Pakistani people are some of the most beautiful in the world, so it’s at least a bit regrettable that we have to resort to improvising fallacious theories on aesthetic preference to guard our self-esteem.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what our country has gained notoriety for, being host to one of the main seats of the imperial hangover theory of beauty - the contention that we harbour a preference for fair women, or a ‘fever for fairness’ as one Pakistani writer refers to it, due supposedly to some ‘unmet longings’ from our colonial past.

Such irresponsible journalism completely overlooks the abundance of social science literature showing that there is a universal preference among men for fair-skinned women, going back all the way to hunter-gatherer times. Not the least, the former is one of numerous very premature, if not altogether malicious, cases of labelling our women troubled victims of a nationwide inferiority complex: a ‘limitless obsession’ to look like white people.

Let’s instead take a look at the different theories presented by various social scientists regarding this very persistent phenomenon. As indicated by the researchers themselves, their individual contributions should be looked at as counterparts competing for larger or smaller portions of the prize for having solved this evasive puzzle, rather than for providing mutually-eliminative competitors.

First let’s have the most recent contribution to our topic, which comes from Shyon Baumann, sociologist at the University of Toronto. In his paper, The moral underpinnings of beauty: a meaning-based explanation for light and dark complexions in advertising, Baumann explores why the fair-complected woman has historically been, and continues to persist as, the preferred ideal in US society. His work is based on the observation that advertising images tend to portray women of all races as significantly whiter than their male equivalents - the ‘fair maiden’ and the ‘tall, dark and handsome’ gentleman. Now, Baumann’s research strategy is very acute - he recognizes that advertising is a medium less dedicated to actual reality and more to a selected, manipulated representation of it; for the precise reason, it serves as a highly useful and reliable microcosm to showcase a society’s ideals.

His work similarly boasts substance. Baumann postulates that the aforementioned bias towards fairness is a product of ‘deeply rooted and enduring cultural values’ - values that assign different meanings to lightness and darkness in complexion. Whiteness, he identifies, is associated with qualities such as innocence, purity and vulnerability, while darkness more ambivalently may portray aggression and virility or villainy and danger; the former corresponds with prescribed feminine gender roles and the latter with masculine ones.

Consequently, just as women are rewarded for exemplifying attitudes and behaviors, such as chastity, that coincide “with our definition of the appropriate role of women in society,” they are also rewarded “for exemplifying the aesthetic characteristic (whiteness) that symbolizes them.”

The results of his data from advertising images hold up: the fairest women are almost invariably depicted in roles that include being “reserved, chaste and proper.” So aesthetic traits have engendered into them moral codes, and strong feminine traits imply strong feminine behaviors and identities.

The usefulness of Baumann’s work is limited by its West-centeredness. Nonetheless, it has mounting relevance for the non-Western world as it gets increasingly permeated by the cultural themes of the former.

Now, you can’t have a serious debate on beauty without an evolutionary psychologist joining in the fun. Appropriately enough, a handsome contribution comes in from famed neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, who deals with the same question in his paper ‘Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?‘

Ramachandran proposes three basic roots for the aforementioned preference:

Various diseases such as anemia, jaundice and skin infection are much more easily detected in the fair-skinned compared with darker individuals

The skin of lighter-complected women, particularly blondes, responds to sunlight by ostensibly aging faster and developing age spots and wrinkles.

Visible signs of romantic feedback, such as blushing, appear very prominently in light-skinned women.

According to Ramachandran, the first two function to indicate to interested ‘gentlemen’ the degree of the subject’s ‘offspring viability’ since the aforementioned diseases can interfere with the chances of a healthy birth, and fertility declines with age.

Far exceeding the above two, however, is the pivotal work of Canadian anthropologist Peter Frost. Frost’s book, titled ‘Fair Men, Dark Women - The Forgotten Roots of Colour Prejudice’ is a monumental work of social science that cuts across disciplines and incorporates the work of various other researchers. In it, he weaves together the pieces of this puzzle right from the beginning, leaving it only after having planted the seeds for Baumann’s work. Let’s take a look at his main findings:

Due to the greater presence of chemicals responsible for skin pigmentation, men are naturally slightly darker than women. In fact, there is evidence to indicate that in ancient times, when there was complete racial homogeneity, this slight difference in complexion was striking enough to serve as a cue for sexual identity. As such, an individual with a dark, ‘male’ complexion would evoke different responses from men and women, respectively, i.e. in appraising either a potential rival or a potential mate.

A recent study done at MIT corroborates this hypothesis, showing that even today subjects will identify the same face, shown in either a light or dark hue (and with the complete absence of any other cues), as female and male respectively. The bias towards identifying white as female is only a ‘hardwired mental mechanism.’

Frost wraps up his study by citing the numerous cases of ‘the fair woman, dark man’ motif in the artwork and writings of societies going back to hunter-gatherer times, through various ancient civilizations up till the modern era. He cites a survey showing that, even today, 47 out of 51 societies studied express a preference for light-skinned women.

All in all, while there may certainly be more rational (and effective) mechanisms to enhance one’s appearance than by assuming the quest for fairness, the message should be clear: girls and young women who do defer to this route are only responding to hardwired socio- and psychobiological mechanisms within us. Such women are not brainwashed into any inferiority complex, nor are they psychologically disturbed victims of self-hatred.

n    The writer is the head of Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative. Scholars by Profession is a research workshop that initially came together as a research club on the eve of 2011.