Reader Request: What to Do About a Farmer’s Tan

Tips for dressing around a farmer's tan, or disguising summer tan lines.

Reader Suze in CO asked about farmer’s tans in the comments of this post, and then followed up in an e-mail, saying:

You asked, “I’m curious if you’re interested in a post on ways to dress around a ‘farmer’s tan,’ ways to respond to folks who comment, ways to feel comfortable with it, or all of the above.” I guess “all of the above” is most accurate, though I don’t hear a ton of comments from people about the tan. But I do get the looks – you know the kind I’m talking about. Like most women, I’m particularly sensitive to those assessing, disapproving looks that we know are all about how we appear. If someone was rude enough to actually say something, it would be much easier to handle.

Regarding how to dress around a farmer’s tan, I would love some ideas. I do wear some sleeveless things on my days off, so my arms and chest have some chance to catch up to the tan on my lower arms, but no matter how much I wear sandals or go barefoot, my white “bunny feet” are always with me. (Incidentally, that term was coined by my wonderful husband, who doesn’t care one bit about my funky tan lines. He’s a keeper.) Other than wearing shoes with socks, I can’t figure out what to do. Maxi dresses are an option from time to time, but I have really good legs, so I prefer (and look better in) knee-length skirts. I’m not a tattoo person, but I have toyed with the idea of getting a little line of lace tattooed around the tan line so it looks like socks.

Just so we’re all on the same page, here, a “farmer’s tan” is what happens when you spend lots of time outdoors in the sun wearing anything other than swimwear. Your forearms and calves get brown, but your upper arms and thighs don’t. The tan lines become more obvious when you wear sleeveless tops or dresses, and can cause the sidelong glances that Suze refers to above. Many of you have pointed out that tanning has socio-economic underpinnings: Being tan subtly indicates that you are wealthy enough to vacation in a warm clime. The phrase “farmer’s tan” has some judgmental layers, too. Farming is an essential part of virtually every economy but is also considered a “lesser” profession by some, and therefore a “farmer’s tan” is still a tan but it is not the right kind of tan. You must be tan evenly and all over to show that you’ve been lounging in the sun, not breaking your back working in it. So THAT’S infuriating.

As is the fact that Suze – or anyone – is getting these sidelong glances. Some people tan, some don’t. Some people make it a priority to tan evenly, some don’t or can’t. Those choices and changes are the business of the body-owner alone and no reflection on anyone else. So, as is the case with nearly all judgment-related image issues, my main advice is try not to worry about it. Your farmer’s tan may bug someone else, but you have no control over the thoughts or actions of others. And it is most certainly NOT your responsibility to dress or look the way other people want or expect you to. Not all the time, and not when it fails to align with your own preferences, priorities, and abilities.

That said, Suze did go on to ask for some ways to dress around a farmer’s tan. None of these tips are foolproof, but some might be helpful.

Shawls and ruanas

Tan lines like these are generally more noticeable on the arms when sleeveless garments are at play. Since longer sleeves feel stuffy in hot summer weather, a tank top paired with a shawl or ruana can give you some distracting coverage without impeding the breeze. If the word “shawl” makes you think of your gran shaking her finger at you from the rocking chair, remember that you can use a lightweight scarf of any type as a shoulder covering.


Sheer fabrics are on-trend for the season and can be found in a variety of styles and sizes. A sheer top with longer sleeves will look summery and allow for some ventilation while masking tan lines. There are also some playful sheer/opaque skirts out there that could help with the legs, but they’re definitely geared toward the more trend-conscious of us.


It’s down to personal preference and climate, of course, but I’m a big proponent of boots for summer. Keep ’em short, light colored, Western-influenced, or all of the above and you’re good to go. A few perforated styles are still floating around, too, and offer both ventilation and coverage. Boots and a knee-length skirt can look great with everything from a graphic tee to a flirty blouse.

Leg makeup

Suze and others have mentioned that self-tanners don’t typically help in these situations because the color difference between the tanned and non-tanned areas is too great. There is leg makeup that might prove helpful, as it is stronger stuff and can be applied for a single wearing. Try using a paler tone to lighten the tan areas and a darker tone to even out the non-tan ones. It’s called “leg makeup” but there’s nothing out there forbidding you from slathering it onto your arms, too.

