Rise and Shine: Sunlight, Technology and Health

By Simon Carter | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Beyond the Pale: Sun, Danger and Delight

The idea of intentionally exposing one's body to the sun is a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, at the end of the nineteenth century sun exposure was commonly regarded in one of two ways: first, for the many men serving the needs of empire and stationed overseas the sun was a danger leading to a variety of ills and even death; and, second, for women (especially those with aristocratic aspirations) sun exposure was thought to lead to discomfort and be a marker of low social status. Yet even in this period a different relationship between the sun and body was emerging. British travellers engaging in 'cultural tourism' to Greece, Egypt and Italy commented in their diaries and letters on the perfection and beauty of the 'brown bodies' they observed. This chapter will outline two moments of understanding about the sun's rays and their action on human bodies: firstly as a tangible and real danger leading to illness and, if unchecked, death; and secondly, the sun as a material and corporeal link to a more sensuous physicality allowing the possibility of an escape from bourgeois propriety.

It should be noted that the various associations between the sun and the body were then, as they still are, in a constant state of flux, and subject to change and debate. The sun's rays have at different times and places been perceived as both a friend and a foe. The assorted and often incomplete enrolments implied by this have in turn been mediated by their own affiliated sociotechnical arrangements. While these associations often may have unravelled, at the same time this unravelling leaves its own traces that can continue to define our present relationship to the sun.

There is little doubt that at the end of the nineteenth century a discourse existed which regarded sun exposure as dangerous with the axiom of bodily isolation from the sun being the prescriptive norm. The fear of bodily contact with the sun's rays has had a long history. Indeed, Hippocrates named a particular form of paralysis where the head received a 'blow' or 'stroke' from the sun, and this is the likely source of the expression'sunstroke'or'coup de soleil'(Renbourn 1962: 203). The more recent history of the necessity of isolation from the sun is, in no small part, entwined with the history of colonial mobilities to the tropics and upper-class travel to the Mediterranean in the nineteenth century.

-11-

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