Desi bride or geisha bride?

Published: November 2, 2010

Is this the look you want to aim for on your wedding day?

Why do desi brides so often opt to look like geishas on their big day?

From India to Pakistan to desis settled abroad, we can’t seem to shed the belief that a bride needs to be painted beyond recognition.

I’ve seen make-up artists cake it on by mixing different coloured liquids on what appears to be a painter’s palette and applying it with a thick brush on the bride-to-be, as if she were a blank canvas and not a woman with unique features.

The cost of looking like everyone else

I’ve seen brides throw away small fortunes on hiring a make-up artist and paying for them to commute from one city to another on the day of the ceremony. Small-time make-up artists often operate as if every face is alike. They usually try to emulate the white-washing done by big-timers like Ather Shahzad (never mind that photos at the studio are also heavily photos-shopped after the model’s face has been doused with foundation and caked with powder). Each time a bride pays to be made up, she comes out looking just like everyone else, whether she went to a professional who charges the by the hundred thousand, or a semi-professional who charges by the thousand.

Although very few people can afford to hire the big guns, a large number of women feel obliged to hire someone. Even make-up artists in small towns charge an indecent amount of money for their services, which is why it’s such a shock that women still feel obligated to stick to the norm.

Make-over magic

There are some women who really do need the help. Flipping through one make-up artist and beauty salon owner’s “before and after” bridal photoshoot album, I was reminded of how makeup can be miraculous. She had taken women with severe acne scars, women with bushy eyebrows and hairy upper lips, women with different shades of skin, or simply painfully plain-looking women, and transformed them all into the prototypical bride. They all came out having the same white skin, although their eye and lip color varied according to their bridal clothes. It was almost as though they had been transformed into new women. It was something they probably would have never been able to do without the help of a paid professional.

Blushing bride or garish geisha

There’s one problem though: they all looked like desi geishas. The problem I have with that is this: on your wedding day, do you want to look like one half of a couple, or do you want to look like a living doll or plaything for the groom? It’s an unsettling, creepy vision to see a bride painted beyond recognition, sitting stoney-faced next to a man who is liberated enough to be allowed to sit in his own skin. He can smile and be comfortable, he doesn’t have to worry that his heavy foundation will crack, or that crying will make him look like a human-raccoon hybrid. As gorgeous as the actress was in Memoirs of a Geisha, even she looked better with the makeup off.

Feminist reservations aside, another problem I have with throwing money away on makeup that lasts for a single day is that it more often than not, it takes away from a woman’s beauty rather than enhancing it, because of the way that it’s done here. Makeup artists have often already been paid before they’ve done their job and usually when it‘s done, the bride has to live with it whether she likes it or not. I’ve seen them do some really garish things-visible lip-liner, purple lip-liner, gold lipstick, visible contouring of the nose to make it appear slimmer, unblended foundation at the neck, forcing eye-shadows and lip-stick to match the dress. Here’s a tip- if a certain color of blush or lipstick is not found in nature, it probably won’t look flattering on your face, especially on the day you’re supposed to look your radiant best.

Make-up is an art

It is an amazing skill to have. The best make-up artists who really know what they’re doing never paint a woman beyond recognition. Nars. One of the main reasons of his success is that his foundations offer great coverage, all the while looking natural, whether your preference is matte or sheer Glow. Tinted moisturisers, such as the ones made by Shiseido, are also hot these days, because they make your skin look naturally flawless and add an ethereal glow.

Brides aren’t showgirls

I can’t say the same for Kryolan’s stick foundation- which was used by the make-up artists during the Miss Universe Pageant in Las Vegas this year. Its normal use is for TV and film artists who need heavier make-up because of stage lights. It’s used by men who dress in drag because it’s thick enough to completely cover their skin. It also happens to be used in many salons and is endorsed by beauty supply stores across Pakistan, because it’s thick enough to make a tan woman white.

A friend of mine had a genius idea for her wedding day, although she was lucky enough to be in America at the time. Instead of spending a ton of money on hiring a make-up artist, she bought a ton of make-up at the mall and had one of the make-up artists there give her a free make-over just before her ceremony, as they do upon the request of all their customers. So instead of having garish make-up for one day, she got to look like a radiant bride and have a lot of good quality make-up for years to come. There’s a lot to be said for a woman who doesn’t buy into conventions because she finds a way to do things better.

