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Beauty standards vary in Pakistan depending on class but one thing reigns supreme — the gora complex

I spoke to salon owners and goers in different socio-economic areas in Lahore and realised that beauty is a multilayered concept in our country.
Published 15 Nov, 2022 11:25am

If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that there is no one concept of beauty yet the desire to enhance the physical self remains consistent. The hierarchy of beauty standards in Pakistan has clear boundaries defined by a trifecta of salon divisions, divided in accordance with their services and practices but most importantly, geographical and social positions. Despite that, the gora complex seems to get a seat at all the tables, regardless of class.

While we keep sharing quotes about the worth of inner loveliness, reality begs to differ. Our growing beauty industry tells a story of consistent dissatisfaction with the image of our physical self. I have found out that entrepreneurs and consumers related to our beauty industry are greatly inspired by popular influencers on social media platforms Instagram and TikTok, such as Merium Pervaiz, Dolly, Nadia Hussain, Kashee, Merub Ali and many more. The insights I have gained, though, may not be surprising for any South Asian as the average woman’s ideal appearance includes skin-lightening, bari bari ankhein (big, beautiful eyes) and a slim visage.

However, pale or fair skin, AKA gori rangat, is on top of the social checklist of ideal beauty in Pakistan. The descriptor “kaala”, which literally means dark, is a popular slur reserved for people belonging to a socially and economically underprivileged class. Lighter skin tones have a high social capital in communities of colour around the world and this capital increases considerably when coupled with a lack of education.

The social discourse on beauty in Pakistan begins and ends around “white” skin. Ninety per cent of our beauty industry comprises of services that turn on the “glow” and up the “brightness” of women, especially women of a marriageable age.

Differences between parlours on issues related to hygiene, technology and style preferences vary as socio-economic boundaries do. But before thinking about beauty, one must note the structural nuances of our parlours.

Bara parlour, acha parlour and ghar mein parlour

In everyday Pakistani discourse, salons are largely divided into three main categories: bara (big) parlour, acha (good) parlour and ghar mein (in a house) parlour.

Bara parlour

The big parlours usually have descriptors like “clinic” and “salon” in their nomenclature, for example, Depilex Beauty Clinic and Institute and Madeeha’s Bridal Salon and Studio, etc. They are multi-million-rupee setups that branch out in various directions of cosmetic surgery, laser and spa treatments, and teaching schools. Such top beauty businesses have units spread all over the country, which include teaching institutes that offer certificate and diploma courses.

Each branch of every bara parlour is situated in an elite or upper-middle-class area, like Gulberg and DHA in Lahore. Their long list of beautification services includes innumerable types of facial massages, skincare, body therapies, hair colouring treatments, makeup and so on. The top-tier parlours have extravagant interiors and trained staff, mostly operating with a pre-booking system for clients. These parlours get huge fan followings through their involvement with the entertainment industry and consistent marketing by glamorous celebrities.

Acha parlour

The second-tier achey parlours do not have a famous brand but are recognised as the best in their upper-middle-class posh localities (Iqbal Town or Johar Town, etc). They assume a soft stance of direct competition with big parlours and take immense pride in their performance.

Saira Dar, a young entrepreneur running an acha parlour called Icandy in Izmir Town, shared her firm belief that “passion and interest” are the key qualities that make a successful beautician. This parlour, situated in a posh gated community, does not have the lavish interior or the vast space that is the hallmark of a bara parlour but it does have significant prestige in the vicinity.

Dar and her assistant manager Najia told Images about how their clients bring photographs of social media celebrities as examples of the kind of look they want for themselves. The beauticians talked about the “unrealistic expectations” and problematic aesthetic consciousness of many women who visit them for services.

“The pictures that women bring with them are always taken with lots of filters on. The trouble is that they want us to give them scar-less, spotless skin in real life. That too without using any filters.” The team at Icandy shared that they are always grateful for appreciative and kind clients as opposed to the irritating ones who have lots of expectations and often disrespectful behaviour towards the staff.

Ghar mein parlour

Parlours in the third category are very small-scale setups, established in one room of the entrepreneur’s house. The ghar mein type of parlours are the most visited places in lower-middle and lower socio-economic areas, and yet they are the most invisible spaces.

My survey of a few such parlours in the low-income residential area of Chung showed that the primary beauty services offered there are skin and hair lightening through one basic ingredient — bleaching powder.

The three beauticians interviewed for this writeup shared that their clients are not interested in the various services offered by the achey parlours. “Our customers only want to be gori [light skinned] and don’t want to pay us any money for that. So the chemicals we use must be very cheap,” explained one beautician.

By chemicals, they mean hydrogen peroxide. The women were hesitant to admit that their clients have recurring issues of fungal infections and chemical induced burns and refused to acknowledge how it’s related to the overall lack of cleanliness and unhygienic practices.

Cross parlour-ing by upper and middle-class Pakistani women

Upper and middle class Pakistani woman mostly frequent the achey parlours for regular services like haircuts, hair dyes, eyebrow tweaking, whitening facials, manicures and pedicures. Sometimes, loyal upper-middle class clients of the achey parlours choose a bara parlour for their bridal makeup.

