I was seven years old the when I was gifted 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 colour, 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 colour also come in colonial flavours, mind you. We are also fetishized if we are found to be nonthreatening 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 colour, as colonized peoples, all have incredibly 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 colour. A few years ago, I made the decision to only read books by people of colour. 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 colour 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 colour 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 it’s 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