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Mirror, mirror: How warped beauty standards dominate Pakistani style

Mirror, mirror: How warped beauty standards dominate Pakistani style

"Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly," said Mary Schmich.

Chicago Tribune columnist and cartoonist Mary Schmich wrote these words as part of general life advice which was to be utilised in a commencement speech, if she was ever to be called to give one.

As a self-professed beauty junkie with a career in fashion, I can say this statement rings true. Before I started working in this industry, I don’t remember ever putting down a copy of any fashion/beauty publication without plummeting self-esteem.

Over the course of my career, much of the fashion industry's glamourous veneer has been peeled away and sweat, blood and tears have replaced it. It led me though to wonder whether it’s a realisation that’s dawned on the public yet.

Beauty is both powerful and subjective. While there is no set standard of beauty across the globe, there are certain ideals that are shared and products that are pushed to help you attain them — an easy and instant task in this technological age. Across Pakistan or more accurately, across the sub-continent there’s an obsession with fair skin and light features, which personifies the exact opposite of what most South East Asians look like.

Our beauty preference is evident by celebrities with the most fan following; Mahira Khan, Ayesha Omar, Ayesha Khan, Fawad Khan and even film actress Saima, back in her heyday, represent ideals of beauty.

Semantics are also subliminal indicators of our choices: in the sub-continent, a fair woman will be praised using adjectives such as beautiful, pretty or gorgeous while more often than not, anyone possessing a dusky complexion will be termed attractive.

Over the years, I’ve observed girls with Caucasian features reign atop the beauty pyramid simply because they looked gora and not because they were necessarily very good-looking.

Technology also really reshaped how we approach beauty thanks to Photoshop and other digital photo editing software. In fact, editing a picture before sharing it has become so commonplace now that even phone cameras come in-built with options.

This has also made it easier to “colour correct,” a polite term that refers to making yourself look fairer without the usual grey undertone (this practise is also applicable to makeup). Other features that have drawn greater attention include the eyes, cheekbones and lips with a surge in cosmetic procedures and products to enhance them.

Bollywood is replete with examples of beautiful women who succumbed under immense physical scrutiny (or maybe they wanted it themselves, it’s an openly discussed but rarely acknowledged area) and went under the knife with drastic results.

Actors like Anushka Sharma (the furor’s barely abated) and Preity Zinta who already matched these ideals, felt the need to opt for cheek implants and lip enhancements, which did them greater disservice than good, or at least that’s my opinion. If it makes them happy, then my argument is invalid but I find it hard to believe that women whose livelihood depends on their good looks can’t identify a botched job when they see one.

And I can only speak for myself, but when I look in the mirror, features I find flawed stand out more prominently than the others; if I had to live with Anushka Sharma’s carved cheeks, I wouldn’t have had the strength to leave my room till the chemicals naturally dissolve.

Thanks to digital manipulation, it is now incredibly easy to erase ‘imperfections.’

This manipulation has made it incredibly easy for the fashion and beauty industry to sculpt a perfect, impossible standard of beauty. From billboards to TV and print, we’re surrounded by images of impeccable men and women with porcelain, pore-less skin, with symmetrical faces and stainless white teeth.

There are celebrities who look different in each shoot or brand campaign, depending on who's editing the pictures. One celebrity who visibly bears the brunt of this discreet fixing is Mahira Khan, whose nose has unfortunately been more debated than her acting capabilities.

From a Luscious campaign in 2012 to her Umar Sayeed lawn endorsement this year, Mahira’s nose is sculpted differently by each photo-editor according to their own aesthetics. Which to me is not only insulting but also incredibly rude, since Khan herself has no qualms about it; she’s barely ever seen sporting nose contour, heck she’s barely ever seen wearing heavy makeup.

I also feel that brands have certain responsibilities towards their consumers and should themselves be aware of the ideals that their campaigns promote. A recent YSL ad was banned from media because it featured a model who was skinny to the point of being unhealthy but in Pakistan even major international brands like L’Oreal have no issues placing images so doctored that the models look like humanistic androids.

