, a point of subtle intimidation and bragging. Like certain other appearance traits that tend to indicate "I'm a serious athlete dude!".
Apparently my boyz were not above a little artificial enhancement of their appearance.
I think the BigPIDude mentioned at the start of this post is doing the same thing. Enhancing his "stuck in the office/lab, geeky facetime" cred by making sure he looks like he never sees the sun. I am sensitized to this assumption by this guy's annual letters to the lab in which he demands a certain amount of working hours, including the weekend, of his lab members. He's in the lab constantly as well. He really thinks you have to be in the lab most of your waking hours if you are a serious scientist. So I think he likes to use his translucent skin tone to both identify himself with serious scientist-ness and to intimidate others.
Kinda like a biker tan for lab geeks.
What? Whatever did you think this post was going to be about?

23 responses so far

  • I love that the dude in the picture has a layer of sunburn at the interface between brown and white.
    I liberlaly apply sunscreen to my ankles in order to ensure that they remain their pastiest in order to coax the perception of me on teh intertubez.

  • JohnV says:

    Brilliant, I never contemplated this sort of subterfuge to fool people into thinking I spent all of my time inside chained to my desk doing work. Not that its needed, with my arms being the same pale shade from shoulder to finger-tip.
    If I ever get a life and go outside and do stuff I'll have to keep this in mind.

  • Greg Laden says:

    I just thought that it was because if your legs are farther from the sun that it does not matter as much.

  • neurolover says:

    Oh come now. I think that he's just obsessed about skin cancer/sunscreen. You pale folk need to worry about that.

  • Emory K. says:

    Good catch, Dr. Isis. Toroidal melanoma is a very rare condition.

  • I buy it. I mean, if a few inches in height can mean a statistically observable delta in salary, why not wear your dedication on your sleeve by looking too pale for the outside world?
    First thing tomorrow I'm going to run out and buy a package of adhesive calusses for my hands so I can exude an aura of blue collar hardworkingness!

  • Isabel says:

    "I liberlaly apply sunscreen to my ankles in order to ensure that they remain their pastiest in order to coax the perception of me on teh intertubez."
    And you always use stock illustrations of white women to illustrate your posts. That helps too.

  • DSKS says:

    You know, it is possible to be sensibly into sport and fitness.
    It's not absolutely necessary to go wackaloon-factor-nine-Mr.-Sulu-tape-and-my-balls-to-my-ass-(cuts-down-wind-resistance, dude)-eleventy into sport.

  • bikemonkey says:

    Oh but it is DSKS, it IS.
    (h/t: abaham krashoutsky)

  • Funky Fresh says:

    See?!?! Isis is even racist because she only posts stock photos of white people!!!
    (Or, it could be that there are only stock photos of white people and she has no choice)

  • lost academic says:

    Sweet! I am naturally bone white (to the point that I can ruin photos just by being in them, being that reflective) and no amount of work and play outdoors has a significant or lasting impact on that. Combined with my significantly above average height, perhaps all that can help outweigh my 2 X chromosomes.
    (Honestly, I've worked in mines, ridden for hours, you name it - color doesn't last and I try not to give it a chance to form anyway.)

  • Cloud says:

    Hmmm. I think women are more likely to do the reverse- copiously apply sunscreen to the tanned bits and leave the white bits sadly unprotected, to try to even out the tan.
    I know of only one man who ever admitted to doing this, and he became known as "tan the upper arms guy".

  • jade says:

    "The sunscreen goes on the part that sticks out"
    That's a pretty misleading first line..

  • BKProf says:

    I believe in paleness as a marker of seriousness and intimidation. Back when I was in grad school, I was assigned to get a brand-new postdoc settled in to our GlamourPub group. Although we were in sunny CA, I was quite pale due to my natural lack of pigment and copious use of sunscreen. Quite a few other lab members were of British descent and had the same coloring. The postdoc later confessed to me that our paleness intimidated her and gave the impression that we were all laboratory hermits. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it was enough to temporarily give her second thoughts about joining the group.

  • Alex says:

    The postdoc later confessed to me that our paleness intimidated her and gave the impression that we were all laboratory hermits. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it was enough to temporarily give her second thoughts about joining the group.
    I had no idea that people analyzed things that closely. Either:
    (1) I am just very not-attuned to other people (which is probably true, I'm very much a nerd)
    or
    (2) She later made a joking remark "Yeah, you guys are so pale I thought for sure this was going to suck!" that was misinterpreted as an admission of genuine anxiety.
    I've seen plenty of people make joking remarks about minor features of a group, e.g. when I was interviewing, at the end of the Serious Questions they said "OK, now the really hard question: Where do you want to go for dinner tonight?" It wasn't actually a test to see if I fit in, just a way of defusing the tension after a bunch of Serious Questions on teaching and research. But I could see how somebody might interpret it that way.
    Or maybe it was a test to see if I fit in, and because I'm not attuned to people I didn't get it. But, I got the job, so something worked right.

  • This is a total load of horseshit. I call shenanigans. No one is purposely maintaining a pale complexion so that other people will think they work so hard that they never see the sun. These people may have reasons they wish to be, or appear, pale, but impressing others with work ethic ain't one of them.

  • stripey_cat says:

    I've done the trick of deliberately avoiding tanning (which I'd probably do anyway for health reasons - very fair skin and moles) to emphasise that I'm not interested in following mainstream fashion and social activities (which seem to revolve around sunbathing in the summer). That's not quite the same thing as emphasising indoor-ness, but they're similar in that we're using our appearances to make statements about our activities and politics.

  • BKProf says:

    "She later made a joking remark "Yeah, you guys are so pale I thought for sure this was going to suck!" that was misinterpreted as an admission of genuine anxiety."
    Alex, you may be right that her comment was made partly in jest, but the postdoc in question seemed awfully sincere about it. As she was a CA native, she probably wasn't used to seeing such a concentrated collection of pasty people.

  • Alex says:

    Well, you know her, so I shouldn't second guess whether she was serious. I'm still surprised somebody would get intimidated by something as simple as lack of sun tan.
    So, maybe it's important for members of a research group to show some sun exposure as evidence of life outside work.
    But if interest in outdoor activity is too prominently displayed, you could get the intimidating environment describe here (see the part about people who did extreme sports together and thus functioned as a clique).
    Or maybe people should just do whatever and not try to analyze whether their evident level of outdoor activity is intimidatingly high or intimidatingly low. Analyzing every variable to the tiniest degree is a good way to tie yourself in knots.

  • jc says:

    Stripeycat +1. If women tanned (spray like George Hamilton or laid out in the sun), they would be seen as not being serious about their work. How do they find the time to be so high maintenance and into their appearance? Damn girl, you got your nails done too? The nerve of her putting the Glam in GlamMag research.
    The men, well, they can do what they want. It's all good.

  • J. J. Ramsey says:

    This reminds me of an old fake ad for "Nerd-Care(TM)" in the Doonesbury comic strip:

    Nerd-Care(TM) restores the skin's natural paleness, giving you that hip, healthy pallor that says you're a serious person, that you haven't been wasting your life on a beach!

  • DrugMonkey says:

    oh yeah, loved that one. And wasn't there some panel in this (or was it a series) about "all new minty green" shade?

  • J. J. Ramsey says:

    DrugMonkey: "And wasn't there some panel in this (or was it a series) about 'all new minty green' shade?"
    If you click on the snippet of the Nerd-Care "ad" in the blog post to which I linked, you'll see a scan of the whole strip. The "minty green" bit is in the last panel.

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