Twenty female clients of both achey and barey parlours were interviewed for this story. It is a common practice for Pakistani brides-to-be to get a massage, facials and other body treatment services from an acha parlour and get their bridal makeup from a bara parlour. To quote one client named Sara, “I love my parlour (referring to the acha parlour in her neighbourhood), but you can’t take any risk on your big day. Anything can go wrong, you know. There are no guarantees unless it’s a bara parlour.”

Standards of beauty and 50 shades of white

After visiting parlours across Lahore, I found that beauty is a very classed concept. For instance, the bridal makeup in top-tier parlours focuses on retaining the actual skin tone of the brides while enhancing their facial features. The second-tier parlours have a different clientele and while they are knowledgeable about skin tones, they feel restricted by the consumers’ demands.

Icandy’s Dar shared that young girls between the ages of 18 and 20 are usually happy and comfortable with their own skin “but the rage of being white is so overwhelming”. When I asked a 25-year-old client of a top-tier parlour about the services she usually gets from the place, her top priority was a hydra whitening facial. “Everyone likes fair complexions and if you are not fair, then you will look like you do not care for yourself, like you don’t bother. So koi nai karta aisa [no one does that],” she said.

Skin-lightening practices change their nomenclature and structure as one moves from elite to lower-class areas.

Skin whitening in top-tier parlours

There is an extensive usage of glutathione in top-tier salons and clinics through injections, intravenous infusions and capsules. An inquiry made to Zarpash Beauty Clinic in Gulberg revealed that one injection costs around Rs15,000 and a person needs a minimum of 14 injections for the whiteness to be “absorbed completely”. Clients are required to bring their renal and liver function test reports on their first visit.

Injections are also used to dissolve body fat and thread lift treatments are used to erase wrinkles. Beauty clinics give High Intensity Focused Ultrasounds for face lifts and collagen improvement. Aesthicare Clinic in New Town charges Rs70,000 for a one-time session for half the face.

Skin whitening in middle-tier parlours

The whitening and brightening practices are modified in the middle-tier parlours where the customers must suffice with a variety of moderately priced facials. Women demand “glass skin”, “dewy look”, and a “flawless finish”. Some achey parlours have started offering botox lip filler services as well to their upper-middle-class clients.

Skin whitening in lower income parlours

All skin-lightening treatments in the lower income ghar mein parlours begin and end with hydrogen peroxide, lovingly known as “bleach”. This chemical is mixed with equal quantities of fabric washing detergents if some occasional fancy customer demands a manicure or pedicure. Otherwise, the bleach solution is used for immediate whitening of skin and to give the hair a yellowish tint.

Another favourite amongst the third-tier parlours is starch or amylum masks. Starch is mixed with water, and sometimes with bleach, to produce faux facelifting impact. The signature panacea for all skin problems provided by these parlours is the combination cream, which is a mixture of eight steroid-based creams and ointments that are banned in many countries.

Apart from the skin-lightening trend, another trend is for an eye makeover that increases the actual size of the eyes and makes them look larger. Lower edges of the eyes are lined with a white liner to make them look more open or khuli hui. This trend is limited to the parlours in the first two tiers. Clients of the ghar mein parlours prefer going for smoky eye shades and a hefty dose of black liner on the upper lids.

Some not-so-pretty conclusions

It can be safely concluded that fair skin, big eyes and a slim face cut are the crux of Pakistani women’s never-ending quest for beauty. We can argue that the beauty trends have been perpetuated by social media influencers who promote a particular styles of hair and makeup. Beauty parlours like Kashee’s have huge fan following on social media, influencers like Merium Pervaiz have their own makeup lines and TikTokers like Dolly have salons that fall into the first category of parlours, only one level below the established names in the industry.

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The theme of whiteness runs in all products and discourse related to beauty, but the choice of words has changed over the years in polite social circles. The big parlours or influencers seldom use words that directly mean “white”. Rather, a nuanced vocabulary is developed by those at the helm of the beauty industry, including expressions like “fresh skin”, “glow”, “dewy finish”, “natural skin”, “flawless tones” and so on. An average woman naturally constructs a social schema that translates all such veiled jargon to the ideal state of being “white” while living in a country with many shades of brown.

The trend of skin-lightening, however, existed long before the age of influencers and has been analysed often as a byproduct of the colonisation of South Asia. Steve Garner and Somia Bibi note in their recent research that colonial rule influenced “social hierarchies and imaginaries, associating Whiteness with power and beauty”. The quest of gora rang may not exactly translated into a desire to be gori, but rather to enjoy the social benefits associated with light skin tones.

And why not, when the entertainment industry sells the idea of these benefits so well? The idea of dark skin tones as the epitome of ugliness is perpetuated by popular shows like Parizaad, where the fair-skinned Ahmed Ali Akbar, the main character, gets a black-face makeover to represent someone unattractive.

Ninety-eight per cent of television actors have ethereal fair skin and some actors, like Hira Mani, have often discussed their usage of whitening injections. This cultural perception of white as the epitome of beauty can only change by raising the level of social awareness through quality education for everyone. This may sound like a grand utopian vision, but it’s still many steps behind the khuli eyes version of fairness that we collectively seek.