I’m not old enough to remember the days when make-up was done by the friends and family of the bride, but as a DIY girl myself, I’d say buy good-quality make-up and invest time on YouTube learning how to use it, instead of paying someone. It may be a risk either way, but if you succeed on your own, you’ll walk away with more than just one good make-up day.


Amna Mela

A student at Allama Iqbal Medical College whose interests include literature, journalism, pop culture, politics, fashion, human rights, food and travel.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Spam Robot

    Would you justify all the waste on a Desi wedding if the bride looks stunning?Recommend

  • Ali Sina

    This article isn’t about politics but I thought I’d share my feelings with you. China’s PLA has recently entered Gilgit-Baltistan region. Some people say that this isn’t true and even if it wasn’t, it worries me that the possibility exists. It’s not like we’d be able to challenge or hold back a behemoth with a standing army of 2.5 million soldiers and $2.5 trillion in forex reserves. Such conditions would be very dangerous to my beloved Pakistan. If we don’t wise up fast now, within half a century, we’d have Geisha brides exported from Pakistan (like they are from Xinjiang). We need to voice out to our government and stop this foolishness pre-emptively.Recommend

  • The Only Normal Person Here.

    Nice piece. Though drag in parts. However I agree with most of what you said.

    Hope anyone getting married in near future would be careful and the ones who are not so sooner as well.

    And those who have, well better luck next time. If there is NEXT time… or you can always hide the pictures. Recommend

  • Zainab Durrani.

    I couldn’t agree more with what you have written. It is a sad sight to see how many Pakistani women are raised to believe white is better than whatever God-given complexion they may have and thus try to achieve the desired results by cementing their face with ghastly white make up thus making them reminiscent to a spectre in a low-budget horror movie.Recommend

  • sana

    its nice to have people pointing out such stuff. brides more or less have become mannequins and the mass production would be visible in the coming wedding season. come to think of it its also the responsibility of the artist to make them look like themselves,but knowing some very famous ones they often say this in their defense ” its what they want , and they dont want to listen rather tell ,so fine then ” .whats amazing is spending that huge amount ,but i think the times are changing . i have seen people move away from paying half a lac to getting ready at home and look beautiful.whats important is looking good and continue to look good yea i agree with spending that much on buying goodstuff.Recommend

  • Visitor

    Well, one day of beauty is better than no day of beauty! People who get married are in one way or the other super-conformists! and what conformists want to do is be like others, so its only natural that everybody wants to pull that same barbie like image on their wedding day. And well, how are you going to feel if you were attending a wedding in which the bride looks like crap? I know I wouldn’t be all that comfortable, specially if I am looking better than the bride. And the groom would think he has settled for something way low than what he may have deserved! It could make the marriage fall a part you know! [a little laugh intended here].

    In a nutshell: people don’t want to face the truth, they would give anything away to make themselves believe that they are as good as the others. [self-fueling cycle]

    P.S: You do know right, that publishing this article means you can’t EVER appoint a make-up artist for any of your weddings! Recommend

  • Realist

    Good article. Good info there.Recommend

  • Saaron

    I wish I could see you on your wedding day :)Recommend

  • Ghausia

    Most women when they get married, tell the beautician what they want, or if they’re not pleased with something, but what about the poor girls that don’t have any experience putting on makeup and thus have no clue about anything? Money down the drain. Plus, because of all the lights on the bridal stage, makeup has to be extra caked-on, much like models on a runway as you said. And the matching nail polish is horrible, because wedding clothes are always red, and red a good nail colour does not make. I am so sticking to my black nail colour on my wedding lol.Recommend

  • parvez

    In our society where basic values are so distorted, at wedding time the theme seems to be
    ” if you have it, then flaunt it ” in spades. Its all in the head.Recommend

  • Khadija

    Amazingly written Amna! We’d love to see you more here. PLEASE KEEP WRITING!Recommend

  • Angelos

    Finally, someone has spoken! Women in our society are apparently suffering from some sort of ‘complex’. I dont know whats the point of coming with all that ‘stuff’.Recommend

