You, Me, and Colonial Standards of Beauty

By Sumayya Tobah, Editor

I was seven years old when I was given my first Barbie. I was visiting my grandfather in Cairo, Egypt, and he took me to a toy store to buy a birthday gift. Having been denied a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie doll by my parents, I knew what I wanted. I chose “Dentist Barbie,” because she came with a chair, dental tools, and a white lab coat. I justified it by telling my parents the woman has multiple degrees — she must have her life together.

My parents tried to explain their thinking to me.

“Sumayya,” they said,”You’re never going to have blue eyes or long blonde hair. Your waist will never be that tiny, your chest and hips will never be that perfectly formed, and your knees will bend. We don’t want you saddled with unrealistic expectations of what your body will look like, or what should be considered beautiful. You are beautiful the way God made so, so long as you are clean, healthy and happy.”

Okay, I said. Can I have my Barbie now?

Obviously, as I got older, I became more acutely aware of what they were talking about. It can’t come as a surprise that body image is always near the surface of a teenage girl’s mind. I was lucky enough to get through my formative years without some kind of destructive eating disorder, but I can easily count on my fingers the number of girls I know personally who did. It’s a scary thing.

But when it comes to women of color, it’s more than that. We’re consistently told that if you don’t fit into Western (or as I’m going to refer to it from now on, Colonial) standards of beauty, you’re not beautiful at all. Light skinned, light eyes, straight hair — I think we all know what I’m talking about. This standard of beauty has been internalized by our communities. We see it when our grandmothers tell us not to stay in the sun too long or we’ll “get dark.” We see it when our light eyed friends are fetishized by the older aunties. And we see it when expecting mothers pray for their daughters to be born with straight hair and light skin rather than strong hearts and quick minds.

Women of color also come in colonial flavors, mind you. We are also fetishized if we are found to be non-threatening and apolitical. If our eyes are the right shape, we have a cute accent and our hips can be described in a Shakira song, we get called “exotic.” Let’s get one thing straight right now; it’s never okay to refer to a human being as exotic. That word should be reserved for parrots and mangoes.

When it comes to standards of beauty, many of us remain internally colonized. In fact, in general, many of us are internally colonized. We don’t notice because we’ve known no other way of life, but our lives have been irreversibly marked with Western fingerprints.

And not that I’m an expert on how to remove these metaphorical shackles, but I’ve come to a couple of conclusions as to how to at least get by.

Firstly, know your roots. My family is mostly Egyptian, and that accounts for my almond shaped eyes and how quickly I tan in the afternoon sun. I have been told my entire life that I have my grandfather’s nose — not exactly the compliment every young girl wants to hear. But it wasn’t until I learned about the struggles my grandfather went through after leaving his little Egyptian village until I visited mosques in Cairo with my unbreakable grandmother until I began to see my own people through a lens untainted by Western penmanship, that I began to see myself as beautiful. These eyes and this skin have survived too much to be brought down by my low self-esteem. I am beautiful because of my story and how I came to be is beautiful.

I once had a woman tell me that I would be so much prettier if I “relaxed my hair.” I told her, my hair descended from fighters, it doesn’t want to relax.

I may have been going through an Alex Haley phase at the time, but the sentiment still stands. I have no doubt in my mind that we, as people of color, as colonized peoples, all have incredible stories nestled in our family trees. Once you know them, it’s difficult to see yourself as anything less than astounding.

Secondly, surround yourself with narratives and perspectives of other people of color. A few years ago, I made the decision to only read books by people of color. I had just graduated from an English undergraduate program and was a little sick of having an all-white, all-male syllabus be hailed as the best that literature has to offer. I began reading more books by women, books translated from different languages, books about history written from alternate perspectives and viewpoints. Not only did it change how I saw the world, it really changed how I saw myself. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Louis de Bernieres, Elif Shafak, Isabel Allende — these voices add such color to a bland literary landscape and should be celebrated for the magic they create.

