Growing Up with Beauty Standards in the West as an Arab Woman
*Head’s up: This is the first time I get this personal anywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever shared this with anyone. So, this is major for me. I discuss Arab beauty standards and my experience. Here goes:
When I was growing up, I remember body hair being a beauty standard that was prevalent in my life. When I reached middle school, I began being more self- conscious about body hair. I had a Frida Kahlo unibrow (before the whole Frida idol movement) and upper lip hair that was visible. This was before the Cara Delavigne brows and unibrow movement.
Safe to say this did not pass by unnoticed. This was in Europe and while many of my classmates were from international backgrounds it was mainly Caucasian. One day we were assigned group projects and this boy in my group literally came up to me and loudly exclaimed “You have a unibrow”. My heart dropped. It felt like I had been punched in the stomach.
Around middle school, during the hot summer days I made myself wear a long sleeve cardigan even when the weather was boiling just so no one would see my arm hair. I had a white tshirt underneath and there was no way I would let anyone see my arms. I even remember a teacher asking me: “aren’t you hot”. And I lied “no” I’m ok.
Another time getting to class another boy a year younger said: “you have a moustache”. Later at home, my mom told me why didn’t you tell him “at least I can grow one”. Point taken: he had a ‘Justin Bieber I can’t grow a stache’. But in my mind at the time I was like “how is that a good thing”. Looking back that comeback would have been perfect.
Another time, during some speech, where we each had to say our part on stage apparently after saying my bit, I was also told by a friend that the older classmates made comments about my body hair. Funny enough one of them was also an Arab boy.
I also had girl classmates approach me and say you know you can just remove it: “I used to have hair under my neck and then just waxed it and it never grew back”. This same girl whom I thought was my best friend one day told me she didn’t want to be friends anymore because of the way I looked, and she’d rather hang out with other people. In her defense, she did tell the boy to “shut up” when he made the moustache comment, but she kept reminding me like: “I stood up for you”.
It’s safe to say as a 12 something year old this broke me, because I had no one else to hang out with and thought I would be alone in school.
The point is this made me want to make myself as small as possible and not be the center of attention so as not made fun of. I would avoid volunteering to make speeches or more leadership positions. Just don’t notice me and I’ll be fine.
I don’t hold any ill feelings because this was in the past and kids are known for their dumb behavior. They just say and do dumb things in the moment and don’t see the gravity or impact of their actions. I also deeply regret some things like when some other people were singled out or bullied but I didn’t say anything or question it. And just went along with it because I was not strong enough and secretly scared it would happen to me. But also, you’re in the moment so much that as a kid you’re not in the right headspace and don’t have that maturity to step back to reflect and say ‘this is not right.
The Effects of Bullying and Beauty Standards on Women
Anyhoow I remember it sticking with me through freshman year high school. Even after ‘fixing’ the hair issue. This girl older than me- who went to my old middle school (whom I never talked to) called my house one day asking if I wanted to take part in an experiment for their psychology class. I immediately went in defensive mode and without even asking what it was about declined (this was at the time where students didn’t have cell phones- and you had to call their house and awkwardly talk to their parents before reaching them).
My scarred brain immediately went into protection mode. And all I could think of was “she called you because of your moustache and wants to do an experiment that has to do with your hairiness”. Lmao I mean can you believe it. I didn’t even have it anymore and my brain immediately thought she singled me out because of my complex whereas it was probably a randomized sample and she contacted dozens of people before me.
Later on, my friend also ended up doing a psychology experiment needing volunteers and it was literally like monitoring coffee intake on students. So yeah it was super banal but it’s crazy how wired you’re brain is to ‘protect’ you from danger based on past events but how much it sticks with you after. I’m also thinking of people who lose a great amount of weight but have trouble reconciling with their new image and still believe they’re ‘fat’ and get triggered when they hear a comment about weight thinking it’s about them.
So to this day when I hear that young Arab girls are still getting mocked during recess because of their body hair, it makes me feel a certain way. Because coming from a land of people who are genetically dispositioned to more body hair it should be accepted, but somehow this western notion of being hairless is still prevalent in Arab society. Even there, young girls are at the mercy of beauty standards.
Beauty Standards Around the World
Let’s take a step back and look at beauty standards around the world. Beauty standards can vary significantly from country to country. For example, in South Korea there is an emphasis on having porcelain like skin. This has resulted in the popularity of extensive skincare routines and products. In India there’s always been a preference for fairer skin leading to the availability of skin lightening products in the market. I’m sure you’ve heard of Fair and Lovely- even in the Arab world. On the other hand in Brazil, a curvier and voluptuous body shape is highly celebrated.
