Pakistan’s dark whitening complex

September 12, 2021

74 years after gaining independence from white colonizers, Pakistan still suffers from a deep, dark whitening complex, perpetuated by mainstream television and celebrity endorsements.

Pakistan’s dark whitening complex

The west has made significant attempts to adopt affirmative action to increase opportunities in the workplace for underrepresented parts of society. Mainstream media in America and Europe has increasingly made attempts to cast people of colour and create stories that are more diverse, especially after the social media campaign #OscarsSoWhite took the global entertainment industry by storm. The campaign criticized the lack of representation of BIPOC, women, and the LGBTQ+ community in the nominations for the Academy Awards. It has, since then, expanded as a call for greater inclusion and awareness of several marginalized groups in all aspects of the film and television industries across the globe.

Unfortunately, Pakistan is still following that colonial mindset, which has ingrained within generations that fair skin is superior to other tones. This belief is propagated through television advertisements, soaps, drama serials and celebrity endorsements.

While there is no scientific or medical proof that using a certain brand’s soap or moisturizer or fairness cream can change your skin colour, unless of course you inject yourself with whitening injections or bleach your face, there is clear evidence of how damaging these products can become upon regular use.

Dermatologists have stated time and again that skin whitening creams contain skin bleaching chemicals such as steroids, mercury salts and hydroquinone, which basically inhibit, hamper and distort the body’s natural melanin production and in turn lighten your original skin colour. Another little known fact is that these very whitening treatments, injections and steroid creams also contain a substance ‘glutathione’, which when administered recklessly can be carcinogenic, pose multiple health risks and eventually lead to death.

What naïve viewers, who mostly lack education and exposure, do not realize is that this obsession with skin whitening is perpetuated by their favorite celebrities in ways more than one. They are unaware of the fact that their favorite stars do not just ‘glow’ or possess a certain skin type or tone by using a particular skin cream, soap or anti-aging product.

What goes into making them look like a star actually requires a team of 25 odd people whose job is to add to their aura as a celebutante. The following aspects which are conveniently brushed under the carpet include: halogen lights, stylists, haute couture, extensive skincare routines which include treatments from image clinics offering prolonged procedures which in turn helps them look younger than their actual age, along with a lot of post-production, editing and photoshop which gives their final digital image or on-screen look a starry appearance.

Here’s some insight into the key facets of how celebrities both consciously and inadvertently propagate and contribute to the fairness mania across the subcontinent. Celebrities, particularly in Pakistan, have a major part to play with their endorsements and projects which has ultimately led to a whitening wave across the country.

There is a dire need for celebrities and social media influencers to rethink the way their endorsements and content affects Pakistan’s complexion complex, helping us reprogram the compulsion young women and men have to go out of their way to become ‘fair-skinned’ in order to look beautiful.

Celebrity Endorsements:

Mawra Hocane has been the poster girl for fairness, endorsing a fairness cream, which to its credit, tried to rebrand itself by changing its name. But whether she’s fair or simply glowing, her recent ads claim that her fairness, her glow, her ability to fight the sun and subsequently her health and ability to combat challenges at work all stem from her using this particular cream.

Mehwish Hayat, who has starred in several soap commercials, shot with bedazzling studio lights, truck load of makeup, and evident digital touch-ups, claims that her nikhaar (bright facial glow) is just because of a little bit of her magical soap.

Ayeza Khan, Sajal Aly and Zara Noor Abbas have all endorsed fairness, whitening and lightening products, and they have a huge social media fan following that follows suit and purchases those products, believing that those products will make them look like their favorite celebrity.

Mahira Khan has never directly endorsed a fairness cream or whitening product but she has naturally fair skin, which is made even fairer on television. Her natural moles/birthmarks all disappear through makeup when she appears in digital ad campaigns. Her endorsement of personal care products lead consumers and her fans to believe that they can glow like her if they use these products regularly.

As if women celebrities endorsing fairness creams was not unfortunate enough, we’ve had global superstars like Shah Rukh Khan endorsing Fair and Handsome, a fairness cream exclusively for men.

Thus, this subliminal messaging being bombarded by such ads lead viewers to believe that fairness is somehow equated with the idea of beauty and looking attractive.

Lack of Mainstream Role Models:

Not a single mainstream actor in our entertainment and media or even news industry is dark-skinned. There is no woman with even a wheatish complexion ruling the screens, forget dark or dusky skin.

The percentage of naturally fair-skinned individuals in South Asia, when compared to the region’s predominantly dusky tones, is fairly low. The lack of young women and men on screen with darker complexions is unfathomable when it comes to casting leads for drama serials, advertisements and even social media or modeling campaigns. Even fair-skinned actresses are made lighter and fairer with makeup, making them appear at least two shades lighter.

How can any young woman with dark or dusky skin feel comfortable with her appearance and natural skin colour when she has no role models to pave the way for acceptance and self-love? Drama producers cast domestic helpers and lower class women with darker skin because apparently you need to be rich and affluent to be fair skinned.

Songs, Sagas, and Sonnets
Endorsing the Gora Complex:

Our deep-rooted fairness complex and ingrained colourism stems from all aspects of mainstream media, film, songs, sonnets, and folklore. Starting with the nursery rhymes we hear at preschool, to mainstream film songs, the lyrics of pop songs, sonnets, sagas including folklore which describe beautiful women to be ‘gori’ have tarnished the idea of skin-deep beauty.

The most jarring was a full-blown fairness product plug in the film song in Jawani Phir Nahi Ani -1 which featured stars like Humayun Saeed, Sohai Ali Abro, Bushra Ansari, Hamza Ali Abbasi and Ahmed Ali Butt dancing to ‘Fair and Lovely Ka Jalwa’. But this only followed the legacy of its popular predecessors which include: ‘Goray Rang Ka Zamana’,

‘Lak Patla Patang Gora Gora Rang’ (Zubaida Khanum), ‘Mera Gora Badan’ (Saima)

‘Gora Rang Bilori Akhiyan’ (Dulla Haidri) and ‘Gora Ni Rang Gora’ (Noor Jehan).

There is a dire need for celebrities and social media influencers to rethink the way their endorsements and content affects Pakistan’s complexion complex, helping us reprogram the compulsion young women and men have to go out of their way to become ‘fair-skinned’ in order to look beautiful.


Afreen is a creative writer and digital media professional with special interest in fashion, film, TV and pop culture. She can be reached at [email protected]

Pakistan’s dark whitening complex