How to deal with pop culture beauty standards when you’re a black Muslim girl

I actually grew up thinking that blonde hair was the best, since tried and true Barbie-brainwashing convinced me to believe that my plastic doll was the ideal beauty standard. Hair dye commercials were another method for teaching these things. Each company shot them in the same way; there was always a Destiny’s Child trio-type situation: the blonde was Beyonce, the brunette was Kelly, and the redhead was Michelle. In these same commercials, if you squinted hard enough you might find a black woman (who had light skin, of course).

While things have started to change, darker skin has always been on the bottom of the beauty totem pole. Looking like a Victoria’s Secret model, with tanned white skin, a size zero waist, and C cup boobs was (and still is) the dream.

In elementary school, I remember looking into the mirror and coming to the bleak realization that I was ugly. I ran to tell my mom right away. Poor woman! She was shocked and told me that it was the devil talking to me. As a child, her words made sense to me. As an adult, I now know that anxiety ≠ devil.

Living in this world and growing up as a dark-skinned hijab-wearing Muslim girl with buck teeth (shout out to my orthodontist) and a flat chest was rough.

How rough? Pretty f**king rough. Growing up, I was always given implicit clues as to where I stood on the proverbial beauty scale. But throughout my childhood, I felt no qualms about wearing a hijab. It was other people making fun of me that made me feel self-conscious.

I’ll never forget Philip, who in the 5th grade, told me I was wearing a curtain on my head (after I made fun of his weight). Or Stephen, who said it looked like I was wearing a tablecloth (he was just an asshole). These encounters prepared adult me for the Stephens of the world (shout out to Donald Trump) as well as the Philips (shout out to your Uncle Rudy who has a few too many beers at Thanksgiving and starts talking about Obama’s birth certificate.)

Wearing a hijab is synonymous with being ugly, oppressed, and not having a sexuality.

It wasn’t until high school that a kid named Jake really drove this home for me. I should mention that the high school I went to was stuck in a bubble of white privilege. It was called Richview, so the joke writes itself. The students came from parents with more money than mine. Canadian Prime Ministers (unfortunately, not Justin Trudeau) have been educated there. Ugg boots and overpriced yoga pants were the school’s unofficial uniform. If you didn’t have a pumpkin spice latte and a Starbucks gold card, you weren’t sh*t.

So, back to Jake. We were in Mr. Nunez’s history class and he was late as always. Some girls were looking through a copy of People magazine with noted Armenian genocide awareness activist Kim Kardashian on the cover. (As a side note, I graduated high school in 2009 — and whether you like Kim K or not, the fact that she has been around for almost a decade is an accomplishment worth noting.)

Jake was holding the magazine, and without missing a beat said, “She looks pretty… for a Muslim girl.” I was horrified. All I could do was correct him by saying, “She’s not even Muslim!” His face dropped once he grasped the magnitude of what he had said, but Mr. Nunez walked by before he could ~white guy~ apologize. (“Sorry if you were offended!”)

Two things about what Jake said really stand out.

First, his words were the perfect example of hijabi women being stripped of our sexuality and beauty.

I mean, we still got ‘em, but people assume these are foreign concepts to us. Jake had been socialized to believe in a cookie cutter mold of what it means to be pretty — and my people just didn’t make the cut.

Secondly, Jake associated Kim’s brown skin with Islam.

While there are many brown skinned Muslims, there are also many brown skinned Christians. In fact, there are more Muslims in Indonesia than the entire Middle East. In the global Muslim population, Arabs are a minority. Take that little gem with you to your next dinner party and impress your overly-eager white friends!

The images fed to me by pop culture made me feel like the only way I could be beautiful was if other men validated my physical appearance.

In high school, most of my friends were only with their boyfriends so they could receive a seal of approval from the opposite sex. I stayed single because I was taking a stand for female empowerment — also, thanks to these beauty standards, I was as unlikable as five beers deep Uncle Rudy.

Thankfully, I have reached a point where I have outgrown that. I’ll admit it took years of finding and surrounding myself with the right group of friends to get there… but I got there.

Iqra is a writer/comedian. She’s also known for filling awkward silences with ridiculous banter and can be seen vying for the approval of strangers on Twitter at @sheiscleverbro.