Finally, my advice for responses to the side-eyes and behind-the-hand snickers? I’m at a loss, friends. I cannot think of a good way to diplomatically defuse that situation, especially if the folks involved are being passive-aggressive. If someone has the nerve to actually comment, a simple, “My body, my business” or, “Why is how I look important to you?” should suffice. But for the stares and giggles, I’d say just hold you head high and remember that their discomfort is not your responsibility.

Image courtesy Sabby in Suburbia.

Originally posted 2013-07-24 06:15:26.

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39 Responses to “Reader Request: What to Do About a Farmer’s Tan”

  1. Olivia

    Ugh, I can’t believe people are judging about this. I sport a constant farmer’s tan* because I rarely wear sleeveless, though some sleeves are shorter than others and the difference in complexion is noticeable. Then there is the fact my lower legs never seem to darken but I do get tan lines on my feet from my sandals (I were the same two or three pairs all summer). Among my friends growing up, these tan lines, particularly the ones on our feet, were a source of happiness. It meant we were out having fun in the sun. I think if someone gave me a look I’d ask what they are looking at, and if I received a comment I’d say, “I’ve been in the sun and I wear clothes.”

    *I don’t really tan, just burn and freckle. I gave up on actively trying to tan many years ago and now I wear big sun hats and just purchased a long sleeve rash guard for swimming so I can have more sun protection.

  2. Tragic Sandwich

    The last time someone commented about this, I was in college. One of my sorority sisters yelled, from across the quad, “Hey, where’s your tan?” I yelled back, “Hey, where’s your tact?” and figured that the whole thing said more about her than about me.

    That’s not really the last time, but the response I’ve gotten to tan lines since then is, “You tan?” Because I’m very pale, year-round, even when I’m in the sun. (I’m not a vampire; most of my ancestors were, if you go far enough back, from the UK, and I wear a lot of sunscreen.) And people know that and don’t really expect me to tan. Which is good, because I don’t expect me to, either.

  3. S

    I have quite the farmer’s tan, despite prolific use of sunscreen, and I’m rather proud of it. If I notice someone giving me the side-eye, I usually exclaim, “Check out my white feet!” or “Impressive farmer’s tan, eh?” and tell them about my garden or the latest dig (I’m an archaeologist) I’ve been on.

  4. AlsoTracy

    My current solution to the “farmer’s tan” is to avoid it. Although I realize that some people have to wear a uniform shirt to work at an outdoor job, my farmer’s tan came from yard/garden/farm work. As a result, in my late 40’s the the skin on my forearms looks much “older” from years of sun damage than the skin on my upper arms from years of working outside wearing a tshirt.

    I discovered lightweight long-sleeved work shirts which protect me from sun, insect bites and cuts/scrapes pretty well. It is so light weight that I am no hotter than I was in my tshirt days. I also wear very lightweight (long) wind pants, a big hat and sunscreen. (None of it is beautiful. But you are never beautiful when sweaty and covered in bug spray anyway.) When I wear my pretty clothes, I look a lot better because my arms and legs aren’t covered in cuts, scrapes, bites and sunburn. I only wish I would have discovered this idea about 20 years sooner!! Note: I have no affiliation with the Duluth Trading Company.

  5. eve

    That farmer’s tan is pretty much inevitable unless you live in a bathing suit. Not just the arms and feet, but the neck, shoulders and chest area from wearing tops with different necklines. If I know I’ll be out in the sun, I try to wear something sleeveless and/or short. Otherwise, sunblock helps to minimize exposure.

  6. Brenna

    This one drives me nuts, too. I don’t tan. I burn, then peel, and am nice and pale again. And I have had complete strangers make rude comments when I wear shorts or skirts. Friends make snarky comments, as well, always meant to be in good fun, but it’s annoying. I have decided I don’t care. I will wear my skirts all summer, and not worry about my exceedingly pale calves. They are what they are, and they aren’t changing.

  7. Cynthia

    This post really made me laugh. I walk a LOT, and it’s pretty obvious that I wear a v-necked, short sleeve tee-shirt and sandals with a single strap ’cause when I wear anything else, tan lines. I love how much I walk, and it makes me happy to know that my little dog and I explored on a beautiful day in Minnesota and I scored some vitamin D.

  8. A.B.

    Can you give more information about leg makeup? I have splotchiness on my legs that I would like to disguise somehow (and without tanning or self tanners). This sounds like it would be a good solution but I have never heard of it before.

