I distinctly remember the first comments ever made about my appearance. I must have been two-years-old when a relative asked my fair-skinned mother why it was that I was so much darker than both her and my siblings. Soon after, comments about my sparse, patchy hair and its relatively rougher texture began. As I grew older, many people would ask the same questions and make the same comments. I found both the subject and its repetition boring so I simply tuned out whenever the topic was brought up (a feature of my brain that I revere to this day).
As a child, I had a very practical mind. Nothing that did not serve a specific purpose mattered to me. And no matter how hard I thought about it, I could not see a purpose that beauty served. I could not find answers as to who decided what was beautiful and what they based that on. I knew that humans had very little control over the way that they looked and it seemed ridiculous to me that we would reward or punish someone for something Allah had put together. The entire concept baffled me and my questions remained unanswered. When it became apparent that beauty was not a field I would excel in, it was not difficult to be unbothered by it. Simply because I did not understand why I should be.
The more I learned about the world, the more I became fascinated by intelligence and bravery. The purpose of these two was clear to me. I knew that intelligent people invented things that made the world better and that brave people changed the world by standing up to bad guys. I was determined to change the world so I wanted to understand *everything*. I asked “why?” so often that it got me into all kinds of trouble. Of all the people I pestered with my questions, my father took me the most seriously. He would engage me in discussions that I now look back on and marvel at the depth of. He answered my floods of questions with patient answers that simplified and explained concepts like hydraulics, democracy and diminishing marginal returns. I remember laying in bed every night daydreaming about all the things I would invent and bad guys I would stand up to.
As I got older, I also started caring about attention—as most kids do. I was thrilled when I realized that the same bravery and intelligence I would use to change the world could get me the attention I wanted. My curiosity and discussions with my father put me at an advantage and I was able to excel academically with very little effort. I was a witty, confident child and I enjoyed being in the spotlight for my jokes and ideas. I never thought about my appearance unless it was pointed out, and at this stage, this would happen very rarely. I wore what was most comfortable, styled my hair in the easiest possible way and went about my day. My appearance was an afterthought.
I am not sure when exactly this changed but there are moments that stand out. I recall that in my teenage years, as the girls I looked up to in high school began getting university acceptances, many aunties would share the good news and follow it up with a critique of their looks as a discount or praise of their appearance as a bonus. I was confused at both the irrelevance and the cruelty. There were many words used. Words like “dull-looking” and “bushy-haired” and “hefty”. These were girls I wanted to be like when I grew up, girls who were brave and intelligent. But every time their achievements were brought up, their looks would eclipse them. As the criticisms of these girls increased, I began becoming more aware of how I look and how I am received. The self-consciousness consumed so much of my energy that I had little left over for anything else, I became less outgoing and more reserved. My early teenage years felt like walking on eggshells, trying not to draw attention and condemnation to my appearance.
A lot changed after that and it changed with the rapid speed of late teenagehood and early twenties. A geographical relocation to Toronto meant that I began benefitting from features I was at a disadvantage for having within Khartoum’s Arab-centric definition of beauty. A lot more attention was being drawn to my appearance than before and although it was positive attention, it still confused me and contributed to this crippling self-awareness. I remedied this by “doing more”. Caught in the hustle and bustle of the city and the infamous engineering student schedule, I had little time to interrogate the reasons behind my gradual prioritization of beauty. Interestingly, I still had to make time to maintain it. That is what the women around me and the women I looked up to were doing. We were women who could and should do it all. We were proof that you could be beautiful and intelligent all at once. The message was always that we do this for ourselves. For my young and overwhelmed self, this was enough of an analysis. For all intents and purposes, it held true. I was not thinking of anyone but myself when I was investing in skincare or haircare or makeup. I did not have men in mind when I woke up earlier to perfect my subtle no-makeup makeup look. I did it because I felt better when I did it. I did not ask myself why that was.
A persistent cystic acne breakout, a move across the pond and a lockdown with my thoughts forced me to ask myself every question I had avoided over the years. Taking it back to my initial move and the benefit I gained from colourism and featurism in Toronto, it only highlighted the demonization I faced in Khartoum for what was essentially the same body. Nothing illustrated how arbitrary, ridiculous, and powerful beauty standards were for me than this experience. I am one person, yet I am perceived and treated so drastically differently due to the varying beauty standards.
Pondering on this, I felt a deep sadness for my younger self and all the times she was demonized or disregarded for arbitrary reasons that deemed her less worthy of the benefit of the doubt. I was also upset for the women who are received in that way universally and never get a break from the taxing burden of not conforming to beauty. Reflecting further, I also noted that even the benefit that I had gained from the newfound “pretty privilege” was only relative and not absolute. I was still being reduced to my appearance and forced to be more self-conscious than I had any real desire to. I was still being pressured to spend more time, money and energy on my appearance. I concluded that comments made about my appearance, whether positive or negative, all bothered me on some level. My sentiments were summarized when Sun ElSheikh, a writer and close friend first said “I just don’t want to be perceived.”
Talking with my girlfriends about this, I began to see that our relationship with beauty is an issue that we all eventually have to confront. There is a conflict, a cognitive dissonance that comes with knowing that beauty is a construct that holds no real value yet being so aware that how you are treated relies on how much you can conform to it. In that way, we are all forced into a hypocrisy of sorts. We invest in beauty and we cite our right to choose to pacify our discomfort but we all know that that choice does not exist in a vacuum.
Even when we are doing it for ourselves, we are doing it for the gaze, the patriarchy, the colonizer.
We can not pretend that our choices to do what is best for ourselves are divorced from the fact that our best odds for survival lie in the choices we make that align with the desires of the powers that be. We play into it because we have to—because life is easier when we do. But even when we do, it is still burdensome, demanding, and exhausting.
I do not know when women’s appearance became a matter of public opinion. I imagine that there are evolutionary reasons, a colonial aspect, a strong patriarchal backbone that holds all of it together. What I know for certain is that so much of womanhood is feeling like you are submitting your body for feedback every time you leave the house and that this shapes so much of who we are.
Now watching the world make attempts at embracing a more “diverse” definition of beauty that includes more people, I am unsettled. This is not because I do not think that everyone deserves to feel beautiful. I see the value in feeling beautiful and everyone is entitled to that feeling. My concern lies in this perceived necessity of beauty, the notion that beauty is a core requirement of your existence as a woman. I worry that we seek an all-encompassing beauty as a solution to our problem when it will only pacify it as best. I want more for us. We can all be beautiful, yes. But more than anything, I want for us to not have to be (beautiful) for our survival.
Thinking back to my childhood and how easily I was able to disregard beauty because it served no real purpose, I long for that feeling and that freedom. In my ideal world, all the gazes would be lowered, appearances would return to being an afterthought and I could focus all of my energy on being my bravest and most intelligent self.
In this world, this ideal world, all the gazes would be lowered, appearances would be an afterthought and we could focus all our energies on being our most brave and most intelligent self.
Who would you be if you did not have to be beautiful?