On a trip to Bangladesh a few years ago, my mother and I visited an acclaimed beauty parlor for the first time in preparation for a family friend’s wedding. It was custom for Bangladeshi women to go to parlors in order to get ready for special occasions, so as Bangladeshi-Americans, we hoped to achieve the look of the classic socialite too.
While I expected the beauty parlor to be extravagant, I was not expecting this.
As my mother and I walked through the doors, I thought we had mistakenly entered a hotel lobby. Velvet couches lined the walls and a crystal chandelier hung precariously close to the front desk.
As we approached the desk, I caught the receptionist blatantly examining our faces, specifically our complexions. I was a bit taken aback, but I reasoned that the silent inspection was nothing out of the ordinary for a parlor based on Eurocentric beauty standards normalized by centuries of colonization. Little did I know that this was only the beginning.
Once my mother chose the most basic hair and makeup service, another worker led us behind the reception desk to the main rooms. The rooms were reminiscent of a movie’s makeup studio.
Each room contained row after row of sleek black chairs that basked in bright light atop wall mirrors. Groups of women in uniforms helped each customer while some additional workers waited for more customers on the outskirts of the rooms.
As the worker guided us to our seats, I felt privileged to have even ventured this far. As my mother and I made ourselves comfortable, I placed my own makeup foundation specifically matched to my skin tone on top of the counter.
I also managed to take a picture of myself in the mirror in front of me before a worker politely informed me that pictures are not allowed. This made me feel more curious about how drastically the parlor would alter my appearance.
Once my makeup artist first approached me, we affably introduced ourselves before she briefly left to bring her supplies. She returned with a giant foldable box of cosmetic products, and I was shocked by the extent of her supplies and the ambiance of the place.
Before she could begin, I handed her my concealer and pointedly stated that she must only use the shade that I had and no lighter shades of foundation or concealer. She skeptically eyed me as if I was joking. She finally nodded hesitantly and began.
I relaxed into my seat, satisfied with my success. But the feeling was short-lived when she brought out a noticeably pale foundation palette and requested that I would choose a shade that matched my skin tone.
Although I attempted to reject the entire palette, she refused to take no for an answer. It was as if she could not truly hear me or was too confused by the implications of my demands.
I am sure that the makeup artist’s career heavily depends on whitening customers, lest the customers leave the parlor the same shade as they entered. That would most certainly reflect poorly on the parlor and its public image.
Given the plethora of societal pressures of deeming only white as beautiful, why would any customer not want to look lighter? That was, after all, the unspoken goal of the parlor and the rest of the Bangladeshi beauty industry due to Eurocentric beauty standards.
As I was still trying to convince the makeup artist to use my own foundation, she sighed while eventually responding that she could not avoid using her products.
I felt a pang of betrayal; prior to coming to the parlor, I had resolved to refuse any foundation that was lighter than my skin tone, yet here I was being coerced into agreeing to do the exact opposite.
I felt anger bubble inside me, not at the makeup artist per se, but at the relentless and inescapable nature of shadism that was so stark at that moment.
The only reason that I did not leave then and there was that my mother had already paid a hefty fee for our appointments. I grimly chose the least blanched color from the palette.
Relieved that I had made a decision, the makeup artist attempted to comfort me by saying that I would look beautiful by the time she was done. I remained skeptical but silent because nothing I wanted to say would have made the situation any better.
While I was still swimming in my thoughts, the artist distracted me by asking questions about my life away from Bangladesh before announcing that she finished.
As I peered at the mirror in front of me, I experienced awe followed by confusion. Surely that could not be me. The spectacle in the mirror seemed to be severely bleached, complete with far too much nose contouring to possibly resemble my natural nose.
Yet those eyes were mine. With the makeup artist expectantly asking how I liked it, I replied with praise while smiling at her so as to make her feel satisfied with her work.
I could not blame her for this atrocity when it was all she had been instructed to do throughout her career. But I was internally horrified by my unnatural skin tone. It was a notable instance in which I felt extremely repelled by my appearance. Yet clearly the parlor and larger society disagreed.
The rest of the day, I received a wide range of compliments on the state of my face. However, I could not deny my discomfort at such an obvious alteration of myself. Yet nearly every other woman at the wedding was about as artificially lightened as me, which made me feel like a clone devoid of any personality.
The worst part was how complicit nearly every other woman was within this hierarchy of cloned whiteness. Like my makeup artist, they too seemed trained to prioritize and celebrate the lightest artificial skin tones.
Looking back, this problematic mindset is not unique to Bangladesh; shadism has effortlessly permeated into my Bangladeshi-American community and other communities of color across the world.
For instance, it is not unheard of for aunties looking for wives for their sons to declare that they are solely looking for Forsha (light) women.
Similarly, the term Kalo (dark) is a well-known slur that only ever seems to be used to describe certain Bangladeshi women of darker skin tones. And shadism is unmistakably prevalent due to the widespread success of the whitening and supposedly brightening cream Fair & Lovely throughout the non-White world.
The product’s name was recently altered to Glow & Lovely in response to widespread backlash. But the word shift is meaningless due to the longstanding message and overt colorist advertising of the cream: any woman who is not as light as the women shown in Glow and Lovely commercials will simply never be good enough.
Thus, the beauty industry in minority cultures has deemed it essential for dark women of color to risk their health and self-esteem by applying chemically hazardous products to their faces and bodies in the hopes of feeling accepted.
In retrospect, I am grateful for what my experience in the beauty parlor awakened in me. But never again will I set foot inside a beauty parlor, so long as the same norms of shadism apply.
Nor do I hope for anyone to place their self-worth into the hands of those profiting off of shadism.
The beauty industry of minority groups must catch up with the times: respect and support for women of darker shades are long overdue.