(Un)fair and Lovely

What are beauty and perfection? And no, I’m not asking for the definition given in the dictionary, but for the definition that plays out in practice. We understand that beauty is defined as things that are aesthetically pleasing, and perfection as having no faults, but how do we really decide what’s beautiful or perfect? 

Growing up, I thought subscribing to beauty and perfection was the way to get noticed in society. I didn’t know what these concepts fully meant, but because others focused on them so much, I idealized them too. At the time, this behavior made perfect sense, but then again, it took me a good five minutes to figure out what nine minus eight was in third grade. Nevertheless, I tried my hardest to fit society’s beauty standards. 

In second grade, fresh off the boat from spending first grade in Sudan, I thought being perfect meant being funny, since all of the popular kids were funny. There was just one problem: I wasn’t funny. Regardless, at the time I couldn’t possibly have had friends either way because I was a spoiled brat who thought if she wanted anything to happen, it would happen her way. 

My second-grade self also thought perfection meant having trendy stationeries. My classmates had the latest school supplies covered in superheroes, geometric designs, and flowers, while I had basic one-subject notebooks. Others always received compliments while I felt like a pariah. A void festered within me, hungry for that attention. The fear of becoming invisible among my peers grew within me every day. That fear reached my fingertips, which opened backpacks and pencil cases and rummaged through museum shelves and drawers. I managed to “own” cool stationery, but believe it or not, people did not take kindly to me stealing their belongings.

In third grade, beauty took on a physical meaning. When I looked in the mirror, my skin color, facial features, weight, and hair texture evolved from being natural features to parts of a doll that needed tweaking in order to be loved. I developed an obsession with wearing designer brands, a product of being surrounded by wealthy students that sported Pandora necklaces and DKNY coats. On top of that, everyone else in my class seemed much smarter than me, while I was still the spoiled brat who wanted everything to go her way. