can your boss make you get a fake tan?

A reader writes:

My husband works in the fashion industry and just told me about a situation at his office that I’m curious about. The top saleswoman is “making” the new saleswoman get a fake tan before heading to a fashion show. We don’t know to what extent she’s “making” her, if her job has been threatened or her opportunity to attend the show has been threatened. But this younger woman is feeling obligated to go to a tanning bed for her job, just to attend a show, not to participate as a model in it.

Can someone make you alter your body as a requirement on the job? This seems outrageous!

I’m not a lawyer, but my suspicion is that this is probably legal. Really weird and bad judgment, but legal — because I’m having trouble identifying a law that it would violate.

That said, I think it’s pretty likely that the manager isn’t “making” the new saleswoman get a fake tan, but rather suggested it in such a strong manner that she feels like she doesn’t have a choice. (This is the kind of thing that would easily turn into “being forced to get a fake tan” once it’s been retold by a few people.)

The key here, though, is that this is the fashion industry, where there are expectations that would never fly in other industries — like being expected to have a certain look, wear certain brands, not wear anything from two seasons ago, etc. (Check out this article by Laura Mauk about the voluntary-but-involuntary transformation she underwent while working at Allure.)

Ideally, the new saleswoman would speak up and say, “Fake tanning isn’t really my thing, but I’ll make sure that I look polished and put-together” and then would make sure she adhered to the general image that her office clearly wants to project, even if she does it while slightly paler.

But ideally she also would have picked up on the fact that the culture expects this kind of thing before taking the job (if indeed it does) — so that she wasn’t blindsided after the fact.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.*

    Time for some fun tanning facts from the World Health Organization!

    Exposure to UV, either naturally from the sun or from artificial sources such as sunlamps, is a known risk factor for skin cancer. Short-wavelength UVB (280-315 nm) has been recognized for some time as carcinogenic in experimental animals, and there is increasing evidence that longer-wavelength UVA (315-400 nm) used in sunbeds, which penetrates more deeply into the skin, also contributes to the induction of cancer. A study conducted in Norway and Sweden showed a significant increase in the risk of malignant melanoma among women who had regularly used sunbeds.

    Additional exposure to UV from sunbeds is likely to enhance the well-known detrimental consequences of excessive solar UV exposure. There is no evidence to suggest that UV exposure from any type of sunbed is less harmful than UV exposure from the sun. Pre-cancerous actinic keratoses and Bowen’s disease have also been found in sunlight-protected but sunbed exposed skin in fair-skinned users after just two to three years of regular sunbed use.

    I think it’s special that the use of tanning beds are required or “required” given the fact that they actually increase the aged appearance of the skin. Not to mention having a boss tell their inferiors that they have to expose themselves to a greater risk of skin cancer.


    1. Anonymous*

      Thanks for these facts. So many people deny them at their own risk. I’ve seen what skin cancer does to people and it is quite horrifying. As for myself, if I were in a position where I felt forced to get a tan, I would leave immediately. My health is much more important to me than a job. This is akin to being told to take up smoking in order to further one’s career. It’s just not worth it.

    2. Anon*

      That’s some scary stuff. Regular use of a tanning bed IS a bad idea. On the other hand, it seems highly unlikely that she’s going to get cancer and die after getting a tan for one fashion show.

      1. Anonymous*

        Maybe, maybe not. It doesn’t take years of tanning to trigger cancer. Why risk it? Regardless it will age her and if she works in an industry with such an obsession with looks then the added wrinkles won’t help. Tanning is just plain gross and unhealthy and nobody should be expected to tan in order to keep a job.

  2. Natalie*

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but is there some reason the sales woman can’t use a sunless tanning product rather than a tanning bed? It doesn’t make the request less ridiculous, but it would make it less skin-cancer-y.

    1. Cruella*

      Given how long it takes to naturally develop a tan, the risks of skin cancer, and the aging effects of sun exposure, I am certain she probably is being pressured to obtain a spray tan/ Mystic tan.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Based on my extensive viewing of “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team” (one of the most fascinating reality shows ever), I would have to agree.

        1. Anon*

          I obviously need to do more research on this topic. What channel is that on? Never mind, I’ll find it. brb

  3. Anonymous*

    I once worked for a very prestigious cosmetics company in NYC. I was young, thought it was “cool,” and didn’t evaluate the corporate culture as best I should have prior to taking the job. (this was as an Account Manager.) Anyways, their definition of “business casual,” was trendy, going-out attire that I didn’t own, nor could I afford. Black dress pants and a button down shirt was a no no no. I was spoken to a few times about my not fashionable attire. Needless to say, that i quit after only 3 months!

  4. Anon*

    Would there be a violation if she could prove it was only a requirement for female employees? I’m not stirring the pot, I’m honestly curious. I know employers in looks conscious industries have successfully defended their abilities to hire/fire based on appearance, but does it make a difference if the standards are not universally enforced?

  5. mouse*

    Now that some folks have covered the more legit topics, I’d like to chime in with the ridiculous (as always). Methinks the manager is behind the fashion times. In the actual fashion industry fake tans are rather frowned upon.

      1. mouse*

        More like natural skin (in terms of tanning anyway). You’ll see all variety of skin tones but paler models are encouraged to not get tans (makeup will apply spray tanner if it’s needed for a shoot). Of course what the models do and what the execs and designers do are two different things so it may not be as out there as it seems to me. I’m no fashion guru; I just like the arty pictures and pick up some random stuff from reading too much.

    1. Anonymous*

      In my area of the US, tans are considered trashy and way out of style. I think it is probably different in different areas but I thought the same thing….isn’t tanning really out now?

      1. A. Nony Mouse*

        Here in Seattle very few people tan beyond a natural-looking ‘why yes, I hike a couple of times a month’ shade, if they tan at all. Blondes should never have skin darker than their hair in this area, it looks totally fake and bizarre. (I’d argue that blondes should never have skin darker than their hair, period, unless they spend a lot of time in the sun and it’s their natural coloring. But that is just my opinion.)

        1. Anonymous*

          I’ve never been into tanning and now that I am getting older I am beginning to understand how important sunscreen has been in maintaining my youthful appearance. When people hear my age they usually react with shock and ask me why I have no wrinkles. No big secret. I’ve worn sunscreen almost every day for 20 years!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Me too. I’m pretty sure I look younger than my age (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!) and I think it’s because as a pale-skinned, easily-sunburned redhead, I could never, ever lay out in the sun like all my friends would do.

            1. Erica B*

              I’m in the I-burn-wearing-SPF 50-in-only-15 mins group myself.. never been tanning, heck and a “tan” for me is a normal persons color in the heart of winter.

              1. Marie*

                Due to my family history of skin cancer on both sides of my family – both melanoma and basal cell carcinoma – I NEVER strive to get a tan. I stay out of the sun as much as possible and always wear sunblock. In any case, I thinks tans look really dated and corny.

  6. Anonymous*

    1. I was thinking how legal it is to make someone do something in which it can affect your health. She probably won’t get skin cancer tomorrow, next week, or next year, but if she tans enough (or burns), she’s headed down that path. While the two lesser cancers are fairly treatable by just removing the cancerous cells, the melonoma is the killer. I don’t think anyone knows what they are susceptible for, but that shouldn’t matter. Essentially, her health is being put at risk at some point in her life.

    2. There’s always spray tan.

    1. fposte*

      To be fair, jobs make people do stuff that affects their health all the time. The requirement just usually isn’t so . . . stupid.

  7. Anonymous*

    This is very interesting to me because I used to work for a manager who essentially did the opposite. She refused to hire or promote anyone with a tan because she thought that tanning showed “poor judgement and low intelligence”. I fortunately don’t ever tan because I have a medical background and know enough not to do that but I always thought it was rather amusing to see people show up to interviews with tans (fake or not) and get tossed out in minutes.

    1. Anonymous*

      I can see the “at-will” employment working here. If you suddenly showed up with a tan, say after coming home from a vacation in the Keys, boss doesn’t like you have a tan and out the door you go!