In countries like the United States and parts of Europe, a slender and toned physique has often been idealized. However there has been a shift, towards body positivity and accepting diverse body types. Despite this fat shaming is still prevalent. I find it fascinating how beauty standards can vary greatly across cultures – what may be considered unattractive in one country could be regarded as beautiful in another.
Toxic Beauty Standards
A research study investigated university students’ engagement in photo based activities on Instagram, appearance-related comparisons, and its impact on two outcomes: the desire to be thinner and body dissatisfaction. The results suggest that when individuals frequently compare their appearance to others on Instagram, it can lead to a stronger desire for thinness and increased dissatisfaction with their own bodies.
As a result, Instagram can significantly impact mental wellbeing and self-confidence when one engages in social comparison.
Men also suffer from toxic beauty standards, but their issue is deeply rooted in toxic gender roles.
According to a study conducted in 2017, it was found that the majority of men still experience societal pressure to conform to the ‘man box’: “a rigid construct of cultural ideas about male identity”. This pressure is often characterized by expectations such, as being independent, being tough, maintaining attractiveness, adhering to gender roles, identifying as heterosexual demonstrating sexual prowess and resorting to aggression when dealing with conflicts.
Arab Beauty Standards: My experience in Kuwait
When I visit Kuwait, it’s hard now to pass by a Kuwaiti woman who hasn’t done some sort of procedure to enhance her features. It’s become so widespread and engrained in our society. I don’t mean this disrespectfully but when you open Instagram or walk around in any malls you will see that so many women resemble each other. With the same noses and brows and body shape.
The unified standard of beauty has made it so that everyone looks the same. So where is the individuality and uniqueness? In wanting to grasp to this beauty standard *a tout prix* are you not losing yourself and your uniqueness. Your beautifully bold nose worn by your ancestors, your cute indented chin, your belly that birthed two lives, your tiger stripe stretchmarks that make you fierce.
By the way this isn’t just women, even men are undergoing these procedures. Rhinoplasty is rampant and seeing billboards with men’s liposuction is not uncommon in K-town.
Beauty standards will continuously change. One day it’s big lips, the next it’s thin lips. We follow along and execute but then when does this end and aren’t we becoming a slave to beauty trends? How long will you keep doing this? Your health is paying the price, not to mention your peace of mind.
Living in France, I can definitely say I am more nonchalant in how I present myself versus when I visit Kuwait. Ironically, my American friend says she tries to look more presentable when she visits France versus living in the US, this probably has a thing to do with not wanting to be “THAT American tourist visiting Europe”. Either way, I will be more self-conscious about my odd greys popping up and will definitely dress more formally when heading back to Kuwait. This is just me not even living in Kuwait full time but visiting. Can you imagine the pressure, if I was fully living there? Would I have jumped the knife too? And frankly that thought scares me. Because when you’re young you are so impressionable.
Alhamdulillah, today I have grown into myself. But what about those men and women who are young and impressionable or who live with toxic people all day that tell them they need to fix xyz. If any of your friends ever mock or borderline pester you about your appearance then, “I’m sorry but they are not your friend”. Slowly cut ties with anyone that doesn’t respect you and keep moving upward until you surround yourself with a supportive tribe.
We have become superficial as a society and instead of focusing on inner work and improving ourselves we are running beauty clinics every chance we get.
For women and men who say they do it for themselves, great. That’s awesome.
If you were living on an alien planet alone or in a secluded village where the only mirror reflection you had was a pond, would you still be getting lip fillers for yourself?
There’s no right or wrong answer. Just reflect on it for a moment.
The Effects of Women’s Beauty Standards on Men in the Arab World
These same beauty standards for women are affecting some men who grow up with the idea that they deserve a Barbie woman like they see on social media. I mean this respectfully; this is all they see when they open social media. Fillers, filters, full makeup.
Side note: If these things make you happy and provide you with confidence. You rock them girl. I’m not saying these are bad things. I am just trying to understand their effects on society. Just make sure you’re doing them for you and because YOU want to.
Back to my argument, some men can become lost where they don’t even realize what a real woman looks like anymore. When they get married: oh wait you saw her without makeup. Oh no did that strike a chord? They see stretchmarks and think eww body hair and say eek. Why? Because they have never encountered or been exposed to real women with their natural faces and bodies. Why? Because a real women’s’ body has not been normalized in society.
The danger is they start comparing their wives with other women on social media and say why don’t you look like this. There’s something wrong with you.
There’s really a lack of maturity and exposure to real women’s bodies which is leading to this harmful behavior that will end up hurting both parties.
And who is the real winner? Women? Men?
It’s the beauty industry that amasses so much money behind the backs of men and women. They want you to have insecurities. Because without this business model they wouldn’t exist.
What does the ideal beauty standard of the Arab/Middle Eastern woman look like?
