Eleven years old. That was the age at which I first looked down at my hands and felt unhappy about my skin colour.
This dissatisfaction soon evolved into full blown insecurity, the first amongst many. As the various messages about beauty standards Pakistani women are expected to meet started to sink in, my critical gaze took in various aspects of my appearance and found them lacking.
I was not tall enough, nor slim enough. My nose was not thin enough, my eyelashes weren’t long enough. If I could see it, I didn’t like it.
The young women growing up around me, friends, cousins, neighbours, were all going through the same thing. Our conversations included long sessions with lists of all the things about ourselves we wished to change.
It took the end of teenage and a journey along the road of self-acceptance for me to like and accept myself for who I am and what I look like. My friends, too, all embarked on the same journey in their own ways.
We have come out on the other side feeling better about ourselves and feeling angry at all the pressures exerted on us to turn into cookie-cutter versions of the perfect female that we could never have become – not unless we somehow manage to graft our brains into life-size versions of Barbie.
Barely does this epiphany dawn on most young women (if it dawns at all), then they find themselves under more intense scrutiny than ever before; early 20s in the life of most young Pakistani women are marked by endless tea serving parades in front of rishta-hunting aunties.
In their mission to find the perfectbahu they end up stomping all over self-esteems and leave behind young women dejected at being rejected once again, just because they are not tall enough, slim enough or white-skinned enough.
Every young woman who has been through the rishta mill has her own horror stories to tell. In what other situation would a perfect stranger turn to you over his cup of tea and throw this casual remark deemed to be a compliment:
“You are so much fairer than your photograph. You looked so dark in the picture, we almost decided not to come.”
For a society which prides itself on protecting women from objectification through upholding Islamic values like purdah, we are extremely obsessed with the female form and how it should be.
There are very specific demands regarding every aspect of the female body and thanks to them, an enormous array of pills, creams, gadgets and herbal remedies have been made available to help young women turn into pretty porcelain dolls.
That while building an entire beauty industry which revolves around skin colour, we still manage to claim superiority over ‘westernised’ societies which objectify women, shows the depth of our delusions.
Women’s bodies and their appearances are not in their own control. They are controlled by the advertisements for the hairless and fair skinned; by the novels and TV dramas with their tall, willowy, impossibly good looking heroines; by the rishta aunties and their scrutinising gazes.
All these voices join to form that ceaseless, uber-critical chorus in our heads that keeps reminding us how fat, dark and un-pretty we are; the voice that tells us to wax and pluck, to slather on creams and lotions, to head to the nearest salon for a whitening facial, to put down the chocolate and climb onto the stationary bike.
Women usually do all of this, not because it makes us feel better about our appearance or because it has any positive effects on our health, but to simply muffle that demonic voice in our heads, if nothing else; the voice keeps saying ‘you’re not good enough’.
How can things be any other way when we are being bombarded by messages to that effect from every single direction?
I look back at all the times my friends and I and all the other young women like us, stood in front of mirrors, judging ourselves; all the hours we spent wishing we looked different; all our attempts to change our bodies – all in vain.
And I wonder how much more we could have done with our lives if we could reclaim that time and use it to dream other dreams and to pursue other goals?
How much happier we could have been with ourselves, had we been taught from an early age not to trust the fake beauty on TV and the fevered imaginations of novel writers?
How much better our lives could still be if we reclaimed our bodies, ate healthy, exercised and dressed up for our own sake?
If the society will not be kind to us, then surely, we can be kind to ourselves.