What shapes our perception of beauty? Who decides the ideals that pigeonhole women into a narrow box that only actually represents a minority?
The rom-coms we grew up watching informed our ideas of what makes a heroine. It was the women we grew up idolizing on all the magazine covers, the books we read and the media we were served that shaped what we, as a culture, now view as the epitome of beauty.
This eurocentric version of beauty has insidiously molded our perception of ourselves. The definition of the ideal woman, as imposed by the West, has plagued women from Arab and African countries for years, long after our colonizers left and their imperial hold remained. This is changing, however, as women from the region are unapologetically reclaiming their own version of beauty – one that is synonymous with their culture, their roots, their heritage, and the nature of their physical traits.
“I feel like when we were colonized, in Sudan, for example, they ranked people and put them in positions depending on how light-skinned they were. The people who were lighter-skinned were considered the most privileged,” says poet, activist and basketball player Asma El Badawi.
“When they [the colonizers] left, they left behind these ideologies, and lighter skin came to represent wealth and status.”
Asma, who was raised between the United Kingdom and Sudan, is a basketball player who, along with her friends, managed to get the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to reverse its ban on the hijab.
Asma is soft-spoken with an infectious aura of confidence. Growing up, she was bullied for her own features. “Most of the bullying that I got growing up was actually from people who looked like me, from similar communities. It was this idea that you’re a slave, you have darker skin,” she says.
With much of the representation for women in the MENA region being imported, the ripple effect is felt within our own communities. The culprit of our anxieties, our insecurities and our body dysmorphia is rooted in ideals that our colonizers stealthily force-fed us through pop culture and the zeitgeist of the post-colonial era. It stems from the norms implemented for years within the West, which have then been imported to our region through the media.
It was only in the 1940s, for example, that the Miss America rule which stipulated that contestants had to be “of good health and white race” was abolished. Moreover, a study, released in 2003, exploring the feminine beauty ideals in children’s fairy tales, found that whiteness and economic privilege were among the traits associated with beauty – the princesses from these stories are the same ones many of us grew up idolizing.
“Where does it stop? You have to accept who you are right now,” says Asma, recalling the moment that led her to embrace her own beauty unequivocally.
Like many of us affected by so-called beauty standards, she used to chemically straighten her hair. One time after the procedure, “my hair came off in chunks,” she says, “and my hairdresser asked me, ‘why did you do it?’ That question changed my whole entire life. That’s when I realized I did it because this is the beauty standard we’re told we should have.”
A quick scroll through the history of the Arab world’s entertainment industry reveals the deeply-rooted and normalized tactics of white-washing Middle Eastern traits, with many of the silver screen starlets opting for curl-free, neat, and blow-dried coiffes. It’s only in the last few years that we began seeing celebrities embracing more of their natural beauty.
“So many Egyptians have very curly hair, and growing up I saw so many of them straighten it until it was completely damaged,” says Engy Mahdy, founder of One and Four Studio, an ethical and sustainable clothing brand based in Dubai.
The global natural hair movement that started in the early 2000s made its way to the MENA region over the past decade, and grew stronger during the pandemic. It was in 2016 that the Hair Addict – a movement encouraging women to embrace their natural hair – started as a Facebook group. Today, the platform, which is working towards “redefining beauty standards,” counts half a million followers across its platforms. The Hair Addict encourages women to rock their natural hair and trade in their straighteners and curlers for organic or low-chemical products and tools.
For One and Four Studio, which also champions conscious consumption, the young entrepreneur makes it a point to feature models from the region. In an effort to counteract years of misrepresentation, Engy “wants to portray the reality of who we are,” adding that “it’s more relatable and there’s so much beauty to show. Culture is beautiful.”
These ideals are the by-product of decades of conditioning peddled by global beauty companies, advertisers and the entertainment industry. Global cosmetic brands that became household names sold whitening creams that were initially marketed as products to balance complexion, as opposed to what many accuse them of actually being: toxically whitening skin.
Recently, and thanks to a global body positivity and natural movement, several of these brands came under fire for their products and their labels.
“My parents found the need to constantly tell me I’m beautiful,” says Somali-Canadian model and production coordinator Shukriya Mohamed. “They knew that being raised here, they’d need to reinforce that because I wasn’t getting it anywhere else – I wasn’t receiving it in the media, none of us were. But it’s hard because you have two or three people telling you that at home, while the rest of the world is telling you that it’s not true.”
One of the models featured in One and Four Studio, Shukriya is a young powerhouse adamant on dismantling the archaic, imperial beauty constructs so ingrained in our cultures.
“I’m not about to become anorexic to make everyone happy. I’ve tried the diets, I’ve tried the insane gym plans, and I remember someone at school telling us about a chewing gum and water diet, and everyone ate that up. That does not sound like a good time to me. There’s bigger fish to fry, I can’t worry constantly about how I look to appease other people,” she says.
Her first foray into modeling with a local e-commerce brand was not entirely pleasant. She arrived on set only to find that the clothes were not in her size. That didn’t deter her, though. Looking back, Shukriya explains that she was afraid to speak out because she was new, but now she has a mental checklist of things that she inquires about before any shoot.
“When the pictures came out it was worth it. Something that I’d never seen before: a plus-size black woman in a Middle Eastern campaign online. It was jaw-dropping. I kind of forgot it was me. That’s representation,” she recalls. “And a lot of people really took it in the most positive way because it was like this is someone who looks like us, or who looks like our friend, or like someone that we know.”
Thin, tall, light-skinned with large eyes and a small button nose are a few of the desired features attributed to the archetype of the beautiful Western woman – the same ones that have remained stubbornly entrenched in our society as a paradigm for the ideal woman. Within the MENA region, the residual effects of colonialism and Eurocentricity are seen in everything from the myriad straightening treatments offered at hair salons, to the whitening creams that used to crowd pharmacy shelves, to the ads that represent a small portion of the population.
“Decolonizing beauty to me is completely throwing out what you were brought up thinking is beautiful and forming your own opinion,” concludes Shukriya. “One that is more diverse, loving, and iconic.”