      1. Anonymous*

        “No tans”, along with “no claw-like acrylic nails” and “no spandex cat suits” seems to be the unwritten dress code in many industries! Why do folks pay extra money to look like extras from jersey shore?

    2. CJ*

      See, that’s totally weird to me, because I live in the South. I can put on all the sunblock I like, but just by going outdoors, my forearms, face and décolletage are three to five shades darker than the rest of me. Just playing outside with my kiddo on the 4th gave me enough of a tan that my friends asked if I had gone swimming!

      I think it would be pretty easy to tell my skin apart from someone who is married to their tanning membership, but I don’t know that your manager would have had as easy a time here as she did in your region.

  8. Anonymous*

    There’s a story about something similar over here in the UK at the moment. Harrods may be sued by someone who didn’t comply with their requirement for women to wear a lot of slap.
    It was clearly stated in their dress code, but seems a little odd that they had let her get away with it for several years,.
    The dress code for Harrods is at the bottom of the article: I especially like the requirement for hair and skin tone to be complementary.

    1. Anonymous*

      My first thought was – she signed the contract with those dress codes. Harrod’s should have enforced it from day one. Fast-forward 5 years later and now they are treating her differently; therefore I do think she does have a case. However, she shouldn’t have resigned until Harrods said anything more about the case IMO.

      With the tanning, if it was not in the contract, then I don’t see how they can make a person do it.

      1. fposte*

        Because the U.S. isn’t the UK. And the odds of her having signed a contract in which the details of her job obligations are laid out are pretty small. I work for the state, and even I don’t have one of those.

  9. Cruella*

    Wow, is it me or has situations like this suddenly become a hot topic?

    I just read this article on Monday about the Harrod’s employee who was fired for not wearing make-up, despite a dress code policy specifically outlining the practice. (link below)

    In the case at Harrod’s, there was written dress code policy that included a provision for female associates to wear make-up. If these policies are in writing and in place at the time the employee is hired , why would they be shocked when they are disciplined for not following them?

    In the case of the fashion saleswoman and the fake tan (which I am certain is probably a spray tan rather than tanning bed, because it’s quicker and safer to obtain), if the company doesn’t have a written image/ dress code policy that includes the practice, I’d question it.

    Unless they are willing to pay for it, in which case, not only would I go, I’d put it on my expense report.

    1. Jamie*

      Interesting article – they require “lip liner?”

      I have a plethora of lip glosses and lip sticks, and more than a couple tinted lip balms…but liner? I haven’t seen that since the ’80’s.

      I know there’s a big issue here – but this seemingly trivial point has me stymied.

      1. Anonymous*

        That seems very typical at a department store.. who would want to buy make -up or clothes from someone who does not look put together?

        1. Jamie*

          I don’t have a problem with it in certain departments – but personally if I’m buying bedding or new cookware I don’t really care if the clerks lashes are full or not…but I don’t think it’s necessarily unreasonable.

          Then again if I show up to work sans make up people ask me if I’m okay or if I have a migraine …however, some people do look lovely without it. I can see where you would need a general rule though, because:

          “Cindy you don’t need to follow this part of the dress code because you roll out of bed looking as bright and fresh as a Disney princess. Please don’t tamper with perfection – no make-up needed for you!”

          followed by:

          “Hey Jamie, why don’t you pull out the dozen or so L’Oreal products in your purse and do something about yourself…the end users are talking about taking up a collection for you as you recover from whatever horrible illness you’re bravely combating.”

          That would be problematic from a morale standpoint.

        2. Anonymous*

          Very true. And for those who have never been to Harrod’s, it’s way beyond Macy’s. The people are quite professional, well-put together, and very friendly. However, if you’re a tourist, like I was, and you come in looking, well, like a tourist, they do look at you a bit funny.

        1. Sofi*

          No, lip liner in the exact same shade as your lipstick stops it bleeding (when it kind of leaks into the cracks in your face) and reduces smudging throughout the day. It also gives a better more accurate shape to your lips!
          Different colour lip liner to lips ew!

    2. Jamie*

      Oh, and I also assumed spray tan as well…I can’t imagine a company requiring a tanning bed as Anonymous @ 9:36 so correctly stated – that’s kind of like requiring someone to start smoking to keep their job.

      1. Anne*

        You would think so.. but some people still don’t get it! I have friends who use a tanning bed :(

  10. Anne*

    She should fake bake!!! Who still uses a tanning bed? That’s so 1990!

    I am in the plastics industry and my boss just didn’t hire someone because she was maybe 50lbs overweight, and not very put together. This happens all the time in plastics, aesthetics, fashion, pharma… you are hired to sell a beauty enhanicing product, or in pharma to take doctors out to lunch :) Therefore you have to look the part. It’s sad, but it’s true.
    Let’s not be delusional here, I visit a plastic surgeon to sell him a product but I am not wearing make -up, not wearing a nice suit, my hair is not done.. who would buy from me? Although we have very casual office arire, and we are not expected to wear designer clothes. Just as long as we look put together (men and women) when we make sales calls it’s not a problem. My hair ALWAYS gets done when I travel.

    I do think asking someone to tan, especially in a tanning bed is taking it way too far. Did they not realize she didn’t have a tan when she started working there? I would tell the sales person that no one tans in a tanning bed anymore… well maybe the cast from Jersey Shore. Put some bronzer on and have fun at the show!

    1. Anon*

      I know this kind of thing has been successfully argued, but I don’t buy it. Yes, especially in sales, people’s perceptions matter but if you’re a prosthetics salesperson do you have to have a prosthetic leg/arm/hand to be successful? If you’re selling zoloft do you have to be depressed or OCD? Do you have to be handicapped to sell wheelchairs or to have credible knowledge of the issues handicap people face in the home and workplace?

      I think it’s a cop out and an excuse to discriminate against an aesthetic that people don’t like. If you’re a model, then you have to fit the aesthetic of the person hiring you but if you’re a receptionist at a modeling agency? No, not really. I understand the argument they make, but I don’t agree with it.

  11. Anonymous*

    Let me guess, the op is on the jersey shore or in el lay? Where else is tanning such a must have.

  12. Anonymous*

    Question – would the manager asked her to darken her skin tone if she was African American or Latina or Native American? If not, does that mean they have different standards for different cultural groups?

  13. ACD in NYC*

    I work in the Beauty industry – not exactly the same as Fashion, but quite similar. I can definitely see a circumstance like this happening at my company. When I first started working in the industry, I thought it was unfair.

    But the fact is, industries like Fashion & Beauty are about selling an image. It’s about the visuals. A senior executive once explained it like this: “How can we have credibility selling our look to our target market if we ourselves aren’t even embracing it?”

    Praise in the industry usually includes phrases like “She has a great look.” Yes, you need to be smart; know how to calculate ROI, and have a great knack for business. But this is an industry that values spreadsheet skills and looks equally.

    I’m guessing that the runway show mentioned by the OP featured models sporting a certain look, probably a theme of a recent advertising campaign. As a company representative, this woman would be expected to promote that same look. Her boss obviously felt that promoting the company message entailed being tan.

    P.S. Don’t hate on lipliner! It’s gotten a bad rap because of that hideous 80s look of pale lips and contrasting dark liner. But try it in a color that matches your lipstick, and you’ll find that it gives a your lipstick application a clean edge that you can’t always get when you just apply it from the tube. It makes a subtle, but polished difference.

  14. Liz T*

    Wait–isn’t a tanning bed-tan NOT fake? You’re actually damaging your skin a la a traditional tan. To me “fake tan” means spray-on.

  15. Anonymous*

    Go ask abercrombie & fitch about selling an image. They tried to sell an image by only hiring the young white and fit. Google the cases vs. EEOC. They paid about 50mil for discriminating against minorities and have a pending case for religious discrimination related to image.

  16. Original Question Asker*

    The woman in the position previously was pale and not a weight that the industry prefers and was never asked to tan or change for participation in shows. So she definitely would not have assumed this would be a requirement.

    She did go through with the tan. I don’t really have more details than that.

    After more consideration, I think this is a case of a manager not liking a subordinate and pushing her to quit.

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