  • Sarah B. Haider

    The worst part are the before-after posters and billboards which many beauty parlors place outside
    their premises. Don’t they care that when guys would see the ‘before’ version, they wouldn’t want to marry that girl? Recommend

  • Sasha

    I loved your article. It’s what everybody’s always thinking but nobody says. Its insightful, charming and very well written. I hope to see more articles from you in the future. =) Recommend

  • Faizan


  • Raheel Amer

    Comments Don’t Kill

    gei·sha (gsh, g-)
    n. pl. geisha or gei·shas
    One of a class of professional women in Japan trained from girlhood in conversation, dancing, and singing in order to entertain professional or social gatherings of men.
    What do you expect her to do …th…an to be what you have declared her to be like. Meet her man and the ones who man her man’s mansion wearing mayun-to-mehandi weariness on her to-be-subjected-to-munh-dikhai face in this part of the first-impression-is-the-last-impression kind of world which some, of course not you, wilayat-ka-jhota-khanay-walay call “desi”. How anti-culture of you. Darling do see a shrink to save face. Besides, A bride has to be as much as a man-pleaser as a geisha can be and when she has to embark on her career of a gharailoo geisha she must shoot it the way its shot at, I mean with the geisha’s pomp and circumstance, after all she has to spend her whole life making sure she doesn’t disappoint any of her susraalleez. In other words entertain them whenever they want her to. If were to become a bride I would like to look the best among the parlour-painted-rest on the day I lose my maidenhood to someone’s manhood. It’s all symbolic don’t make it a colic.Recommend

  • Saba

    Raheel- interesting that you tell the writer to see a shrink whilst stating that each bride needs to be a man-pleaser and a gharailoo geisha after stating a definition of geisha as an elevated prostitute.

    If you were a bride you would want to look the “best among the parlour-painted on the day you lose your maidenhood to someone’s manhood”? After all you have to spend your whole life making sure you don’t disappoint the “susraalleez”?

    Honestly, I hope you give your sisters or your cousins or your daughters the same advice, verbatim. If this is the culture you find the writer anti-cultural about, you can keep it. Count me as anti-cultural too. Recommend

  • Aliyah

    [email protected] raheel. considering the typical desi man’s mindset and the confirmation of that by raheel, i’m glad the writer chose to share her thoughts on the issue. Recommend

  • Sahar

    I’m so sick of girls secretly using Fair and Lovely and using Ivory base when they’re naturally tan. Note- it’s so obvious and you’re not fooling anybody! :@ It makes you look really insecure, like you’re ashamed of what you really look like!

    tan skin + white base= dull grey complexion. (not pretty)

    girl + confidence + natural dewy skin = HOT. utterly sexy. Recommend

  • Omar

    Whats wrong with a girl looking hot on her wedding? I want my wife to look like a model when she’s on stage…otherwise it would be so embarassing…I dont want my friends to think I couldnt do better and settled for an ugly chick. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, and if you’ve got money, spend it. Don’t be hatin. Recommend

  • Karen Hurst

    Oh please. Such over-generalisations stated in this article. There are plenty of excellent makeup artists who do a brilliant natural job. It’s a ridiculous patronising argument to say that the bride who got her makeup done at a mall in America was radiant and everyone in India looks garish. Recommend

  • Nazar Hayat Khan

    A well written article. It brings up for discussion a small but an important event that we witness in our everyday life. Make up for a Desi Bride is not a matter of good or bad. It is a matter of making deliberate choices. If a Desi Bride wants to have a Make Up – light or medium or intense or sharp – so be it. There is also something to be said about cultural differences' andacceptance of variety’. When we think about Japan, an image of Geisha lingers somewhere in our subconscious. Similarly, we need to cherish and preserve our own cultural quaintnesses, oddities, eccentricies unless it is too garish or harmful or plainly too stupid. So let the Bride have her way. This is her Day. Recommend

  • Rizwan Takkhar

    I have already asked my soon bride-to-be to keep the makeup to as little as possible. Actually, I’d love her with just eye-liner. That’s it. She’s got a beautiful face and seriously, the wedding makeup people will just transform her into someone I don’t know. Or don’t want to.Recommend

  • Mayhem

    And you were worried about not getting comments Amna. LOL! nice job.Recommend