Over the summer of 2010, I was watching a film called Barbie in a Mermaid Tale with my six year old Pakistani cousin. For the purpose of this post, let's call my cousin Jane. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the film, but was shocked when I heard a racist comment escape from my little cousin's mouth.
It happened when Barbie’s two best friends, a tanned white girl and a darker African American girl appeared on the screen, Jane immediately expressed her disgust at how “dark” the African American character was, as if dark meant ugly, and how beautiful the other and Barbie were. Shocked by her response, I asked why she thought so, because to me, all the characters looked the same, but with different coloured skin and eyes.
She told me that of course the darker one is “karhaab” (bad, ruined, not beautiful) because she is not fair skinned, and that Barbie and her Caucasian friend are the most beautiful, simply because they are fair. I always knew that fairness was the main epitome of beauty in Pakistan, but to hear my six year old cousin emphasize it so vigilantly took me by surprise.
There were many dark skinned male characters as well, but she did not comment at all on their appearances. This was interesting because it showed me that, in her eyes, beauty is a role meant to be played by women. I even asked her if all the girl's features were kept the same, but she was white, what would Jane think then? After making me pause the film so she could have a better look at her, Jane declared that if she was white (or fair, as she worded it), then she would be even more beautiful than the main character, Barbie.
While the concept of race is foreign in Pakistani culture, the concepts of whiteness and darkness are very relevant. Skin tones and their implications are the main problems. Jane was referring to the colour of the girls' skins rather than their races, but she was also indirectly implying that she believes Caucasians are automatically more beautiful than those of African descent. Specifically, in Pakistani culture, dark skin is not only considered less beautiful, but it also (supposedly) represents poverty. It is assumed that if someone has dark skin, then he/she spends the day working in the sun, or cannot afford skin bleaching creams such as the famous Fair & Lovely.
Of course, this is a completely false statement, but nevertheless it is believed so firmly. Even the name of the cream implies that if someone is fair, then she is lovely, but if she is dark, then she's not beautiful.
To further emphasize my point, fairer skinned girls are often preferred in the Pakistani work force than darker ones. This is especially true for jobs such as air hostesses and actresses. It is very rare to see a dark skinned Pakistani (or Indian) actress in any drama or Bollywood film. Even if they are dark skinned, they are forced by society to wear so much white-coloured makeup to appear fairer. Furthermore, brides always seem to look too many shades lighter than they actually are on their wedding day in Desi weddings. All of this emphasizes to darker skinned women that they are somewhat beneath fairer women, simply because of their skin tone. Darker women are treated like they have a problem that needs to be fixed.
In Jane's eyes, the character was stripped of her identity and just seen as a 'dark girl'. She was placed upon a scale, based on her gender and her skin colour, and then judged harshly whilst completely ignoring every other beautiful characteristics. Inequality based on skin colour in Pakistan is simply ridiculous, but continues to faced anyway.
When one hears a six year old declaring a cartoon character ugly just because of the colour of their skin, as if that concept has been engraved into the child's mind, that person can be assured there is something wrong with the society or the way this child has been brought up. It is not natural for children to see one skin colour as more beautiful than the other. The parents and general society push these concepts onto the children, and this issue must continue to be addressed not only within Pakistani culture, but abroad too.
This is a problem, as a TCK, I've witnessed in many different cultures. From my South Asian friends, to my Arab friends, to my South American friends and even my African friends - skin tone continues to play an unnecessarily important role in what defines a woman as "beautiful".