Opinion

“For the longest time I wanted to be white”

We have to unlearn these beauty standards and embrace our own ethnic beauty.

By Jood Althukair

Image: Shutterstock

 “I heard that when you convince yourself that you look like someone in the mirror, your psyche will believe that and will start changing your features to look like them. Someone on the internet did that and they started looking like Cindy Kimberly.”

I blinked a few times to process what I’d heard. Hearing this from my friend at 18 years old—the peak of the transition between adolescence and adulthood—I was intrigued but also skeptical. Two years later, the only thing I could ask was: why was this our topic of conversation? And what made us interested in having typically “white” features?

Although quite late, I wanted a legitimate answer on whether that theory was plausible, so I sought a professional. I contacted Dr. Sara Althari, who had earned her PhD in genetics at Oxford University. Her reply came immediate: “We know what controls or dictates human phenotypes, and convincing oneself of how one ought to or aspires to look is certainly not one of those factors. I think this falls more under the realm of psychology, and even there might be considered a rather far-fetched theory.”

After that, I felt an urge to start this conversation with my friend again, but in complete blatancy this time. We are exposed to superficiality on a daily basis—on Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. I grew up in the spur of Kylie Jenner’s overlining trend, which slowly turned to cosmetic procedures and surgery. Later, contouring and Instagram makeup came along, and to my generation it was overwhelming, even if we haven’t noticed its effect on us.

“I couldn’t wait to grow up to cover my face and body with light-coloured foundation.”

I decided to speak to that same friend who shared the theory in the first place, Anoud. The first thing she told to me was that I had picked the right person to talk to. I realised that I did.

“For the longest time I wanted to be white. My classmates were always fascinated with whatever was light and that made me feel ugly,” she said, raising her brown arm to emphasize her colour. “I’d come from school and cry—I was the darkest, and my classmates would make fun of my colour. At 10, I used to think that bleach and lighter makeup would be a solution, and I couldn’t wait to grow up to cover my face and body with light-coloured foundation.”

I was tongue-tied. I felt so limited, so oblivious. Understanding my silence, she nodded her head. “I know, it’s messed up for a kid to think that. I felt like I was being invaded. I remember my dad singing Mohammed Abdu’s ‘Asmar Abar Mithl El Gamar’ to make me feel better,” she said with a smile. The song translates to “The dark-skinned passed by like the moon.”

She and I both understood where this might have come from. The majority of the representation we grew up watching through Western films and TV shows (specifically the ones with strong global influence and thorough media coverage), had a predominantly white cast. This made us subconsciously marvel at Eurocentric beauty due to our constant exposure to it. We disregarded our features, our Arabness. Whatever was light was beautiful to us.

I remember hating that slight hump on my nose, even though it symbolises my ethnicity. I wanted a button nose because I thought it was perfect. Then I realised: how is it that people get to classify the beauty of something as trivial as a nose and not feel foolish? Why should I change how I look because of a trend? Repetition obliterates distinction. Our individualism, our rawness, is what makes us memorable in another’s memory. The only beauty we can embody is that of our ethnicity, while anything that is adopted from another’s is temporary.

“We disregarded our features, our Arabness. Whatever was light was beautiful to us.”

Whitewashing in the media is a struggle. Continuous exposure to white actors, and the casting of white actors in roles for characters of colour and in heroic/lead roles, will make the viewer perceive that only being white is beautiful, and that it is something one should strive to become. It is a cultural invasion of the human subconscious. It is frustrating and is a product of the idea of white supremacy and the shortage of diversity in the media, leading to the setting of beauty standards that only belong to white or Eurocentric physical features. Though it’s worthy to mention that the media is currently changing and is seeking diversity to ensure that every group is correctly represented, it will take some time to compensate for whatever was lacking before.

“Whitewashing in the media is a struggle…It is a cultural invasion of the human subconscious.”

This is not written to victimise people of colour and to point fingers at white people; they did not choose how they look, either. It is to shed light and take action through embracing one’s culture and unlearning those beauty standards. What happened has already passed, and we cannot do anything except become more aware of who we are. I know it occurs without awareness, but the more we take notice, the more we will build a stronger immunity.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Jood Althukair weaves her words in the heart of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When she’s not studying, you can find her between the pages of a book.