A Middle Eastern Girl’s Testimony To The West
They look nothing like me
( Jazz Abraham / Rowdy Magazine Online Writer )
I spent the first 15 years of my life surrounded by other Middle Easterners. I read literature that romanticized Persian features and painted me as the protagonist of someone else’s story. I listened to songs that idolized me. I grew up listening to my dad recite poetry that compared my dark eyes to the night sky, the tone of my winter skin to the sand dunes, and my summer one to the sunsets of southern Iran.
I was surrounded by girls whose hair texture and nose shapes were reflections of mine, and while we did occasionally feel different watching Western television, we never felt alienated. I knew the girls on TV looked different from me, but not for a second did I wish I had their long blond hair or slim figures. I lived among religious people who thanked their gods for my features. Why would I ever feel anything less than the girls halfway across the world? Once we turned the TVs off, we were back in our own homes, encompassed by the love of families who would brag about the beauty of their daughters to strangers on the street.
Soon after I had turned 15, I was thrust into a world of people who looked nothing like me. America offered beautiful, yet contrary faces. Silk golden hair, bright blue eyes, miniature noses pointing upwards, and sculpted cheekbones. Not to mention their perfected figures showing off long legs, small breasts, and no trace of their last meal to be seen in their midriffs.
All of these things in contrast to my textured curly hair, pitch-black eyes, longer/wider nose, softer facial outlines and curvier figure.
While Middle Eastern representation in western media is little to none (even though we make up 3% of the US population, approximately 10 million people), the representation that we do get ends up adhering to the same over-exploited stereotypes and tropes: the hijabi girl who takes her hijab off at the end of the film and is told that she looks more beautiful without it, the terrorist, the angry or the over-achieving Iranian/Arab. When you create this monolithic caricature of an entire group of people, they’re going to do everything they can to not find themselves subjected to those stereotypes.
[TW: references to ED and body dysmorphia]
When I was first exposed to the wave of western beauty standards, it hadn’t occurred to me yet just how rampant these ideals were, and how ingrained they were within American society, until I found myself desperately attempting to fit in with them. I woke up an extra hour earlier than I normally would for school just so I could cram in some time to straighten my hair. I’d photoshop my nose in pictures to look smaller. I’d buy clothes I wouldn’t even think of wearing, but as long as the girls around me wore them, I’d wear them, too. I would skip meals, sometimes days at a time, filling myself up with a low-calorie energy bar or an apple. I’d even go as far as avoiding social gatherings because of how terrified I was to be perceived by others.
I faced the models of what I was supposed to look like on TV, the Internet, movies, and even books. Frail figures and beautifully Eurocentric features took center stage as protagonists, while any features that were considered remotely unconventional were reserved for the antagonists. As time went by, I noticed myself looking into the reflection of store windows more often, comparing my foreign traits to those of the girls I had just seen on the street. There would be days when I’d be late for school because I had spent half an hour staring into the mirror and despising everything that I had been given.
This pattern continued for a long time, and I endured an inner battle for far longer than I’d like to admit. I constantly tortured myself with the unobtainable traits of European girls. I began to hate my nose, and hate that my hair wouldn’t fall smoothly into a messy bun when I needed it to, or that it wouldn’t lay flat and straight. My teenage years were spent in self-loathing, counting calories, avoiding the mirror, and hiding. And my heart breaks when I think of the number of girls who are subjected to the same standards and forced to wish someone else was in the reflection.
It took me a long time to come to terms with the way I looked. Admittedly, I can’t say that I’m wholeheartedly there yet. Every time I experience an episode, I have to preach to myself that I am under no obligation to look like them. But what I find to be most effective is this: would I criticize my 7-year-old self the same way I criticize myself now? Would I say these things if she were standing in front of me? It’s painful, imagining myself regurgitating those insecurities to her. But it works, because nothing’s changed. I’m still just as loved as I was back then.
To all the girls who have struggled like me, know that they will capitalize off of your insecurities. Beauty is arbitrary and there is no objectivity in it. Your features tell the story of generations and you should carry it with pride because you are the product of so many women who led you. You’re here because someone loved their nose, their hair, their eyes, their outline. Even then, your body is already doing its best to keep you alive. That’s a miracle enough.
Jazz Abraham is an Online Writer for Rowdy Magazine. She spends her days annoying her mother, crying over baby orangutans, obsessing over Brad Pitt, listening to obscure '60s rock, reading, and writing songs about things she’s never experienced. Her passions lie in film, music, the planet, and the amplification of silenced voices. You can reach out to her at @jazzabbraham on Instagram.