Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

We Are Not Beautiful

As Pakistanis, we need to come to terms with our innate prejudices about beauty, writes Tyrone Tellis.
Updated 19 Oct, 2023 05:38pm

When my son first started school, an interesting incident occurred. He was asked to write a few sentences about his mother. So he wrote his mother’s name and that she is tall – and he also wrote that she is fat – and that is where the problem arose. Apparently, two teachers tried their best to convince him that he could not write this description about his mother. He was adamant that he could. My wife, for her part, had a good laugh. However, the incident does reveal a lot about our attitudes towards body appearance and that old subterfuge beauty.

Beauty has been part of history and folklore for millennia. Men, we are told, have desired and admired beautiful women. Standards of beauty have, of course, varied from age to age and culture to culture, and just as customs and traditions have changed, so has the idea of what beauty is. It’s no secret that good-looking people are popular even when the facts tell another tale. Take the myth about Cleopatra’s beauty. The Egyptian queen, who was of Macedonian descent, was, according to historians, not the iconic beauty we have seen immortalised on the big screen; she was in fact a woman with a strong personality.

However, talking about the personality of a woman without clubbing it with the word beauty seems like heresy in our modern day and age. We have experienced quite a few revolutions in the past 150 years, and one of them has been the rise of the body positivity movement. The logic we hear time and again is that everyone (women in particular) is beautiful. To suggest anything else would warrant a lynch mob and brands, it seems, have embraced this mantra. Dove especially has won accolades and public support for embracing body positivity and empowering women to believe they are beautiful.

From an ethical perspective, the reality is different and global brands are dangerously spreading Western ideals of beauty – especially of fair skin. Even in Africa, women are turning to whitening creams, while closer to home in India, there has been a backlash against fairness creams, the ripples of which have been felt in Pakistan. Rights activists have castigated the emphasis on fairness as whitewashing and colonialist. However, to be honest, brands do prey on people’s low self-esteem, so it is not surprising that activists and even ordinary people have been condemnatory of certain brands – and while it is true (hate it or love it) that the world is appearance-driven and to a large extent obsessed with perfection, this mindset is nevertheless a dangerous one that breeds low self-confidence at best and self-loathing at worst.

Do brands generate low self-esteem especially among women or do they rely on it? Although this seems to be a chicken-and-egg discussion for most, I feel that brands zero in on the insecurity and sense of inadequacy created by the negative incidents that affect our lives. Do brands in the beauty and personal care business have a moral responsibility to change the way they communicate and advertise? Yes, they do; more so in the age of social media where the veneer of fakeness has become so thick and can lead to damaging mental and emotional consequences.

In Pakistan, however, it is rare for a beauty or fashion brand to divert from the stereotypical skin colour, body type and height seen on international ramps and screens. For things to change, we need to accept our colourism and prejudice towards darker complexions first.

So are beauty and personal care brands stepping up to the plate? While some have, by embracing plus sizes and ethnically diverse faces, most are still perpetuating the fair skin, slim figure and thin waist stereotype that has influenced millions of impressionable women globally. This is not to say that efforts have not been made towards diversity and inclusivity. I remember when I was doing my A’ levels, a student from Somalia joined our class. To introduce himself he told us his name and which country he came from. As expected, very few of us had heard of Somalia, so he asked us if we had heard of supermodel Iman, informing us that she too was from Somalia. We all knew that Iman was among the most beautiful and celebrated women in the world, but for that student, it meant representation and global prestige for his country.

So has enough been done? The answer is that small steps have been made. We all know how Dove made body positivity a cause. Furthermore, the popularity of people like Priyanka Chopra and the launch of brands by Rihanna has meant that women who are not necessarily fair or slim can find suitable products for their skin tones. In Pakistan, however, it is rare for a beauty or fashion brand to divert from the stereotypical skin colour, body type and height seen on international ramps and screens. For things to change, we need to accept our colourism and prejudice towards darker complexions first.

As any sociologist will tell you, beauty is a social construct, and although it varies from society to society, the ideal of beauty is the same; to be thin and fair. Cindy Crawford made a telling point when she said she wished she could look like Cindy Crawford when she is on screen.

Today, brands in the beauty and personal care segment are endorsing body positivity and as far as good intentions go, this is worthy, but it is not enough. In my view, beauty standards are not the issue. Beauty as a standard is.

We need to drop the slogan that everyone is beautiful and I also think that the adage that beauty is only skin deep is even more toxic. We need to tell ourselves and especially our children that what we need to do is focus on what is beneath – that is what really matters. As a society, we – the public, the activists and brands – need to learn to celebrate substance instead of something as superficial as skin. Ed Sheeran embraced this mindset in his song Beautiful People: “That’s not who we are; we are not beautiful. Yeah, that’s not who we are; we are not beautiful.” And that is not something to be ashamed of.

Tyrone Tellis is Senior Manager, Corporate Sales and PR, Bogo.