From ‘natural’ beauty to ‘beauty-as-effort’: Raced and classed narratives of skin lightening amongst British Pakistani women in Sheffield.
About the author: Hester Clarke was awarded her PhD in Social Anthropology from The University of Manchester in August 2016, for her ethnography of beauty, beautification and the popularity of beauty work amongst British Muslim Pakistani women in Sheffield. Her current areas of interest include aesthetics, beautification, race and ethnicity, class, Islam, gender, social inequality and multi-culturalism in the UK context.
‘Do you think I’m dark?’ Haiza asked me, scrutinizing her reflection in a compact mirror she was holding up to the light, tilting her head this way and that to examine her appearance from different angles. She adjusted her hijab around her face, pouting a little as she did so. ‘Be honest with me Hester’, she said, stopping for a moment to fix me with a serious stare before turning back to examining each pore, line and contour.
We were watching over her mum’s empty salon, ready to book in any customers who might happen to pass by, and conversation had turned to Haiza’s friend, Yalina. Yalina is the same age as Haiza and the young women were studying alongside one another for their AS levels at a local college.
I had met Yalina a couple of times before, but had failed to remember her name and in my attempts to describe Yalina to Haiza, I had said that I thought she was ‘pretty’. Haiza, clearly taken aback by this comment, eyed me suspiciously before saying that perhaps Yalina could be pretty but that her skin was far too dark. In fact, she added in a pitying tone, Yalina has one of the darkest skin tones of all the girls (by which she meant her Pakistani and Bengali friends) at college.
(Extract of ethnography taken from my field notes in February 2013)
Haiza’s concern over her complexion and critique of her friend’s darker skin tone illustrates the centrality of fair skin to conversations of beauty amongst the young British Pakistani women I came to know in Sheffield. When discussing their preference for pale skin, Pakistani women stated that, quite simply, pale skin ‘looks better’. ‘Fair skin is just nicer’ one woman shrugged, clearly confused at my continued questioning of such a banal and obvious fact. Given the importance of fair skin to beauty, it is hardly surprising that at home and salon, facial treatments which promise to ‘brighten’ and ‘lighten’ the skin are popular amongst my interlocutors. In this post I demonstrate how skin beautification in my field site is dependent on context and divided between; the everyday and celebratory occasions, ‘natural’ and ‘perfect’ make-up styles and perceptions of ‘English’ (White British) and ‘Asian’ (South Asian) taste.
When attending college, university, work and casual engagements with friends, women’s skin beautification efforts are judged as successful or otherwise dependent upon whether they are thought to ‘match’ or ‘fit’ her un-treated, un-made-up skin. Whilst young women assured me that they themselves would not ‘go too far’ in the pursuit of beautiful skin, ‘the majority’ of Pakistani women go ‘too far’ in the pursuit of beauty. As a consequence, these ‘lower class’ women visibly damage their skin through the overuse of skin lightening products, insist on wearing shades of foundation viewed as comically lighter than their un-made up complexion, and indulge in additional, ‘tacky’, lightening practices such as the wearing of coloured contact lenses which alter their dark brown eyes to shades of grey, light brown or hazel. Whilst quick to chastise ‘lower class’ Pakistani women, whom my interlocutors imagined as the majority of Pakistani women, ‘upper class’, ‘English’ women are praised for their ‘subtle’, ‘natural’, ‘sophisticated’, and ‘tasteful’ appearance.
However, during celebratory occasions, the same subtle and natural make-up styles of ‘upper class’, ‘English’ women are shunned and even scorned. During weddings, birthday parties, Eid-al-Fitur and increasingly university graduations, applying a little make-up at home is no longer sufficient. For such events specialist Asian Bridal make-up artists are tasked with ‘transforming’ women into ‘perfect’, ‘unrecognisable’, ‘doll like’ visions. These specialist artists, fellow British Pakistani women, charge up to £400 for each look they create and whilst their styles can be differentiated from one another by those in the know, all artists use the same shade of MAC concealer and foundation, a shade significantly lighter than any of the women’s make-up free skin. In addition to creating a ‘perfect’, ‘unreal’ looking skin, these particular Asian beauty experts are praised for ‘contouring’ skills which they use to sculpt slim noses, small chins, high cheek bones and large eyes, features my interlocutors most readily associate with Euro-American women, all be it in a highly idealized form.
In these instances discussions of beauty are developed within a rhetoric of self-care, self-respect, and self-development, moral attributes Pakistani women thought lacking in English women. As one beautician Fazia explained, whereas English brides are happy to apply their own make-up and buy their dresses online at knocked down prices, no Asian bride or party guest would consider such actions. Through expressing disapproval of English brides, Pakistani women position themselves as morally superior to English women, even ‘Upper Class’, English women.
It might be tempting to conclude that English and Asian make-up styles are therefore not only distinct, but that Asian make-up styles are a means of resisting the dominance of Euro-American aesthetic taste, through praising artifice as a mode of self-respect and self-care. However, in addition to drawing on particular hegemonic beauty ideals which privilege whiteness, Asian Bridal Make-Up artistry as a commodity and form of employment is cited as an indicator of both individual and community ‘progression’. Young women are quick to point to the somber, bare-faced brides depicted in the photographs of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations in order to emphasize ‘how far’ the Pakistani community has already come. Today, my interlocutors note, British Pakistani women are earning degrees, running businesses, marrying whom they choose and planning their own weddings - ‘just like English women’.
I posited some binaries at the beginning of this post; the everyday versus celebratory occasions, ‘natural’ versus ‘perfect’, and ‘English’ (White British) versus ‘Asian’ (South Asian). Yet Euro-American aesthetic norms and perceptions of agency also appear dominant in these stories, demonstrating these binaries to be not as oppositional as they at first may seem.
 This work is developed from a wider ethnographic project on beauty and the popularity of beauty work amongst British Pakistani women in Sheffield, the data for which I gathered between July 2012 and September 2013.