They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But what is the eye of the beholder in? The way we see the outside world is a reflection of what we are on the inside. Thus the eye of the beholder is in his or her personality, experience and socio-cultural context. The last of these is an interesting phenomenon indeed, especially when it comes to the perceptions of beauty. Every culture has its ideal for beauty; one man’s gorgeous is another man’s weird.
Historically women of all world cultures and civilizations have been conditioned to go to great lengths in order to live up to these man-made definitions of beauty. The ancient Chinese were known for “Foot Binding”, a practice that involved breaking the toes and arch of a young girl’s feet to achieve the 3-4 inch foot length so desired by Chinese men. The Chiang Mai, a tribe in Thailand, love long necks, thus the tribal women wear several layers of brass rings around their necks for years on end in order to create the illusion of an exceptionally long neck. Many African tribes have been known to carve designs into their bodies like an artist would engrave patterns into a wall or piece of furniture.
The modern world may look at these cultural practices with a mixture of fascination and polite disgust. But are we – in 2013 – all that different than our ancient predecessors when it comes to how far we will go for beauty? And by “we” I mean men, women, designers, brands, advertisers, and corporations inclusively because beauty is not just about a female – although she is the medium through which it is most predominantly expressed.
It is ironic that most cultures define their specific beauty ideal with the precise opposite of features that are common or hallmark that culture. Cultures tend to idolize physical features that are not common to them because we are impulsively attracted to that which is unique.
The problem occurs when we take this rare quality and set it as standard beauty ideal for all women of a certain cultural group. It’s setting them up for either a fall or a lifetime of pursuing painful and tasking beauty treatments that help them “convert’ to this rare ideal.
The beauty of South Asian women is recognized all around the world. India boasts 3 Miss World and Miss Universe titles. Bollywood actresses have become international fashion icons representing the east’s exotic beauty. Yet, South Asian women continue to struggle with their physical identities. The “bound foot” of the Indian sub-continent is none other than the region’s obsession with fair skin and then add the desire for slim bodies, dark luxurious hair and eyes.
Yes, our beauty contest winners certainly have these coveted features but do they really represent the South Asian woman? Certainly not! Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan women are (in general) curvy rather than willowy and wheatish (the politically correct term for brown) rather than fair skinned. Instead of celebrating this naturally enticing combination (case in point; Frieda Pinto and Parminder Nagra, of Slum Dog Millionaire and Bend It Like Beckham fame), many South Asians refuse to settle for anything less than the “fairest of them all”.
Where did this taste for light skin develop and why has it endured into the 20th century, albeit in different forms and with a few exceptions?
Social research claims that Asia’s love for fair skin dates as far back as the Aryan infiltration into northern India and was reinforced during the British rule of India. “White” was the color of power, privilege, supremacy, and wealth. It then morphed into a physical association where white skin was a representation of all things desirable.
However, times have changed; our world is now a global village. South Asians are as patriotic as ever and acutely aware of their unique identity on the global map in matters of commerce, trade, religion, culture and entertainment. So why are we still so back in the day about the issue of a woman’s looks? How has this Snow White body image endured into the 20th century to continue to haunt South Asian women?
The reasons are simple. First, society has kept this fair skin obsession alive and thriving because it is one of the most profitable endeavors in the Indo-Pak region. Fairness creams, skin whitening formulas, and body whitening kits (including the genitals) is a booming business in South Asia. Not only are home grown mega brands benefiting from the brown women’s insecurity with her color but international brands that promote “being comfortable in your own skin” are selling South Asian women the exact opposite message. L’oreal ‘s ad for face cream in India reads “flawless, spotless, pearl perfect fairness”, basically relaying the message that “our product will make you into everything you aren’t”.
A market research firm in India found that more skin whitening creams are sold in India than Coke Cola. A 2006 issue of Harper’s Bazaar stated that close to 189 fairness products were introduced to Asia and Pacific markets since 2002 and the numbers continue to increase. Of the top 10 most popular make-up brands in India, only one, Lakme, is an Indian brand. Foreign brands are highly popular throughout south Asia but none of them make products for the real women there.
The makeup industry in general does not enhance or celebrate a brown woman’s natural features but instead seeks to eradicate them with a more “Western” look, further perpetuating the physical insecurity so prevalent in the culture
Even if all the branding and advertisement were not an issue, South Asian women would still have to deal with the natural psyche of the region’s people, both male and female. Studies in the psychology of color state that colors evoke unconscious reactions in humans.
Research shows that “people make a subconscious judgment about a person, environment, or product within 90 seconds of initial viewing. Between 62 percent and 90 percent of that assessment is based on color alone.”
How this relates to South Asians and their obsession with fairness, is in the fact that the human eye naturally finds contrast appealing. Dark upon light will draw and hold our eyes more than neutral colors. Thus, the combination of light skin and dark eyes and hair is intrinsically appealing and literally “easier on the eye”.
Fair skin also reflects more light, making one’s features easier to see. In layman’s terms, we are lazy and thus fair skin is a form of beauty that works well with our modern day need for quick, obvious, visual stimulation. Darker features, although stunningly beautiful, require more scrutiny to notice. If you’ve ever wondered why Japanese geisha paint their faces white, now you know; they show up better in dimly lit teahouses.
Given Pakistan’s current load shedding crisis, perhaps a fair wife serves the same purpose. Noteworthy is the fact that, after being bombarded with certain images of beauty, we have grown used to them. It may have started off as sociopolitical but have maintained their presence in our culture due to mass marketing and media. It’s about time South Asians understand and eliminate this superficial standard of beauty and join the rest of the world in loving our beautiful brown skin, and every curve, from eyelashes to thighs.