The Unwinnable Beauty Game is Beyond Skin Deep
With a stream of beautiful, fully glammed up, slim, Muslim women centred on our social media feeds, we have subconsciously created a dichotomy of the “fashionable modern Muslim woman” versus the “traditional drab Muslim woman
Ever since the inception of the body positivity movement almost sixty years ago, there has been some form of subtle oppression in the way that the movement catered to a specific type of body and colour. The standardised archetype of the body positive woman was a white, able-bodied woman who is not visibly a woman of faith. There has also only been one way of being body positive; posting nudes, revealing skin and advocating to “free the nipple”. In recent years, plus-sized black women of faith like Leah Vernon have carved out space for themselves within the movement. The social media beauty game amongst Muslim women has, however, made it difficult for any inclusive body positivity movement to have a meaningful impact amongst Muslim women.
One of the purposes of the hijab is to allow Muslim women to repel specific standards of what a woman’s body should look like and escape the harmful scrutiny of women’s bodies to a large extent due to the objectification of women’s bodies all over the world. In a recent study, researchers at the University of Westminster in the UK and HELP University College in Malaysia found that Muslim women who wear a hijab generally have more positive body image, are less reliant on media messages about beauty ideals and place less importance on appearance than those who do not wear the headscarf.
In the last ten years, however, with the rise of social media influencers and Muslim representation in mainstream fashion industries, Muslim women are becoming not only increasingly sexualised and objectified, but also more insecure about their bodies. In a bid to find our place within the world, we have only played into the net of a western society that expects us to give up certain elements of our religious identity for an acceptable and more palatable version of ourselves. With a stream of beautiful, fully glammed up, slim, Muslim women centred on our social media feeds, we have subconsciously created a dichotomy of the “fashionable modern Muslim woman” versus the “traditional drab Muslim woman”.
In a recent phone conversation with a friend, I was quick to realise that the Muslim woman’s hijab is losing its purpose of helping Muslim women reject the harmful and oppressive beauty standards that the patriarchal world has thrust upon women. For women like me, deciding to put on the hijab had the magnificent effect of helping me to reclaim my body and shifting the gaze of those who seek to define what I, as a woman should and should not look like. Over the phone, my friend had expressed worries about how she doesn’t feel beautiful compared to Muslim women who are always fully glammed up. She feels plain, ordinary and has begun to express FOMO at her inability to live up to the beauty standards of the modern Muslim woman who has to wear make-up, trendy clothes and be pretty.
This 21st-century trend has lots of Muslim women under constant pressure to live up to certain Muslim-centric beauty standards that make it difficult for them to be truly confident about their natural bodies. Women who choose not to wear make-up or subscribe to fashion trends find themselves relegated and feeling less confident. The new movement is presented as a scheme to help young Muslim women feel confident in dressing modestly. It feels unwarranted, however, to present oneself as someone who advocates for “body positivity” or fights oppressive beauty norms when in the same vein, you uphold—and profit from—the same standards you condemn.
In November last year, ex-runway model, Halima Aden on admitting her mistakes as a modest fashion model who compromised her values to feel accepted in the industry, stated that “My hijab was never the problem. The problem was that I was trying to fit into a society that was not made for me,” Halima mentioned that at some points during her journey, she felt that she was failing Muslim women, relating how constraining it is to try to fit into spaces that were specifically built to exclude Muslims.
It’s fascinating to me that movements like feminism and body-positivity had been catered to by Islam over 1400 years ago. When God told the Prophet (PBUH) to tell women to dress modestly and lower their head coverings, that singular message was pregnant with lots of implications. One of the implications was that women would be recognised as full human beings who could participate in society without being sexualised and subjected to unhealthy beauty standards. It is, however, sad to see that many young Muslim women feel as if they’ve gone outside in their pyjamas if they go out of the house without putting on some makeup first, having their hijabs styled in an “acceptable” way and looking a particular way. Many women struggle with feeling perpetually ugly because they haven’t disguised their round face, voluminous lips and the large pores on their nose.
To be clear, Islam is not opposed to looking beautiful and taking care of our bodies. If anything, our bodies are a gift meant to be nurtured and beautified in a positive way. I personally subscribe to the opinion that skincare is a required act of faith. So investing in face washes, serums, moisturizers and sunscreens, is necessary to feel confident and beautiful. If however, we find ourselves playing an unwinnable beauty game that results in diminishing our confidence in our natural bodies, pressuring us to look a specific type of way to truly feel beautiful, then we are only just diving into a toxic hole that may take us years to get out of.
The current beauty game is not an individual-based problem. It’s a manifestation of a broader toxic dynamic. For someone as powerful as an influencer to state that concealing a perfectly normal feature of her face and/or body is empowering isn’t just a statement of personal empowerment, especially when their brand is catered to a specific audience which includes young women in their teens and early twenties. It no longer feels valid to hide under the umbrella of “personal choice” or claim ignorance when your contribution to toxic beauty standards hurt young Muslim women who cannot live up to these ideals.
True body positivity lies in being our true selves, in appreciating the beauty that is our bodies and in reflecting on how modesty should enhance, rather than deflate our confidence in who we truly are. The question that begs to be answered is, “When will Hijabi Muslim influencers and Models have to take responsibility for perpetuating the same beauty norms we all suffer from?“
Wardah Abbas is the Founding Editor of The Muslim Women Times. She is a Lawyer, Writer and Social Justice activist.