I took it one step further this year and started buying magazines with only women of color featured on the cover. This wasn’t even a conscious decision though, it just sort of happened. I suddenly found myself uninterested in reading about women who had very little in common with me. Not that I have tons in common with Kerry Washington or Nicki Minaj, but still. When these women talk about tackling discrimination in the workplace or facing white privilege on a day-to-day basis, I find myself subconsciously nodding along.

Finally, (and this one might make you a little unpopular) when you notice these colonial, destructive tendencies in someone else, say something. I’m not saying disrespect your elders because they want you to come in from the sun; these cultural tendencies might be a little harder to shake. So let’s start with our peers — compliment their differences, their imperfections, their beauty in its natural state. But let’s take it one step further. Compliment their goodness, their resilience, their courage, and strength. After all, those are the qualities that survived decades of imperialism and oppressive colonization.
These are the qualities that last. Well, and my grandfather’s nose.

Follow Sumayya on Instagram and Twitter @thisissumayya

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20 thoughts on “You, Me, and Colonial Standards of Beauty

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  1. This is awesome! What a thoughtful piece 🙂 I too am an Egyptian woman who had, until recently, internalized messages with colonial beauty standards that made me feel less than for most of my life. You said you couldn’t offer solutions, but I love your focus on courage and heart–that’s something I associate with my Egyptian relatives and something I cherish within me as an heirloom of sorts. Thanks again for a beautiful piece and message ❤

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  2. Beautiful piece… Something I believe is hidden and not seen other then those Allah chose May we all gain that pleasure from our Lord and be united with the ones who are most loved and beloved to Allah.

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  3. This is a great piece- it addresses so many of the things that I have felt uncomfortable with. As someone who has been in the minority most of my life (in Senegal, in my predominantly Asian Toronto school, and now in my new Bolivian family), I have experienced firsthand the privilege and special status I am given in many cultures where people of colour are dominant. It has always made me uncomfortable, and always spurned me to action- whether that was taking a “Francophone” (countries that were colonized by France) literature course in university, confronting sexually fetishized ideas of white women in Egypt, or having a difficult conversation with a Singapore friend about why she kept telling me she wished she had my blonde hair.

    And that is why it was hard for me to read the words, “I suddenly found myself uninterested in reading about women who had very little in common with me.” Because I don’t feel that just because I’m white, we have little in common. My best friend Oumayma is Tunisian, and we have never felt as connected with anyone else, despite our different backgrounds, skin colours and religions. There are so many other important comonalities that we can celebrate and bond over. Even being women in this world gives us so much to relate to each other on.

    If my husband Rolando and I are blessed with children, I hope to instill in them a love of their heritage- all of it- that encompasses, but goes deeper than their hair and skin colour, whatever that may be. I will teach them about the great authors and artists of as many cultures as I can- and I hope to read the ones recommended here soon! But I will not allow them to be on one side of a race war. Because in 2016, we are all made up of different races, and we all have much more than a little in common.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Megan, thank you so much for sharing your story with me, I really appreciate your feedback 🙂

      I understand entirely where you’re coming from, and I agree, the difference in our appearance does not lessen our commonalities as human beings, but this piece is speaking to women who feel ugly or unloved because of the premiums society puts on a certain colonial look. I appreciate your support, but there are certain experiences that are exclusive to women of colour. The women I’m referring to in the sentence you singled out are highly paid actresses/singers on the covers of magazines, who have all kinds of privilege I don’t have. There is very little overlap between our experiences. That’s all I meant.

      I hope your future children never feel the kind of pressures faced by women of colour, and they always feel beautiful and loved. This is not a “race war” but rather an affliction put on communities of colour by our colonized past, and I’m sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but it needed to be addressed.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That makes more sense to me, re: the highly paid actresses. Perhaps if there was more diversity on our screens, we’d allow for more diversity in our hearts. After watching “Misrepresentation” that was made pretty clear.
        I guess I’m wondering how we can support you, other than just paying lip service to the idea of diversity in beauty and culture. The discomfort I feel often has to do with the fact that I feel helpless…or worse, like the colour of MY skin, hair, eyes is part of the problem. What are tangible ways that those of us whose skin doesn’t reflect your beautiful hues can help?