  9. Anne

    Oh boy, I’ve been dealing with some kind of of weird tan lines since I joined a swim team at 10. Back then it was white circles under the eyes, a very white belly, and an odd horizontal stripe across my forehead. Now I have a biker’s tan; brown quads and brown on the backs of my calves, and in the crook of my elbow. When I take off my biking clothes, you can see the tan lines from my running clothes. To qualify – I’m not very tan in general and I get a fair amount of help from a tube of Jergen’s lotion. To be honest these markings show my membership to a particular tribe. Bikers always laugh about their funny tan-lines and the amount of lycra we wear. We know we are an odd lot. Yes, I’ll admit I look pretty weird in a swim suit, but I also look fit and that matters more to me than an even tan.

    • Suze in CO

      Anne, I’m stealing this! From now on, it’s not a farmer’s tan – those are landscaper/arborist tribal designs! 😉

  10. Kristina

    Weeell, I have a farmer’s tan because I am a farmer. I’m pretty fair skinned, so it isn’t too pronounced, but my husband on the other hand looks like he’s got someone else’s body when he appears in a bathing suit. Deeply tanned arms and face/neck and pale everything else. It does look kind of funny. Ag is the very strongest part of our local economy, and we’re the only sector which kept making money in the recession, so I’ll take the sidelong looks when I wear a skirt,which I love to do (though farmer’s tans are the rule rather than the exception around here).

    • Lauren

      Yay, another farmer reads AP! My husband definitely has the farmer’s tan worse than I do, too, in part because I am usually in a tank top anyway, and I try to remember to wear sunscreen …

      I definitely have super pale legs compared to my arms and face, but here in the Pacific Northwest most everyone is pale until at least late August anyway, so I don’t stand out *too* much.

  11. ClaraT

    I second the suggestion that prevention (of the farmer’s tan) using protective clothing and sunscreen is the best tactic, and Sally’s suggestions of how to deal with it once it is present are good. The less the demarcation between areas that are usually covered and usually uncovered, the easier to blend the transition.

    I think people will look twice at anything/anyone that seems unusual (it is human nature), but I think we can all agree that overt looks/comments are inappropriate and should be ignored.

  12. Mary

    Tan lines of any kind have always driven me nuts. This is regardless of who sees me, I couldn’t give less of a crap about others’ tan line judgements. But exposing more skin, and covering EVERYTHING up, seem to be the only two options, if you don’t want yours (or others’) attention drawn to tan lines (farmer’s or otherwise).
    As it’s been suggested, perhaps Suze could wear some tank tops as part of her normal day’s work – as long as she keeps up with the sunscreen, of course. Varying strap width and placement could help too (spaghetti straps on doubled-up camisoles, racer-back tanks etc). Breaking up the line by getting sun in places where it hasn’t gotten yet would be far more effective than trying to blend the harsh line with self-tanner.
    I second Sal’s idea of ankle boots instead of sandals.
    And summer doesn’t last that long anyway.

  13. Jennifer G

    I have quit worrying about my farmer tan. Because of modesty standards that I choose, I always have a farmer’s tan – that is noticeable only if I wear cap sleeves.

    I am pale. A red-head with pale skin and blue eyes. And I don’t tan. I know this. I wear longer sleeves all year round, sunscreen, hats, and such.

    My response to being pale/white/ghostly coloured? “You do know that in most cultures, wealth and prestige is demonstrated by the LACK of a tan, right?”

    Normally shuts the other person up.

  14. Ruth

    First, we should of course all be wearing sunblock all the time, for the sake of our health – although I know we need a little vitamin D as well. But should and do are two different things – putting on sunblock is so boring …. I have bought some all day sunblock this summer which seems to work, although I don’t like the smell at all.
    I agree that strap lines on feet are rather pretty and cute. I suppose ‘bunny feet’ rather less so. But I think the real problem is on upper arms – a strong tan line on the arm does make the area above look a bit flabby – and it cuts the arm in a bad place. But what about a graduated tan? If you vary the short sleeves in which you work, or occasionally roll them up a bit, you should be darkest at the elbow and then fade elegantly moving up. Worth a try?

    • A.B.

      I think it was to the person who wrote in or else ze wold have have felt the need to write in. You may not think it’s an issue but others obviously do.

