By Jamie Chan
If we asked ourselves which part(s) of our body we are less happy about, the chances are that our answer would revolve around weight, thinness or muscularity. This is likely because being thin and toned is an appearance ideal that is highly normalised in Western society – it’s almost impossible to avoid images of thin women as we flick through television channels (or Netflix series!) or as we scroll through Instagram.
However, as prevalent as the thin body is (partly due to globalisation), appearance ideals are actually highly based on culture. Non-Western cultures may have more flexibility towards body size and shapes. Some body-image research suggests that ethnic minority women experience fewer body image issues due to this flexibility (Warren et al., 2005). However, body image research largely revolves around Western appearance ideals (focused around body size, shape or weight) even when using non-Western samples. So, what do we know about cultural appearance ideals?
What about South Asian women in the UK?
In the South Asian culture, having fair skin is an important feature of women’s appearance, as fair skin often reflects belonging to a higher caste; thus, increasing marriage prospects (a traditionally important goal). According to the 2011 Census of England and Wales, 41.9% of the people from the Indian ethnic group in the UK were born in South Asia; but what happens psychologically when people from one culture move to and live in another culture?
A quick look at existing research reveals that people use different strategies to adapt to their new cultural environment and these different strategies often lead to different outcomes. For example, people who identify strongly with both their ethnic cultural identity (eg. their South Asian identity) and the mainstream cultural identity (eg. the British identity) tend to adapt better and have better psychological outcomes (e.g. less stress, higher life satisfaction, etc.) than those who identify with either or neither of those identities. This process of adapting to a new culture is called acculturation.
Particularly for South Asian women living in the UK, they must often navigate at least two sets of cultural appearance ideals (one based on the South Asian culture and another based on the British culture), which might even be conflicting. As ethnic minorities, they also experience discriminatory experiences, which sometimes extend to teasing based on their ethnically different appearance.
How is ethnic teasing relating to appearance harmful?
To understand South Asian women’s acculturation experiences and body image, we conducted a study with first-generation South Asian women in the UK. We found that those who identified with their South Asian identity strongly were more likely to be dissatisfied with their skin colour. This was unsurprising, as skin colour is an important feature of the South Asian appearance ideal. More interestingly, our findings show that South Asian women who experienced more ethnic teasing relating to their appearance had poorer body image but only when this was linked with their dissatisfaction with their skin colour (even though the teasing was not specifically about their skin colour). This highlights the role of skin colour satisfaction in the way South Asian women feel about their appearance when they experience teasing.
We also wanted to know how appearance-specific discriminatory experiences would affect their adaptation to living in the UK. We found that South Asian women who experienced more ethnic teasing relating to appearance identified stronger with the British identity and the integrated identity (i.e. with both the South Asian and British identities). This might seem counterintuitive, as people tend to distance themselves from a group when they feel discriminated against. However, because appearance-related ethnic teasing picks out visible ethnic differences, South Asian women might have identified with the British culture possibly by adopting British appearance goals, as an attempt to fit in. Having said that, stronger British identification did not have an effect on South Asian women’s skin colour satisfaction, which questions the benefits of fitting in by adopting unattainable British appearance goals.
Although people who identify strongly with both their ethnic and mainstream cultural identities (i.e. integrated identity) tend to adapt better, we did not find that the South Asian women who identified strongly with both identities were less dissatisfied with their skin colour. This shows the complexity of acculturation when it comes to deep-rooted cultural ideals like having fair skin.
What does this all mean?
At the individual level, being dissatisfied with one’s skin colour meant that one might try to change their skin tone. Skin-lightening creams are one of the most common methods that people use to change their skin tone. In fact, in 2012, it was reported in an article that skin lightening creams in India had more sales than Coca-cola, despite the negative effects of skin lightening creams on people’s skin and health (see Pollock et al., 2021). There is much work to be done in advocating skin tone appreciation across cultures.
In the bigger picture, it appears that when people move from one culture to another, the responsibility of adapting does not lie solely within their hands, but also within the hands of the people who live in the mainstream society that they move to. Just like the South Asian women in our study, their body image was not simply based on how well they adapt to another culture, but it is also the result of how their host society respond to them as ethnic minorities.
Jamie Chan is doing a PhD under the supervision of Dr Megan Hurst. Her doctoral research explores the psychological processes underlying social class and women’s body image. The study in this post was part of her Masters’ dissertation, which she presented at the University of Sussex Festival of Doctoral Research. Follow Jamie on Twitter where she talks about her research.
Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology.