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Aspirations of Beauty

Fatima S. Attarwala explores how Pakistani women approach their beauty.
Updated 25 Oct, 2023 03:51pm

What is personal care? The query, addressed to a diverse group of Millennial moms across socio-economic groups, was answered with the desire for three basic necessities; peaceful shut-eye, a healthy diet and time out for exercise were the panacea of motherhood needs. 

Digging deeper and explaining that skin and hair care also come under personal care brought a somewhat disconcerting backlash of cultural discord. On one hand, women are supposed to be beautiful. On the other, regardless of their background, spending too much time and effort on oneself is frowned upon. Being too busy to indulge in self-care is worn as a badge of honour. 

Nevertheless, some products and practices have woven themselves into the fabric of everyday lives and could hardly be considered an indulgence. Moisturisers – the bulwark of skincare – are one such product. ‘Lotion’ is the catch-all phrase for creams that boast some properties of Vitamin C or sunblock, but can be lumped under the basic category of a moisturiser. Whether picked up during a grocery run to the supermarket or from a small over-the-counter makeup shop, lotions are the foundation of personal care that most women acknowledge without any cultural qualms.

Another commonality among women is the trip to the ‘parlour’ (as spas and beauty salons are known in Pakistan). Threading, waxing, facials, mani-pedis, dye jobs and hair treatments are fair game and far more socially acceptable than slathering on an array of creams overnight. For women with a little more money in their pockets, treatments such as platelet-rich plasma injections and hydra-facials by board-certified dermatologists are splurged on as well.

What is not as kosher is makeup. As the Pakistani dramas portray daily, women who wear obvious makeup (cat eyes, red lipsticks, strong blush) are ‘fast’ and hence the bad guys. Women who look demure and opt for soft shades or natural colours epitomise desi beauty and domesticity.

For the general public in Pakistan, everyday makeup consists of the ubiquitous kajal and a subtle lip colour. Eye shadow and dark colours on the lips belong to weddings, which is why the phrase “Shaadi main ja rahi ho kiya?” (Are you going to a wedding?) is used as a not-so-subtle insult if a woman has applied bolder shades of colour on her face.

This stems from and feeds into the national narrative that makeup is for over-the-top events such as weddings, and a nearly nude, moisturised face is acceptable and expected for daily life.

Yet, the yearning for makeup exists. Most of the women I reached out to, even those less active on social media, knew of or followed at least one makeup-related influencer or page. Invariably, the page turned out to be predominantly bridal makeup, with some party makeup and evening looks. This stems from and feeds into the national narrative that makeup is for over-the-top events such as weddings, and a nearly nude, moisturised face is acceptable and expected for daily life.

Given the current love for all things Korean, there are also products with Korean beauty ingredients to give the popular ‘glass’ look that gives the appearance of skin that is clean, hydrated and firm. “We plan to introduce multi-purpose, clean makeup to our line-up,” says Fatima Khan, founder of Aura Crafts, a company that offers a range of natural skin and hair products. “Clean makeup gives the look of minimal effort in a blend of skincare and makeup. For example, sunscreen plus tinted moisturiser.”

Another narrative still prevalent is the love for light skin tones, though it has become less politically correct to say so. Couched with new terms such as ‘glow’ and ‘radiance’, it is the same basic belief that fairer is prettier but packaged in a more socially-conscious way. Hence, Korean beauty products are popular because they offer flawless fairness. 

“Many of our top-selling products help our clients obtain a clear skin,” says Ali Raza, part of the husband-wife duo who runs Nirvana Botanics. Nirvana Botanics started roughly half a decade ago as a home-run business based on the pharmacist background of his wife Saman. Over time, the business has grown to a volume of thousands of bottles a day along with plans to expand to North America. “Everyone has their own definition and interpretation of clear skin,” Raza says diplomatically. 

When Nirvana Botanics started out, their popular products were geared towards skin brightening, but over the years, their top-selling items have become moisturisers and serums. Serums have been around for half a decade as well, but none of the big brand names were targeting specific markets or skincare and haircare issues. In fact, the market was dominated by small indie brands that operated more through word-of-mouth and circles of friends and family. Then in the 2020s, brands like The Ordinary became more popular and increased awareness about the range of serums available. The rage for Korean beauty products helped the trend along as well, and now serums are available in every big brick-and-mortar shop and online.

Each tube and bottle is a promise of beauty, but how authentic are the products? Is skincare regulated by any authority to ensure that women are not burning their skin trying to do away with blemishes and wrinkles? “A lot of products marketed as natural are not,” comments Khan. “It is more of a marketing gimmick that highlights a natural ingredient that may constitute less than one percent of the ingredients.”

Marketing products to the above 40 is not good business because there is little demand, which is why anti-ageing creams and serums occupy a smaller segment of product offerings.

Sadly, brands and sales are built more on trust rather than on certification. “The skincare industry does not come under any regulatory authority. However, we have been certified by the Pakistan Council of Scientific & Industrial Research,” adds Raza.

Beyond the ubiquitous moisturiser, the main age demographic focused on by companies is 18 to 35. Culture again plays a role — younger women are required to look beautiful to attract a husband. Older women are relegated to other roles in society as a mother, wife or daughter-in-law, who are at best required to be well put together and presentable, although being invisible is acceptable too.

Marketing products to the above 40 is not good business because there is little demand, which is why anti-ageing creams and serums occupy a smaller segment of product offerings.  Each generation ages and gives way to the next one as the desired demographic for personal care marketing companies. Baby boomers become grandmothers and great-grandmothers, while Gen Z are the hot segment to be targeted. However, the definition of beauty and the regimes required for it have seen tweaks but not major changes. 

Beauty is still largely equated with being fair and blemish-free. In the days gone by, grandmothers slathered ubtan to give a fair, radiant glow, but Gen Z and Millennials opt for Korean products and serums. Attractiveness should be inherently natural and achieved with minimal fuss, even if the zero-effort look requires a lot more work than it seems.

Fatima S. Attarwala heads Dawn’s Business & Finance desk.