  15. alice

    I think if you catch someone looking in a disapproving way you might catch that person’s eye and smile. I don’t believe most people would be rude enough to continue staring and would likely feel embarrassed for doing so in the first place. If it doesn’t bother you, I wouldn’t bother making intense efforts to cover tan lines – they’re a fact of summer. The only exception would be special occasion events (weddings), but that would just be for one day.

  16. Kaybug

    First, you may like to note that a golfer’s tan is exactly the same as a farmer’s tan. So white upper arms, shoulders and tops of thighs may not denote what others may think it does.

    I’m a cyclist too and some of us have even talked about getting that tan line tattooed on, we’re so proud of it! And grease marks, etc. Yes, we’re geeky… I even had a scrape on my leg once from a fall that a VP at work commented on, and I then had the pleasure of describing my cycling prowess to his leadership team.

    I’ve changed my swimsuit style to have a kind of tan line that is only minimally seen. And I also have a variety of shirt sleeves that I can wear in hot weather.

    And finally, I agree that tan lines, just like clothing, sometimes send messages that that others take for granted that they can look askance. It’s up to you, the owner of those messages, if you want to say something to the lookers or let them continue to stew in their own poison juices.

    • Karoliina

      I was just about to make a similar comment about a golfer’s tan being very similar to the kind of “farmer’s” tan mentioned in the OP. My dad grew up on a farm, but these days most of his tan lines definitely come from playing golf.

  17. Stacy

    Just tell everyone you’re training for a marathon and that your tanlines (white feet, tan lower arms, white shoulders) are “runner’s tan.”

  18. Barbara

    I think a little bronzer dusted on the upper arms would do the trick, I haven’t bothered though, “those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind”. I like my glow in the dark pale skin 🙂
    I do cover up with my umbrella and long sleeves on sunny days because I prefer it to sunscreens with their questionable ingredients.

    • AnnR

      I think this is a great idea – moisturizer with some shimmer across the arms/collar bone will give you a glow for times when you’re getting dressed up.

      I don’t know why you don’t think self-tanner works. Although it won’t give freckles it will diminish the white/dark line and give your un-tanned skin some color. I particularly like it on my thighs when I go swimming. I find that the line my shorts leave really stands out in a swim suit and think that little color helps.

      • Chloe

        Self-tanner doesn’t work for everyone. I’ve tried countless different kinds, and they simply don’t “stick” on my skin, even for a day. Foundation doesn’t really stick either. My skin apparently naturally repels anything that wants to cover it. It’s okay. I’m cool with having fair skin.

        I second the idea to wear longer sleeves whenever possible. Columbia has some nice options for those working outside. Sun hats are also a dream. We don’t yet know how safe sunscreen actually is, whereas reduced exposure is pretty self-evident.

  19. Marsha Calhoun

    I spent one summer in my then-favorite shoes, the ones with the straps over the instep. Got married in September, wearing my fancy kitten-heel white pumps. Every time I see my wedding pictures, there they are – the white lines on my feet stand out like ribbons, so I pretend that that’s what they are, and smile. If anyone else noticed, why should I care?

  20. Michelle...

    Owner of a cyclists tan right here (white hands, brown arms to mid upper arm, brown legs to mid thigh). I slather on the sunscreen (NZ sun is Harsh) but when you spend the number of hours I do on a bike (also in whatever weather conditions) then you’re gonna end up with a little “weathering”.

    I look totally ridiculous in a swimsuit but you know what? My tan lines are evidence that I’m out there doing that. It’s also a celebration that I CAN be out there doing that (major injuries in my past).