“Female beauty in the Middle East is generally characterized by an oval or round face; large almond-shaped eyes; prominent, elevated, arched eyebrows; a small, straight nose; well-defined, laterally full cheeks; full lips; a well-defined jawline; and a prominent, pointed chin”. (PubMed).
Beauty Standards in the Middle East
In the Middle East a lot of a women’s worth is seen in her beauty. From a young age many (not all) families emphasize a girl’s beauty a lot when she’s growing up. Unlike her brothers who get praised with “oh you’re so smart” “oh you’re so thoughtful” she will hear comments about her physical appearance. Like “you’re such a cute girl- what a nice dress twirl for me”. Not to mention relatives who find it appropriate to comment “don’t eat so many sweets you will get fat” or “which twin are you? I know you’re so and so because you’re face is fuller”. I have heard these words from my own ears and find them so toxic because they seem just like words tossed into the air but their effect is much deeper and can lead to a girl developing body issues.
Not to mention giving unsolicited advice like “I know a great mixture to lighten dark elbow spots and knees”. Or “you should get your nose done, I know a great doctor”. Did I ask you?
So what are we doing? We are tying a child’s worth to their physical appearance- something they have absolutely no control over. And what’s with the body shaming of children? How is that right.
I remember a friend going to a gathering and a woman telling her: “oh are you pregnant?” and my friend was like no dear, it’s just my belly. Welcome to K-Town, where some women have absolutely no filter.
Society also enroots in their women’s mind that not getting married especially by a certain age means there’s something wrong with you. If it’s not shaming from society of this is 3aib. Don’t do this it’s 3aib. Don’t do that it’s 3aib. How will you ever find a husband if you act like this- look like this. Many times cultures gets confused for religion. Don’t take anyone’s word for anything and research your religion- go back to the scriptures and really see what it says then make up your own mind.
As a side- note, here’s an interesting reddit post on what men find attractive in women and you’d be surprised how some of these have nothing to do with physical appearance.
Society has tricked us into thinking that beauty is the end goal. If you are more beautiful, you’re more desirable and will have a better life. But that’s far from it.
Here’s another interesting post on: negative things that come with being attractive (from attractive people).
The older I get the more I realize that peace of mind is all I want. Our twenties had us chasing beauty standards and fitting in, and now I’m in this headspace where I’m like all I really want is a small group of people who GET me. Going home to binge-watch my favorite show with ze snacks and cutting out anything that disturbs my peace of mind.
I want to tell you that your beauty is not tied to your self-worth. You are so much more than your face or body and the right person who sees you for the beautiful person you are inside will come into your life at the right moment.
Stop fiddling with your appearance and start working more on the inside. Work on your flaws. We all have them. Be happy in your own company. Love yourself. Take yourself out on dates. Read a book in a coffee shop. Sign up to an activity you love. Meet new people. Strengthen your faith. Life has a funny way of working and it’s when you’re the most grateful and living your best life that good things happen. Remember you are beautiful. You are enough. No one is you- that is your superpower!
ABTalks Interview– Laila Abdallah & Anas Bukhash
I want to share a great resource. An interview by Anas with Laila Abdallah on ABTalks, that you MUST watch and has taken the Arab world by storm. It has amassed a whooping 2.5 million views in just 10 days. It randomly popped up on my feed and I binged the whole thing in one afternoon.
The thing with ABtalks is that you’re able to enter the private world of personalities and celebrities in ways that nobody else has tapped into before. Whereas previously they were inaccessible they become almost like a friend coming over for dinner in your home. You see them with their vulnerabilities, strengths, weaknesses, doubts, and people you can relate to.
From start to finish the interview was poignant and brute, with Laila sharing her unique experiences and life story. With the help of Anas’ thought evoking centering, they discuss childhood, beauty standards, bullying, fame. You can’t but not admire this brave woman paving the way in the Middle East with her single voice with her beautifully bold message: Accept yourself. Love yourself. You are going to be okay. Her vulnerability is unprecedented in the Middle East and sends the message that it’s ok to be vulnerable. And vulnerability is your strength.
Honestly, it’s a grand message that we need in the Middle East and MUST watch:
What are some beauty standards you grew up with or still experience today? Let me know in the comments.
* Disclaimer: This is not a post shaming anyone who has done surgery. People who haven’t done surgery are not better than someone who has- and vice versa. It is also not meant to be a generalization post of ‘all men’ and ‘all women’. This post is in no way an attempt to belittle or hurt anyone, but just to share my personal experiences in addressing this phenomenon of beauty standards. Your feedback and thoughts are valued and welcome.
Latifah is a vegan foodie who loves travelling and cooking plant-based recipes. She loves sharing her favorite travel spots and adding a sprinkle of confetti to your day.