Beauty standards vary in Pakistan depending on class but one thing reigns supreme - the gora complex.

If there's one thing that everyone can agree on, it's that there is no one concept of beauty yet the desire to enhance the physical self remains consistent. The hierarchy of beauty standards in Pakistan has clear boundaries defined by a trifecta of salon divisions, divided in accordance with their services and practices but most importantly, geographical and social positions. Despite that, the gora complex seems to get a seat at all the tables, regardless of class.

While we keep sharing quotes about the worth of inner loveliness, reality begs to differ. Our growing beauty industry tells a story of consistent dissatisfaction with the image of our physical self. I have found out that entrepreneurs and consumers related to our beauty industry are greatly inspired by popular influencers on social media platforms Instagram and TikTok, such as Merium Pervaiz, Dolly, Nadia Hussain, Kashee, Merub Ali and many more. The insights I have gained, though, may not be surprising for any South Asian as the average woman's ideal appearance includes skin-lightening, bari bari ankhein (big, beautiful eyes) and a slim visage.

However, pale or fair skin, AKA gori rangat, is on top of the social checklist of ideal beauty in Pakistan. The descriptor 'kaala', which literally means dark, is a popular slur reserved for people belonging to a socially and economically underprivileged class. Lighter skin tones have a high social capital in communities of colour around the world and this capital increases considerably when coupled with a lack of education.

The social discourse on beauty in Pakistan begins and ends around 'white' skin. Ninety per cent of our beauty industry comprises of services that turn on the 'glow' and up the 'brightness' of women, especially women of a marriageable age.

Differences between parlours on issues related to hygiene, technology and style preferences vary as socio-economic boundaries do. But before thinking about beauty, one must note the structural nuances of our parlours.

Bara parlour, acha parlour and ghar mein parlour

In everyday Pakistani discourse, salons are largely divided into three main categories: bara (big) parlour, acha (good) parlour and ghar mein (in a house) parlour.

Bara parlour

The big parlours usually have descriptors like 'clinic' and 'salon' in their nomenclature, for example, Depilex Beauty Clinic and Institute and Madeeha's Bridal Salon and Studio, etc. They are multi-million-rupee setups that branch out in various directions of cosmetic surgery, laser and spa treatments, and teaching schools. Such top beauty businesses have units spread all over the country, which include teaching institutes that...

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