Case in point is the new L’Oreal Colour Ever After campaign, which features model Sabeeka Imam as Snow White. It is so overly edited that Imam looks more animated than real. As a beauty brand that promises to promote healthy ideals, a lapse in judgement on such a scale has greater effects than the cosmetic giant would wish to acknowledge.

Let’s not even venture towards body image, that’s a story for another day.

How is all this supposedly harmless manipulation affecting our psyche? My idea of what good skin looks like is now warped, thanks to all the subtle, skilful editing employed world over, I can’t be the only one whose feeling a bit overwhelmed and under pressure to keep up with these impossible demands.

I remember seeing a shoot of Nargis Fakhri that was published in Hello! Pakistan and obsessing over how perfect her skin looked, despite the fact that you could see all her pores (minimal, uniform size with not a black-head in sight).

Having experienced photo-editing in Pakistan, which is a lot less labour intensive and mostly involves using the Blur tool all over, which causes the skin to look like polished alabaster, I convinced myself that Fakhri’s pictures were barely touched and she really did have the perfect skin.

Not too long after, I realised I had been duped but my obsessive paranoia with my skin remains.

If the standard of beauty being upheld by brands that aim to make you feel better about yourself and bring out the best in you isn’t even applicable to those who are representing it, then why does this ideal exist? Who is perpetuating it?

Makeup artist and salon owner Maram Azmat is of the opinion that the demand is driven by the client.

“There are so many grey areas in this situation. I was one of the first people who started editing images in Pakistan and we would only remove blemishes or glaring skin imperfections. When you’re trying to tell something beautiful, it has to look the part. Subtle tweaking is acceptable but over the years the reliance on editing has increased," she says.

She adds: "Part of it is because in the fashion and entertainment industry there’s a lack of raw, fresh talent with good looks. You have older, more experienced models and actors who get most of the jobs and they obviously require more work. And then the younger pool of talent just isn’t promising enough. The designers also push for greater use of Photoshop. In fashion particularly, a lot of the times the designer will pick a weak model because they’re cheaper and leave the rest up to Photoshop to make him or her look up to scratch. The result is alien-looking plastic figures.

Talking about how this translates into real life, she says: "I’ve had brides come to me asking for a poreless, contoured look like Kim Kardashian and even the staff at my salon who is so well-versed in these illusory tricks kept insisting I buy the same primer she uses for smoother looking skin. I had to search for an unedited image of Kardashian to share with them so that they could see how visibly layered and cake-y her makeup looks in reality.”

Upcoming photographer, Alee Hasan disagrees however. “I employ Photoshop on my own discretion. I rarely ever get directions from the client telling me how to treat my pictures. I never go overboard, I only correct any flaws that are detracting from the beauty of the shot. I am after all helping in producing or selling something beautiful, if there are glaring imperfections then the shoot won’t have that wow factor.”

Does selling something beautiful or trying to create an attractive image justify the falsification? Wouldn’t something flawed and asymmetrical be more accessible and appealing? People, including me, always love perusing pictures of celebrities without makeup. I know it makes me feel better to see my favourite star with their face scrubbed clean because it makes them human.

Flaws add character and are best embraced rather than erased. On an anecdotal note to substantiate this point, supermodel Cindy Crawford grew up hating the one feature that made her face distinct and instantly recognisable; her mole. At the verge of getting it surgically removed just before she really made it big, Crawford in an interview claims that she balked last minute and made the best decision of her life by not going through with the procedure. Her mole started an entire trend on penciling one on and she still wears it with pride to date.

Considering how many filters an average teenager uses these days, it is fair to say that they are aware of the manipulation, but won’t these standards, no matter how visibly doctored, sub-consciously alter their perception of beauty and self-worth?