  21. Kim

    If this is something that really bothers you, there are a number of steps you can take to minimize the contrast between your feet and your tan (although you probably won’t eliminate it all together):
    1. Sunscreen is your friend – look for spf ratings in the 40-60 range and options for spray on application and waterproof formulas. Your oncologist will thank you, and your tan should hopefully start to fade some.
    2. Moisturize and exfoliate – keep the tanned area constantly moisturized and exfoliate with a scrub like the St. Ives apricot scrub a couple of times a week. This should help the colour fade as the tanned skin sheds and the new skin is protected with sunscreen.
    3. Don’t rule out a fake tan entirely – the purpose of a self tanner isn’t to eliminate the contrast completely (I am not convinced a cream will give you the same colour as the sun), but to reduce the contrast and draw less attention to the line. Ask at local tanning salons about spray tan options. A really good salon should be able to provide some good options for smoothing the transition.
    4. Change up your wardrobe where possible – if you are developing your farmer’s tan from repeated exposure, try making small changes to what you wear during the day. Change up your shoes between hiking boots and runners if possible. Change up the height of sock you use. Change sleeve lengths on a regular basis (or even use double sided tape to move a hem up and down occasionally). This will change the location of your tan line day to day and inevitably result in a less sharp line between the tanned and untanned bits.
    5. Give those untanned bits a little air – not to undermine that sunscreen advice, but if you are going to go home at the end of the day to a book and a beverage at home to relax, how about give those untanned feet some time in the fresh air and sunlight in the privacy of your own yard. If people comment there they can go to hell.

    Try not to take the comments too seriously and embrace baby steps!

  22. Suze in CO

    Thanks, Sally (and everybody else) for the suggestions! I appreciate the help a lot! I think a shawl/leg makeup combo will be my first approach to the problem.

    One reaction I did have: There were a number of comments about using sunblock. Believe me, I do. There should be a line item in my monthly budget just for sunblock. But when you sweat it off 40+ hours a week, you’re going to miss reapplying it sometimes.

    The socio-economic aspect of the farmer’s tan is what makes the reactions sting more than they might otherwise, at least for me. I get the tan because of what I do (landscaping, tree care and related services). I primarily work for people in upper income brackets. While some of my clients are wonderful people, some of them … are not. And while it may be coincidence, a lot of the looks/comments I get are from the “not” side of that list. So, should I give a lot of weight to comments from people who think it’s okay to look down on someone just because they have a blue collar job? Of course not. However, that’s easier said than done. Sure, cashing their checks takes some of the sting out, but not all.

    Anyway – that’s a whole other post. Thanks again, everyone, for the suggestions!

  23. shebolt

    I have a Cyclist’s Tan, and a pale one at that. I’m pale and freckle more than I tan. I really don’t care if others judge me on my tan lines or my overall pale skin. I will never, ever be truly tan. But I will also not age prematurely. I was recently asked for my brand of wrinkle cream, and I replied “sunscreen”.

    The only thing I try to do is minimize the harsh tan line. I wear different style jerseys (short sleeves, sleeveless), and sometimes flip the hem up on my shorts to vary the length. I also have been playing tennis this year, allowing me to vary my skin exposure even more. The end result is that instead of a line, I have a gradient. I’m ombre.

  24. Laura

    I really only worry about this when going to an occasion where I will be out front and center (bridesmaid at a wedding, for example), and I don’t have a choice on what to wear. On those few occasions I have gotten a spray tan at a salon, making sure I get their lightest setting. The rolled-in-Doritos look is way worse than a farmers tan.

  25. Canadian

    I call it a “jock tan” not a “farmer’s tan” – I’m actually kind of proud of it as it’s a reminder of how athletic and active my lifestyle is.

  26. truepeacenik

    I’m also a Colorado woman, temporarily in exile in Northern California.
    I get “tan” lines (as a pale redhead, it takes along time for a tan, but there is a freckle line and a fainter color line) rarely with the sole exception of my feet. I wear old school, made in Colorado Chacos. (Alas, no more, so I repair them)
    That means I have that particular and peculiar Z feet marking.
    Yep, it s a tribe.
    And as an arborist/horticulturalist, you should be proud that you work to save trees and improve a micro-eco system’s health.
    Sure, try are also making it all pretty, but plants are carbon sequestration.

    Finding my Colorado buzz words?

    As for dressing, flaunt what you have got, or go the sheer/blending route.

    I also want to suggest something, you used the phrase “work for higher income people.”
    No, they desperately need you to perform a service they cannot.
    You are a cardiac surgeon as far as landscape skills go.
    I’m a massage therapist. I contract with a spa, which has a higher income clientele segment.
    I’m a highly skilled manual therapist, and I use somatic methods as well.
    But some do think I’m a body servant. And I think if all I did was fluff and buff, I’d accept the term.
    But I do not.
    When they can release their own psoas and massage their own back, they can look down on me.

    When “Ms Agrestic” can diagnose and treat pine beetle, thin and prune fruit trees, and will carry every stone for a water feature, she can look down on you.
    Isn’t likely, is it? 😉