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s difficult to say what the best tangible way to combat something that is in of itself, intangible. I’m with you 100%, representation is a huge part of this, and supporting films, TV shows, books and magazines by and for people of colour is a huge part of that. Unfortunately, in the world we live in today, money speaks the loudest. IF we put our money where our mouths are, it sends the message that these efforts are successful and there is a demand for them.

      I think also exposing our children to many cultures and different kinds of beauty and allowing them to realize there isn’t just one definition of beauty is an important course of action. So reading children’s books with illustrations showing black children, brown children, latino children, etc. It makes a world of difference to a child to see themselves represented in their books.

      Again, I’m no expert, so perhaps someone who’s read this article has other/better ideas that they can contribute! Starting discussions about these topics, although it might be difficult or uncomfortable at times is the first step. It’s only together that we can create real change 🙂 I appreciate you, love, thank you for all your support.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. thanks for your thoughts and advice for action. Even as a white, blue-eyed and blondish woman I can totally relate to everything above. During my teenage years I felt bad for looking like an “aryan” in whose name so horrible crimes have been committed and would have given everything to have a darker look because I wanted to disassociate myself from them. Isn’t it twisted? Even if you almost reach the beauty standard it is clear that you can never be fully there, that you’ll never be perfect enough.
    This of course does not minimize the tragedy that I with my white skin am on the privileged side of the scale.
    Thanks for motivating me again to act against judgemental standards and privilege, wherever they appear. Best, Nina

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Profound!

    I’m not calculated by the weighing scale
    I am not my skin shade
    I can’t be measured with an inches tape
    I am not the money I make

    My worth is not in the number of likes
    My value is not in the praises I get
    I am so much more and beyond
    Within servitude of Allah, my rank is set

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thanks a lot for sharing.I recently moved back to Egypt after living in Canada for a few years. And boy, was I in for a surprise. Most Egyptians live by the ‘colonial beauty’ index. White, any shade of eye color other than brown, and straight hair are the beauty standards here. And unfortunately, i have come to internalize that as well. I start feeling less and less beautiful. My mother was making duaa the other night that my pregnant sister baby looks like the father (who’s half french).. I was always told to get out of the sun and to straighten my hair. And to get ‘whitening’ makeup..sigh.. I could go on.. We need to acknowledge that cultural way of thought and to instill in the future generation the beauty standards that goes beyond the physical.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I am of Indian origin and I cannot agree with this more. We have internalized fairness to such an extent that now men slap on “Fair & Lovely” ( fairness cream) to appear more successful.
    Women often fret about not getting a “good husband” because they are not light skinned. We ( Indian community) love to mock white people but we are unfortunately slaves to them.
    A friend of mine recently commented that all the Indian movies she has watched with me, have women who could easily pass as white. Where are people who look like you, she asked? It made me sad knowing my country of origin gained independence from British but they left their mark on us long that is still plauging our society.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Interesting. I Will just have wished that our basic educational system across The World are Focus On telling about The unikness of all humans On Earth. The accounts of Sumayya, the reply of Megan and the subsequent clarifications and The Indisn connections. The question I keep On asking My self: why is The human mind alway conceptualising the World from the race perspective? My consolation is found in the statements. Do On to others what you Will have others do On to you. You are AS good AS Any one Else. Accept that you Can be irritated but that should NOT rule your life. Focus On The good things you Can do for your self and others irrespective of human race. The beauty of live for Me lies in it’s diversity and people keep their Natural beauties.

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  9. It is a terrible thing to have to live up to any beauty standard, never mind one that negates your whole cultural and historical background. When I lived in a different country as a teenage girl, I had people make assumptions about me because of my appearance; catcalling, lewd comments, and people touching my hair or skin without permission. To swim my whole life against a tide of such assumptions would be a struggle so enormous there aren’t even words for it. Colonialism and consumerism are so damaging. Bless you brave women everywhere. How strong you are to fight these monsters every day and still have room for kindness and empathy.

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