Sherbano Taseer, the editor of a weekly publication does acknowledge the responsibility that comes with having a wide readership, stating “People do turn to the publication as their guide for what’s in and what’s not which does mean that there is a certain ethical line we have to keep in mind while putting together the pages."

"Though sometimes it’s difficult to tell how much a picture has been Photoshopped, even for us. Recently we published an interview with a certain professional who was making waves for all the right reasons. We asked her for a shoot and were delighted with what came across. It was only after publishing the piece we saw actual, unedited images of that person and the team was aghast. She was almost unrecognisable and even we felt a bit duped,” she adds with a laugh.

Designer Kamiar Rokni chalks it all up to creating a façade. “Fashion is about illusion and fantasy. You can’t take it too seriously. I won’t allow a photographer to edit my shoot to a point where the model’s features are bleeding into each other but then I will also pick girls who align with the brand image,” he states.

Shehla Chatoor, designer and mother of two young girls also goes by the same philosophy. She won’t pick a model she isn’t completely comfortable to begin with so that there’s much post-shoot work required on the images.

She claims her daughters, both of whom are at an impressionable age, have their feet firmly planted, possibly because they’ve seen their mother work very hard to build a certain brand image. When I asked her whether their classmates who might not have the same exposure fend off this perfection trap with the same ease, Chatoor conceded that not all will emerge unscathed.

Chatoor and Rokni also concur with Azmat on the fact that there is a serious dearth of raw talent in the industry which does eventually compound the editing problem. Designers either choose from a senior set of models whose faces no longer retain the requisite youthfulness or a junior lot that is both amateur and not blessedly endowed.

“We need young, smart girls with good features and fresh skin in the industry stat,” extolls Azmat. She feels that that this will not only improve the body of work being produced but will also reduce the amount of work required to make each image presentable because the canvas itself is worthy.

Does it seem out of place that the number of cosmetic surgical procedures has increased exponentially in recent times? Despite how well-aware people may be of the multiple layers of manipulation that exist in what they see in mainstream media, there is a definitive societal move towards aiming for physical perfection.

From a young age, girls and boys are now being exposed to unattainable standards of beauty and that’s bound to hurt self-esteem and lead to greater focus on cultivating their outer persona rather than what’s on the inside. Talking about procedures to improve your appearance has become commonplace yet there are few who openly admit.

Models now receive rhinoplasty suggestions as many times as weight loss advice (why is a toned body not an option?) but will never acknowledge undergoing a procedure. A supermodel who chooses to remain anonymous, confided that several of her close industry associates had suggested breast reduction surgery at various points in her career because her natural endowment contrasted jarringly with her petite frame.

Different models though have different opinions. Nooray Bhatti, a veteran of the fashion scene feels that the amount of editing required depends on the skill of the photographer and their treatment of light. “Light can make or break a shoot. Good lighting can elevate an ordinary subject while amateur lighting can make even the most beautiful woman look odd.”

She only chooses to work with photographers who understand light and don’t air-brush with a heavy hand. Her slightly asymmetrical nose has drawn comments over the course of her career with many suggestions to get it “fixed” which she has avidly ignored.

Upcoming model, Anam Malik also shares Bhatti’s philosophy of only working with photographers who she is comfortable with. “I’ve had a few bad experiences where certain photographers have edited my face to a point where even I can’t recognise myself so I try not working too much with them. It’s difficult though because I’m just starting out so it’s not like the photographer, particularly the more established ones, will listen to me,” she says.

Malik is also one of the models whose complexion varies from shoot to shoot, depending on how fair or dark the client and editor envision her.

I was recently introduced to an artist who also happens to be a prolific photographer and he assumed I work in-front of the camera rather than behind so his parting words to me, meant kindly, were: “Don’t let anyone bully you into surgery, let them tell you have a crooked nose or that you need higher cheekbones or bigger lips or whatever but don’t touch your face.”

It was by far the most painful piece of unsolicited advice I have ever received.

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