Variations on ‘routine’ facial skin-lightening practices amongst Muslim Pakistani women in Sheffield; from ‘not too much’, to creating an ‘airbrushed’ appearance - Hester Clarke

Ahead of the 4th Beauty Demands workshop, our speakers we are publishing a series of posts on 'Routine Maintenance'  & 'Exceptional Procedures. In this post, Hester Clarke (University of Manchester), discusses her paper about skin-lightening practices amongst the Muslim Pakistani community in Sheffield. 

For Muslim Pakistani women in Sheffield, facial skin-care and beautification practices are considered routine and mundane; nevertheless essential for the cultivation and maintenance of a beautiful, feminine appearance. Whilst the desire to procure and maintain a fair complexion is considered ‘the norm’ for ‘us Asians’ by the Pakistani women I came to know, the discussions and definitions of ‘beauty’ that inform fair-skin preferences differ depending upon context.

This paper draws on fourteen months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between July 2012 and September 2013 and addresses how narratives of acceptability surrounding skin beautification differ between everyday and celebratory occasions. I argue that, for my informants notions of beauty are indistinguishable from perceptions of ethnicity and class; with young women comparing their fair skin to that of global and national elites of the past and present. Young Pakistani women perceive of themselves to be ‘upper class’, ‘Asians’ not only through physical resemblance to elites but, but also their ability to lighten/brighten their skin ‘the right amount’. Furthermore, women are quick to distinguish themselves from ‘the majority of Pakistani women’, whom they believe damage their skin through excessive use of lightening creams, wear foundation shades considered too light for their skin tone, and partake in additional lightening practices, such as wearing coloured contact lenses.

In the everyday lightening, the ‘right amount’ centres on discussions of ‘fit’, ‘naturalness’ and ‘not going too far’. Such judgements of ‘fit’ and ‘naturalness’ are common within discussions of cosmetic surgery; for example Holliday and Elfving-Hwang (2012) exploration of blepharoplasty in Korea, Lebnehan’s (2011) discussion of rhinoplasty in Iran (Lebnehan 2011), and Edmonds (2010) consideration of liposuction in Brazil. Whilst these ethnographies recognise the Eurocentric influences on local and national beauty ideals, they highlight the importance of creating an aesthetic in keeping with understandings of ethnic/national identity and the individual’s bodily aesthetic. In keeping with these studies, my informants note the importance of maintaining natural-looking skin, and not lightening the skin ‘too much’, an indication of ignorance and unrefined taste associated with ‘lower class’ Pakistani women.

During celebratory occasions, narratives of ‘fit’ and ‘naturalness’ give way to a discourse of beauty based on ‘making an effort’ to ‘transform’ oneself into a ‘perfect’, ‘doll-like’ vison. To create this ‘fake’ and ‘perfect’ appearance, women hire specialist Asian Bridal Make-Up artists. These specialised make-up artists are charged with creating make-up styles that are a little bit ‘different different’ from ‘what everyone knows’, whilst maintaining the specific expectations of the ‘Asian Bridal’ or ‘Asian Party’ style of make-up. The basis of all these creations is heavy, light-coloured concealer and foundation with the aim of creating an ‘airbrushed’ and ‘unreal’ complexion.

During celebratory occasions, I argue that judgements of beauty no longer focus solely on aesthetics, but rather on a women’s demonstration of effort and self-determination. Gimlin’s (2013) exploration of the changing preferences of breast shape, from ‘natural’ to ‘fake’, amongst American women seeking augmentation in the 1990s and 2000s touches on similar narratives of beauty-as-effort within my own field site. Gimlin argues that the desire for ‘fake’ looking breasts is based on their signification of the woman’s propensity for change, her ability to develop into ‘something better’ and willingness to partake in an unending transformative process which goes beyond the static ‘goal’ of improvement. This relatively new beauty narrative, which my young British informants acknowledge their mothers’ and grandmothers’ did not partake in, is discussed as part of an ever evolving consumer capitalism and the advancement of women’s empowerment within the Pakistani community. Importantly, beauty-as-effort relies on the recognition of said ‘effort’ by female friends and acquaintances; thereby drawing women into social relationships with one another through an understanding of shared ‘upper class’, ‘Asian’ values and ideals.

In addition to creating a notion of shared ‘Asian’ identity, beauty-as-effort and transformation is used to distinguish between ‘Asian’ and ‘English’ ideals. In everyday contexts, Pakistani women draw comparisons between themselves and ‘upper-class’ ‘English’ (White British) women; which is achieved predominantly through access to higher education and the presumed associated sophisticated demeanour and aesthetics both required for, and yielded by, higher education. However, during special occasions, particularly the culmination of wedding celebrations, the walima, ‘English’ make-up is rejected and even scorned. ‘English’ brides, optimised by Kate Middleton, are chastised as ‘stupid’, ‘silly’ and ‘ignorant’ for not employing professional make-up artists and for wanting to ‘improve’ rather than ‘transform’ their appearance on their wedding day.

In the everyday, markers of status such as higher education, manners and sophistication, associated with ‘upper class’ ‘English’ women, and the wealth, glamour and Islamic knowledge thought to optimise ‘Arab’ women, are the dominant modes of both morality and prestige. During celebratory occasions, these markers of modernity give way to a notion of self-determination. As such I suggest that, in a small way, ‘Asian beauty’ has a democratising affect. Whilst many of my informants do not have access to university or Islamic education, all are able to ‘transform’ themselves by employing an an Asian Bridal Make-Up artist and thus enter into the realm of ‘good’, ‘modern’ and ‘knowledgeable’ womanhood.

Interestingly, the women who are considered the most beautiful are those ethnic identity can-not be easily discerned from their appearance. Indeed, many young women note with pride that, because of their complexion, they were ‘often mistaken for Arab’. Furthermore, when attending celebratory occasions within the Pakistani community, friends and relatives complemented each other’s appearance by suggesting that a woman looks ‘almost Arab, Indian or English (White British)’. To conclude my paper I therefore suggest that young Pakistani women affirm their ethnic and classed identity in both the everyday and special occasions (albeit in different ways) and simultaneously attempt to access alternative narratives of status, modernity and morality; achieved through likening their appearance to pious, glamorous Arab women, educated, polite ‘upper class’ English women and the glamour, status and wide-ranging beauty appeal of Bollywood and Hollywood celebrities.

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