Pakistani model Zara Abid appears to be visibly darker in the advertising campaign she did for Nabila Salon, which offers beauty treatments in Karachi, Pakistan. The prolific model’s other Instagram posts display her with much lighter skin – a fact that has led many to accuse the creative team behind the campaign of blackface and cultural appropriation.
Several of these women are accusing the company of exploiting color for their art while ignoring the societal intolerance Pakistan often displays when it comes to dark complexions. A nationwide obsession with fair skin makes Nabila Salon’s intentional changing of skin tone – from light to dark – all the more problematic for many women in the country.
Abid’s blatant shift in skin tone has users criticizing the campaign across Twitter and Instagram. Those who posted in retaliation highlighted the fact that Abid, in actuality, is not nearly as dark as she appears in this campaign.
Others questioned why they didn’t hire a darker model in the first place. Several Pakistani blogs have pointed out that hiring Abid took the modeling stint away from a model who has naturally darker skin than she does. Instagram users have done the same, declaring the photographs to be exploitative and racist.
Abid, who is a well-established model in Pakistan, collaborated with the owner of the salon, known just as “Nabila”, and the salon’s stylist, Tabesh Khoja. In response to the controversy, the model posted a series of messages on her Instagram account, where she has over 72,000 followers.
“When I initially started modeling professionally, people would refuse to hire me simply of my dark skin tone,” she wrote. “I am a first-hand victim of discrimination and colorism that exists within our society.”
Pakistan, like other South Asian regions, has long been tainted with a fascination for light skin and blatant discrimination against the dark. This craze of sorts has swept across the nation for years, elevating those with “whiter” skin to represent ideal beauty. The fixation on fair-skin has made its mark, leading to increased demand for whitening treatments and rising sales of fairness creams and whitening products across the country. Controversy has been rife, especially since a 2014 Pakistani ad portrayed dark-skinned women looking depressed and dejected - until a beaming light-skinned woman promises to make them fairer.
One of Abid’s other posts highlighted that her complexion had been “enhanced” for this particular shoot, in line with the aesthetic they were aiming for. She referred to the many times her skin had been made lighter for the purposes of a campaign – “so why not darker?” She urged Pakistani society to “stop shaming dark skin and embrace it with open minds and open hearts.”
Khoja, too, released a statement where she acknowledged Abid as a dark skin model who is “unapologetic about her complexion.” He also stated that the shoot, for which he was a creative lead, was “not a representation of any particular culture.” Khoja’s posts of the campaign prior to criticism featured photographs of Abid with the captions “art for my sake.”
Most people found that both Adil and Khoja missed the point of the issue entirely with their supposed rebuttals.
“You don’t have to do blackface to make a point or address an issue,” one Instagram user wrote. “Please learn about what blackface is and how offensive it is for the African community,” said another. Many retorted that the model was guilty of not displaying her own skin color proudly. Others criticized her of not knowing how to empower women with darker skin, at all. Instead, they believe she appropriated dark skin and tropes of African culture for the purpose of an image.
The use of blackface has risen as a new layer to the country’s complicated relationship with skin color. The campaign is at risk of worsening the condition of citizens with dark skin, in a country compelled to concentrate on the opposite.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.