Having been born and raised in Pakistan, it was ingrained in my mind from a very young age that women could only be desirable if they were petite, fair and feminine — an ideal that many Pakistani men sought after in potential wives, and an ideal that I did not fit into. The women who were regarded as the most beautiful were those who looked the least “ethnic” — this created a form of self-loathing among young girls, perpetuated by the media who cast actresses with the most European looking features. This Eurocentric image of beauty predates back to when the British first colonized South Asia, where the colonizers kept light skinned locals as allies, giving them special treatment over other people of color. They also built upon the caste system and gave the fair skinned upper castes, such as the Brahmins and Kshatriyas, traditionally powerful roles, while lower castes (including the “untouchable” Dalits) performed manual tasks and had darker complexions. Not only does the impact of the colonists remain years after decolonization, but it is stronger than ever.
Bleaching and fairness cream advertisements are widely spread in Pakistan on billboards and television channels. The typical advertisement revolves around a darker skinned girl staring in a mirror, dejected, until she finds a “magic” whitening cream that makes her lighter within a week, and she finally gets the man of her dreams. In fact, the advertisement showcases her progression of getting lighter — as well as happier — day by day until she reaches the “ideal perfect complexion”. The slogan accompanying it states-”fair and lovely.” The mindset of being rejected by society due to being dark skinned is instilled upon young girls from as early as when they first start watching television. It has led to the bleaching market being one of the largest markets in the economy, generating around $573 million CAD annually and being endorsed by various celebrities, garnering a mass audience despite it containing toxic chemicals such as mercury. My earliest memory revolves around a relative calling my mother’s lighter skin beautiful while looking at me with disdain and asking why I was much darker. My mother told me to brush it off, but it has stuck with me to this day.
Societal expectations for women’s appearances is a global problem, though the standards vary vastly between different countries. Although I live in Canada now, I have noticed that these issues are still prevalent, particularly due to the ever increasing influence of social media. Due to the growing popularity of online platforms such as Instagram, we are bombarded with pictures of unrealistic and practically flawless looking women — with Jessica Rabbit-esque body proportions and exaggerated facial features. Constant exposure to this imagery, often leads to negative comparisons of oneself with celebrities and peers, increased self scrutiny, and mental health issues such as body dysmorphia and depression. In a few cases, influencers themselves cannot live up to the unrealistic expectations they themselves have created, and resort to photoshop or plastic surgery due to the pressure to alter their appearance.
Though there are colonial ties to this standard, it is still escalating more than ever due to our high consumption of media and following of influencers. Media presents a very similar message to the colonial mentality of looking and acting a certain or “right” way.. The danger lies in the fact that now it is more subtle and widespread — making it more” acceptable.” The scrutiny and standards women face to look and act a certain way, whether it be the shy slim fair skinned bride in Pakistan or the buxom blonde in Canada, are worldwide, and problematic. They contain elements of discrimation towards social class, sex, race and serve as a capsule of colonial thinking. Instead of being taught self acceptance and embracing our own unique features and heritage, we are constantly being told to alter our appearance and doubt ourselves, with companies profiting off this insecurity. Though deconstructing these long held ideas will take time and consistency, we must not contribute to their spread and should think more deeply about the notions of racism, sexism and colonialism they relate too.