In the west, young women go to extraordinary lengths to achieve the sun-kissed, goddess glow all over their bodies. They drench themselves in tanning oils and lay on the burning, golden sands of nearby beaches, letting the scorching sun do its magic, transforming their pale, paper-like skin into a stunning bronze. They apply dark bronzer on their cheekbones, nose and forehead and use a darker shade of foundation to get that coveted tan.
They might even subject themselves to the dangerous rays of sunbeds to clinch onto the western standard of beauty: healthy, tanned, bronzed, sun-kissed, glowing skin. Across the Indian ocean, a different beauty standard is fed to the masses. These women obsessively protect themselves from the evil sun’s rays, from carrying UV-500 umbrellas to wearing gloves during the summertime to soaking themselves in sunscreen to maintain a pristine, pearl-like complexion. They have swarming masses of whitening creams sitting on their dressing tables.
They are the women whose nation’s grocery stores are littered with lotions and cream products that not only protect their skin from sun damage but physically lighten their skin tone. They believe that a snowy white face coupled with a chalk-white body is the epitome of beauty. These women are the women of Pakistan. This obsession with whiteness stemmed from Pakistan’s imperial history, art and magazines that associate beauty with whiteness.
So let me take you on a time machine to figure out how it all began. A woman’s skin colour is seen as a physical marker of economic status. This is largely due to the fact that Pakistan is primarily an agrarian society, with the vast majority of its population engaged in working on farmland. The ruling upper-class would stay indoors, conducting business and partaking in leisure-with the towering pillars and tall gates of their mansions, dividing them from the poor, lower-class and shielding them from the evil sun’s burn.
This led to our skin tone becoming an indicator of wealth and social status. To make matter’s worse, our nation’s culture is plagued with fakes and pretence. Women will chase any benchmark of wealth to prove their elite status, from business class seats to Chanel boy bags, to white skin. Before partition, Pakistani land was a part of India which was ruled by the British for an eventful two centuries.
Our nation’s imperial past certainly played a part in our insatiable desire for white skin. Famous artwork during this time period would depict the white, rich rulers of India who enjoyed the spectacular palaces, fine dining and expensive clothing of the Mughal Empire. While brown, poor Indians were left to become foot soldiers and maids, excluded from the overflowing fountain of spices, silk and gold which dotted their country. Hence, Pakistan has inherited from its history an admiration for the pallor of their British rulers whose influence in the country still exists today. Moreover, Pakistani media is no stranger to promoting the white-skin beauty ideal.
Open any Pakistani fashion, beauty or lifestyle magazine and I’ll tell you what you’ll see. You’ll see women whose faces are coated with the lightest foundation shade they can find, their ghastly grey face acts as a stark contrast to their brown necks. If you have some friends in the magazine, which most upper-class Pakistanis do, then maybe you’ll get the photographer to edit your picture, brushing over your fresh face with white paint, like a sunflower that isn’t yellow. You’ll see women with different shades of white on their faces, arms, legs and feet as if they’re chameleons. You’ll see women whose once natural faces are devoid of any colour, like blank canvases.
You’ll see unnatural looking women with their grey faces, bleached hair and wide eyes, doing anything and everything to chase the beauty standard set by their imperial rulers. This obsession with whiteness shaped my view of the world because from a young age I was taught to associate whiteness with beauty. I look back now and realise that the values of my family members encapsulated our nation’s imperial past. I was the girl who was instantly offered whitening facials at a salon. I was the girl who was told not to spend too much time playing outside because, “rung kharab ho jay ga,” (skin colour would be ruined.) I was the girl who was gifted mac foundation for my birthday- it was ten shades lighter than my skin tone.
As a result, in order to become a part of the society I was born into, I conformed to its white values. I became the girl who would wake up an hour earlier for school to paint my face white. I became the girl who would download Photoshop to contort my skin tone, just like those women in magazines. I was the girl who saw whiteness as the epitome of beauty, and anything else was simply not good enough. Everywhere around me, people would be buying lighter foundation and editing their skin tone in pictures.
The phrases, “kaala rung,” (black skin) and “kaali,” (black) was mother tongue at this point. So to fit into the craze that I saw drive all the women all around me, I bought into the narrative. My view of the world completely changed because I began to idolise fair-skinned people for their worldly beauty and anyone else was just not pretty enough. For a large period of time, my view of the world was distorted and restricted, like a small tunnel in a blanket of darkness. I realise now that It is important to wear your skin colour with pride.
That is the only way to cure a society suffering from this complexion complex that damages the self-esteem and confidence of young girls across the country who don’t fit into this white world created by our history and driven by our people. Until then, keep praying for our nation’s recovery. Get well soon, Pakistan.