On a hot summer day in 2015, while serving apple juice to some guests at a kitty party, I was 'advised’ to bleach my face and use the new ‘Fair and Lovely’ whitening cream for my 'brown complexion', as I did not look presentable. At first, I was taken aback by the mere advice and did not know how to respond. Nonetheless, I had to maintain my calm and politely reply with “sure, I will think about it”. However, later that night, I could not help but wonder about who the actual culprits were, who had the right to judge and determine what makes me beautiful, and what features were ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’. I came to the conclusion that this is all part of neo-colonialism which has shaped our ideas of beauty according to our colonisers' mindsets. One of the main players of this neo-colonial narrative is the beauty industry of Pakistan that has been exploiting these ideals for their profits and has not made an active effort to invest in the true and natural South Asian beauty.
The beauty industry of Pakistan, unlike several industrial sectors in today's economy, has been on the rise since 2011. In 2011, beauty and personal care was a $382 billion business, while in 2017, it was valued at $455.3 billion (Shaikh, 2018), this means, that in a span of 6 years, the beauty industry saw a 19% overall growth. This is a massive number given the economic conditions of a struggling, developing country, with a high proportion of the population living below the poverty line. The beauty industry is dominated by international conglomerates such as Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, and P&G, among others (Shaikh, 2018). Other local brands are also launching very frequently given the low risk involved in this booming industry.
Even though this industry entailing makeup, skincare, and hair care is good for the struggling economy, its exploitation of bodily insecurities is what makes it problematic. Feminine beauty is defined as having fair skin, almond eyes, long hair, and a petite figure with no body hair. Even though these ideals are primarily related to the western world, the history of colonialism and rise of globalisation has made these standards acceptable in a large part of the world. This has led to the problems of colourism, body shaming, etc. in our South Asian society.
An example of how this industry is exploiting south Asian women lies in the origin of Fair and Lovely whitening cream. The entire purpose of this cream is to turn a person's complexion to fair, or white, giving the idea that it is better to have white skin than dark skin. Due to the accessibility of this product, it has gained acceptability in society and is widely used. According to a Survey carried out by Gallup Pakistan, 59% Pakistanis say they or someone in their family uses a fairness cream (Gallup, Consumer Behaviour, 2014)and out of these people, 62% of the people use Fair and Lovely (Gallup, Consumer Behaviour, 2014). This brand manufactures not only whitening creams but also face washes and BB creams, all of which are meant to lighten the skin. Following Fair and Lovely, other local brands have also been producing whitening creams attracting different segments of the society, depending on their marketing and price. Olivia Pakistan has a fairness range, while Golden Pearl also manufactures and markets whitening creams.
Apart from this visible colourism in the society which is exploited by whitening creams, having body hair is also a stigma in our community. A notable brand paving the way for this stigma to increase further is Veet. The television advertisements of Veet products show women stressing over having body hair, and then feeling confident when they've removed them. This perpetuates the idea that women should not have body hair when body hair is a natural, biological phenomenon. Apart from hair removal, bleaching is also conventional in this society. The idea behind bleaching also has colonial roots, as blond hair is not visible on fair skin (in case of white people). In contrast, in the case of South Asians, body hair is visible on dark skin types. Even though bleaching skin is an extremely ruthless process, beauty parlours are filled with women getting their faces and bodies bleached for festive occasions, highlighting how having body hair is severely frowned upon.
Colonial beauty standards are also giving rise to cosmetic surgery. Hair removal using laser procedure has become common in people belonging to the 'elite' socio-economic background, while skin whitening injections are also gaining acceptability in an area where melanin is a necessity given the closeness to the equator. However, since these are costly treatments, only a small fraction of the population that can afford these. Even though these procedures are mostly harmless with less side effects compared to beauty products which are ridden with chemicals, these are exploitative as well, as they deepen insecurities about bodies and aid in the process of becoming 'feminine' according to the colonial measure.
On the contrary, the Black Lives Matter Movement has shed light on the inherent colourism in Pakistan and has helped start a debate in Pakistan about embracing our South Asian beauty. Meanwhile, the beauty industry, through its marketing and manufacturing of products, is not doing much for this debate to have a practical value. There is a need to decolonise beauty by having an inclusive beauty products range and halting the manufacturing of skin lightening products. The government also needs to support the cause of decolonising beauty by making policies for the existence of the beauty industry of Pakistan, in a way that no segment of the population is threatened or exploited. Furthermore, NGOs can support this cause as well by creating awareness in the masses regarding the harmful effects of these products. There is also a dire need for unlearning the narrative that only white is beautiful, and awareness needs to be created at a large scale, through social media campaigns initiated by NGOs. Individuals can support the initiative by raising their voice and standing with the NGOs, as well as by withdrawing support of not only the products, but also the brands that manufacture them as it is high time that we create an inclusive environment for everyone, and no one has to feel insecure about the colour of their skin.
Gallup. (2014, June 16). Consumer Behaviour. Retrieved July 16, 2020, from Gallup: http://gallup.com.pk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/1606141.pdf
Gallup. (2014, June 13). Consumer Behaviour. Retrieved July 16, 2020, from Gallup: http://gallup.com.pk/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/1306141.pdf
Shaikh, A. (2018, November 2). The Business of Beauty. Retrieved July 15, 2020, from Aurora Dawn: https://aurora.dawn.com/news/1143226#:~:text=Traditionally%2C%20Pakistan's%20beauty%20market%20has,(RB)%20relatively%20late%20entrants.