Skin whitening doesn’t make us a fairer society

We should work towards a society that places less emphasis on subjective ideals of beauty, says Fatima Al Shamsi

Fatima Al Shamsi believes women should focus less on cosmetic beauty. Bernadett Szabo / Reuters
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As I enjoyed my usual routine of setting up a YouTube playlist while browsing the internet the other day, an advertisement interrupted the feel-good tracks. It was about the wonderful skin whitening options I was missing out on. Having grown up witnessing what social pressure can do to people, especially impressionable young girls and boys, it made me uneasy to think of the implications.

The message was that light skin is something to strive for. The idea that certain skin tones or hair types or nose shapes are somehow more beautiful than others makes me uncomfortable.

Now I am the first to say that compared to when I was younger, ideals of beauty have, for the most part, broadened. Growing up, whether I was in Brasilia, Paris or visiting family back here in the UAE, I do not remember feeling like I could relate to what UAE society considered beautiful.

I grew up in a household where my mother constantly told us that we were all beautiful. But it did not stop me from feeling like some freak of nature with my tan skin and curly hair, whereas the women around me were always admiring light skin, straight hair and exaggerated Jessica Rabbit–type body shapes. While we now have more variety in terms of beauty standards, they are still too limited and preoccupied with unattainable ideals.

What bothers me is the larger social implications of holding on to unreal beauty standards. These don’t have to be restricted to skin colour. We are bombarded daily with airbrushed pictures of “perfection” and instead of dismissing these as fictional depictions of beauty, people actively strive to reach them.

You would think that, especially in the Arab world, the images our media propagate would be a truer reflection of the immense diversity of looks from North Africa to the Gulf. Instead there is a recent emphasis on faces and bodies that have undergone immense amounts of plastic surgery. I have no problem with anyone who gets any sort of cosmetic surgery, nor do I think it is my place to judge anyone who believes they can enhance their lives by undergoing any of these procedures.

Anything from make-up, hair removal or hair extensions can be considered cosmetic procedures, not just the more drastic ones such as liposuction or changing the shape of your nose.

I think if you want to feel better about yourself and your life then that’s nobody’s business but yours. But we should also consider the addictive nature of trying to sculpt yourself into this ideal version of yourself and the reasons we are inclined to this in the first place.

The way people make an effort to look nice is something I have always liked about Emirati culture. As a result, I have always carried this habit of “being presentable” with me, even on American college campuses where sweat pants and flip-flops were acceptable. But, I think there is a distinction between spending a little extra time getting dressed and truly believing that you need fillers in your lips. I worry that with plastic surgery becoming increasingly common, even casual, we are almost proclaiming that it is something that society supports. And that we are doing this instead of encouraging people to see beyond the surface or have them turn to it only as a last resort.

What I have always loved about Islam’s view on modesty is that it is not only meant to teach the individual to be modest as a form of self-respect and respect to those around them, but also to protect the individual from falling into the trap of vanity. While I believe that taking care of yourself is an important investment, excessive obsession with the physical is not healthy.

The number of physically attractive people I have come across who insist they need to get work done to be beautiful makes me sad. I wish we could work towards a community that placed less emphasis on subjective ideals of beauty and that we spent more time encouraging young boys and girls to grow into confident individuals.

Fatima Al Shamsi is a globe­trotting Emirati foodie, film buff and football fanatic