“We Have A Lot of Unlearning to Do”: Addressing the Cultural Stigmas Attached to South Asian Beauty

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It’s hard to imagine there was a time in my life when I was ashamed of my appearance – the color of my skin, my thick curls, the dark hair covering my arms. These insecurities were paramount during my adolescent years, and it didn’t help that everywhere I turned, whether it was at school or in the media, no one looked like me. Women with these features were hardly, if ever, showcased. Adorned. Let alone made to feel welcomed by the beauty community. 

And the sad truth is – I wasn’t the only one with these thoughts. 

From a young age, I, and so many other South Asian women are conditioned to believe we must adhere to strict beauty standards to be what society deems as “beautiful.” Veering off this course diminishes our “assets”– or so we’re led to believe. These beliefs, rooted in Western colonialism, feed the patriarchy, informing women across the globe that Eurocentric beauty is sought after. You know, a slim waist, light skin, straight hair, and a hairless body. Because should you fit this mold – or do everything in your power to closely resemble this physical presence- you will be rewarded with praise, prosperity, and the ultimate goal many South Asian parents yearn for their daughters: a proper male suitor. 

Not only are these standards next to impossible to attain, but they are also incredibly harmful both mentally and physically. They contribute to low-self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self-harm. They reinforce colorism, sexism, stigmas. It’s an oppressive environment society continues cultivating for women – and it needs to end.  

As Self-Love & Skin Positivity Activist Virali Patel tells me, “we have a lot of unlearning to do.” 

Whether we choose to believe it or not, the West continues to be influential in shaping global beauty standards. 

It’s pretty well-known that Western countries tend to be the world leaders; innovators in so many industries. To foreigners, it’s a dreamland mixed with money, power, and opportunity. So, you can imagine the influential impact these nations have on countries like India is substantial; who, for so long, have vied to stay closely connected to the Western world. 

“They think ‘Okay, this is how we’re going to improve and move our society forward,’ says Virali, but in reality, they remain influenced by white media, setting a benchmark for South Asian beauty. 

Cultural stigmas like dark skin continue to exist because generations continue giving them power, further allowing brands to profit off female insecurities.  

For those who don’t know, the pressure to remain light-skinned typically starts from an early age. Growing up, I frequently heard comments like “don’t play too long outside” or “avoid the sun” to lessen the likelihood of my skin darkening. Ayurvedic exfoliation treatments such as rubbing chickpea flour on the skin were considered normal after a day spent outdoors, Virali tells me. And yet, I’m not surprised we both shared similar experiences. South Asian culture – no matter where you live in the world- continues to keep these poisonous practices alive and intact as it descends down the family tree. 

The narrative portrays lightness as those with success and a high level of attractiveness. Dark skin is often criticized for its unappealing presence and link to poor socioeconomic status. To me, this stark comparison indicates that skin color is often used to identify social class. But what’s most alarming about the color hierarchy is the lengths women go to achieve light skin –turning a blind eye to the potentially serious health risks involved.

“The beauty industry has been profiting off our insecurities” for far too long, Virali says. From creams to serums to cleansers, there is no shortage of treatments that promise to deliver tangible results yet fail to comply with health and safety standards. The only way for these companies to keep profits thriving is to fuel insecurities, make women feel less than, so they continue to re-purchase with the hope they will become someone they’re not. Then the cycle repeats. 

Similarly, body hair is natural and normal, but women are ridiculed – ostracized, even- if they do not actively seek removal methods, irrespective of the incurred costs. Girls become victims of bullying at schools if they appear with a unibrow. Women are mocked for looking too “manly” if they don’t shave their underarms. Beauty standards have manipulated women into believing our bodies – the way we were born- are abnormal, and the only acceptable body is one that is hairless. What’s interesting is that we’re told our bodies must remain bare, yet on our heads, we must present these cascading, luscious locks. 

The expectations appear to be one-sided, not applicable to South Asian men, who continue to remain unscathed. 

“My mom has a quite fair complexion. And when she was younger, her dad became very ill. Not wanting to miss his daughter’s wedding, her parents went out to find her a suitable partner. All of the men had darker skin than my mum, and no one ever said anything about this”, Virali tells me.

Even within my family, my brother never received the same comments during our childhood years. 

So, what does this signify? It signifies that South Asian women must uphold a different set of standards than men, especially before marriage. According to Farha Ternikar, “married individuals are given a higher status compared to those who are unmarried”. But it is Indian women who feel the immense pressure to be matched while they still bear a youthful face. “It is almost a bad omen to have an unmarried female who is over 30 years of age living in a South Asian home”. 

Dismantling these standards is a concerted effort from both men and women to question and redefine what is viewed as “beautiful.”

I’ll admit, there has been a notable shift in the beauty industry recently. Brands are making more of a substantial effort to showcase BIPOC women in their marketing campaigns. Makeup options now flatter a wide range of skin tones. But this is not enough to radically change our definition of beauty – on a global scale. 

Diversity matters. Your cultural roots matter. When the only standard of beauty is Eurocentric, how can everyone who does not fit this be made to feel included? We cannot. It ends up being this constant climb to attain the unattainable. Rather than create a breeding ground for insecurities, self-hate, and trauma to thrive, we need to unlearn, stop young girls from feeling ashamed about their appearance, educate ourselves (and elders) on the history of beauty and how these standards for women originated in the first place. This goes for men, as well. 

It’s time to celebrate our differences. Wear our heritage with pride. Shift towards a space filled with love and mutual respect for all. Because when we’re all included in the conversation, we all win.