What people constitute as beautiful differs depending on the physical preferences of the given society. Experts caution against the over-generalization of beauty in science, as Darwin believed that physical beauty, because of the variations of looks across the globe, has very few universals.

Different physical traits appeal to different human groups; from the preference of tans in Western societies to small feet in the male Chinese population, what is considered to weigh down the overall beauty scale of an individual is a shared mentality, and may or may not relate to larger, more complicated social or political issues.

What is beauty when Libyans are holding the gavel?

Libyans’ preference to fair skin is not always confessed but can be concluded from common sayings said in passing. Statements such as, She is cute but too bad she is tan, do imply a preference to fair skin and also suggest a negative general perception of darker complexions.

The term indeefa which is used by older generations in Libya to describe a fair girl can literally be translated as the adjective, “clean”.

There are those who will argue that such a preference does not exist in Libya, as it connotes a deeper racial issue; and that beauty is subjective to the preference of each individual. However, it has been my experience that statements that praise fair skin are not seen as unusual as they would if said in another country.

Being relatively new to Libyan culture and similar statements, my initial reaction to the term was that of confusion, coupled with a certain degree of denial. I assumed my interpretation of the term was faulty, knowing well that cleanliness is a trait required of every Muslim and is not considered a cause for praise.

The famous saying by physicist Niels Bohr, “The opposite of a great truth is also true” came to mind. Does that mean that dark people are considered the opposite of indeefa?. I did not like what my altered interpretation suggested.

To clarify the situation I asked what was meant by the term. Of course, those in my company were offended with what my question suggested; that their perception of fair skin as beautiful also means they are in a way, racist. I realized that I unknowingly put them in a defensive position.

The appeal of fair skin not only is apparent on the social level but on the main market as well. Whitening creams are sold in most shops that carry beauty and hygienic products, and most women buy facial foundations that are shades lighter than their actual skin tone. If the foundation does not succeed in making the skin lighter, than the foundation is seen as useless.

Beauty, like all loaded terms, is hard to put in words. Its subjective and altering nature makes its meaning instinctive but hard to explain or describe.

If I stopped ten Libyans on the street and asked what their idea of beauty is, each would likely have a different answer. However, if I asked if he or she would ever sit out in the sun for a healthy intake of Vitamin D, the majority would likely find the suggestion odd.

The sun, like sand in Libya, is apparent in copious amounts and is avoided at any cost; a drastic contrast from the Western obsession with tanning. What extent societies are willing to reach to maintain or achieve specific physical traits is a result of society’s overall judgement of beauty, and the general pressure of meeting those expectations.

There is no doubt that Libyans believe beauty is deeper than a person’s skin, and this is precisely why the suggestion that the existence of racism in Libyan society is seen as offensive. However, the preference to fair skin cannot be denied either.

For whatever symbol fair skin held in the past – perhaps an implication of a comfortable work-free life, one enjoyed shaded from the harsh desert sun; I believe aspects of this inherited mentality are beginning to alter, or at least be rightfully questioned.
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Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 23 July 2012