One writer explains how British Asian beauty ideals have changed since Goodness Gracious Me first aired on television
One of the things I remember most clearly about first watching Goodness Gracious Me is the lipliner. The ground-breaking British Asian sketch show first aired on TV in 1998 when I was approaching my teens and I recognised all the details of being a British Asian - the Punjabi phrases, the Southall high street parodies, all as part of the now-iconic skits that were light years ahead of their time (“A token white person!”, “Going out for an English!”). My favourite sketch was the two teenage girls loudly chomping chewing gum at a bus stop in between bitchy eye rolls, chat thick with “innits”. The same phrasing and attitude that bounced off the walls of my school corridors. But it was their look – thickly applied black kohl eyeliner and brown lip liner ringed around their lips that I remember the most.
Sadly, I was more of a thick eyebrows/braces/accidentally dyeing my baby hairs ginger after Jolen-ing my entire face kind of teen. But for me, watching those older girls on the show was where I was shopping for beauty tips. Even though the show was benevolently making fun of a type of ‘modern’ Asian girl that reflected girl power in the Nineties (the sort of Asian girl who would curse and stand in the rain to watch guys plays football instead of going home to help their mum), it was a type of girl I wanted to be. For most families I knew growing up in small cramped houses in Southall, it was a family affair to devour these comedic reflections of ourselves.
Back then, my beauty education was happening via my older cousins and aunties, but 20 years later things have changed radically. The conversation around ‘brown beauty’ isn’t just happening, it’s affecting real consumer patterns as more people are asking beauty companies to represent the changing population (which in the last census showed that 13.9% of Britons did not identify as white/white British).
This greater visibility has meant that conversations around catering to women of colour have moved mainstream – and when brands like Fenty Beauty get it so right they’re applauded, while others are constantly being called out for lack of shades. Discussions around South Asian beauty have been slower to gain attention, but they are gradually infiltrating popular culture via pop videos with greater Asian representation and activism focused on issues affecting these particular communities. Models such as Neelam Gill (the current face of Blink, L’Oréal and Burberry), Sanam Sindhi (who famously featured in Rihanna’s ‘Bitch Better Have My Money’ video) and Simran Randhawa (featuring in Vogue and Nike campaigns) have opened up the conversation around reclamation of traditional aesthetics and South Asian representation.
Randhawa says that there’s still a way to go when I ask her about the common stereotypes. “Within the Indian community, being fairer is prettier and having long hair is linked to being more beautiful,” she says. “I don’t agree with any of these sentiments but I generally feel we haven’t had a ‘brown is beautiful’ moment – with alternate media forms like social media we are seeing differing types of South Asian representation we wouldn’t usually see, but it’s still very generationally contained and some work needs to be done in helping older generations ‘unlearn’ their beauty assumptions.”
‘Decolonising’ beauty, or unlearning beauty habits that have historically catered to the white Western gaze (slimming down noses with contouring, blue contact lenses or blonde hair, for example) and reclaiming what our ancestors viewed as ‘beautiful’, is a conversation that has been had in immigrant communities for years, and the mainstream population finally seems to be catching up. The current trend towards ‘natural’ or ‘raw’ skincare such as charcoal or turmeric (the latter’s inflammatory and antiseptic properties have always been part of Indian ayurvedic techniques) that has taken off in the last year is certainly an opportunity to highlight ancient techniques – many of which originate in global communities of colour – rather than market them to the masses as something ‘new’.
Online communities have been pivotal too, for example ‘Beauty of Colour’, a Facebook community launched in 2014 by British Asian beauty enthusiast Chiara Giovanni. “Almost everyone agrees it’s a welcome respite from ubiquitous white beauty ideals, a truly safe space to explore all manner of gender expression,” she says. Self care and health issues have become a central part of the dialogue in community spaces like this too – it’s here that you’re reminded that black and Asian people require regular doses of vitamin D during the winter and gram flour (used widely in Asian cooking) mixed with mustard oil can have antiseptic properties as the ultimate at-home cleanser.
These new conversations make the point that reclaiming our faces may also lead to reclaiming personal politics such as rejecting the Western gaze and enforced gender beauty norms. But for thousands of British Asians, this moment of realising we had to be our own champions started with Goodness Gracious Me. And for me, it reinforced how I wanted to look in a world where solitary trial and error in front of the mirror with waxy £1 lipsticks – while your mum called you downstairs to say hi to visiting aunties – was a staple beauty routine. Twenty years later, Asian women have so many more ways to connect through beauty and can learn about make-up for our skintones from videos on YouTube. However, it’s still worth giving space to this nostalgia – and remembering how inaccessible our own beauty felt sometimes, and what it really means to be seen.
Main Image: Kieran Yates