Looking into the mirror, I stare at the reflection of my chai-colored forehead; I pause and consider the shades of color slowly descend down my face. Peeking through the brown, a soft pink highlights my cheekbones and the dimples around my crooked smile. The protected skin around my eyelids is the much coveted milky cream color that incites the unwelcome thought of discontent at the shade of my skin.
I squint, then blink away the thought of conforming my skin color to the expectations of others. I no longer want to be a woman who compares her image to unrealistic advertisements and the South Asian obsession with fair skin. As I began to deconstruct my concept of beauty, I realize saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder is an oversimplified cliché and rarely accounts for the societal forces that impact the lens through which the beholder sees beauty.
Growing up in my household, conversations on beauty were almost always centered on the fairness of skin color – a commonly held perspective amongst South Asians, perhaps due to historical colonial dominance or its association with purity, high class and wealth. The more troubling effect is the environment this misguided idea creates for the beauty industry, which capitalizes on this obsession and perpetuates it by inundating markets with whitening creams often containing harmful ingredients. Not exclusive to the South Asian experience, parents in many ethnic communities tell their children to stay out of the sun for fear of becoming undesirable. Why are we fighting against the skin we’re in? We are caught up in this illusion that for six billion people, fair skin is the gold standard, altering ourselves drastically to fit this unrealistic drive for conformity.
Peeling back the layers to understand why we’re hung up on the obsession with fair skin, it is important to note the role society, community and most directly family has on an individual’s concept of beauty. Society’s membrane saves what the collective decides as commonly accepted stories, including concepts of beauty. One of these storytellers, the mainstream media propped up by the advertising industry, broadcasts images of beauty that pay for advertising slots in TV shows and magazines. The individual is then forced to constantly compare his/her reflection with the image the media has amplified, rather than realizing this is a fabrication of reality.
Beyond society, an individual’s extended social network shape concepts of beauty. For example, in certain ethnic groups voluptuous women are more appreciated than thinner women, perhaps representing aristocracy. Furthermore, at the center of it all is the family unit, which acts as a clearinghouse for what values are to be encouraged in growing adults. When parents get hung up on their child’s skin color, they create an environment that inhibits a child from accepting who he/she is naturally. And as these children enter into the world, they seek approval and validation of their burgeoning identities from peers who probably had similar experiences, creating a generation chasing after beauty ideals that reject the natural and authentic in favor of the façade.
In essence, we’ve lost control of our image, allowing others to define us by unrealistic standards instead of appreciating our diversity like other communities have done in the past. In the 1960s, the Black is Beautiful movement emerged amongst the African American community to confront racism and self-hatred by creating a culture that promoted allegiance and affection. Similarly, the Chicano Movement worked towards ‘social liberation,’ using the slogan Brown is Beautiful to embrace Indian-Mestizo physical features. Perhaps we are pacified, financially secure, and not facing blatant identity assault that we do not feel compelled to take charge of our image in the same way. Granted, these movements occurred under the auspices of the Civil Rights Movement so it may be hard to relate but, notably these movements created a shared history incorporating an appreciation of physical characteristics.
Even with the creation of a shared history and community support, it is still difficult to unlearn the language of self-hate, leaving the only real power to change with the individual. We have the greatest agency to identify, reflect and deconstruct concepts of beauty in hopes of finding our authentic selves. Going further, we can detach ourselves from the negative thoughts perpetuated by our tribe, including our parents and our culture by replacing self-defeating beliefs with thoughts of self-appreciation and love. Once change happens within, we can begin to cultivate strength, sustaining us to go from the internal to the external. And we can begin to have those difficult conversations with parents, friends, and community members, demanding an appraisal of our shared values and a creation of beauty ideals that appreciate the diversity that we have in common with rest of creation.
I close my eyes, tired of staring into the mirror, and an image of my mother and father enters my thoughts: him with his warm dimples and her with that crooked smile. Shortly after, as if in one continuum, I am reminded of my grandparents’ beautiful brown skin, the shell that carried them through the tumultuous passage from India to Pakistan in 1947. Overcome with emotion, tears open my eyes, flowing down my cheek from the same place that shed tears over an ill-family member, the birth of my sister and a broken heart, like so many before me in similar and perhaps, disparate experiences. There is so much history here, how could I have ever wanted to erase it?
Sarah Jawaid was an Associate Editor of AltMuslimah.
Photo Credit: Nathan Gibbs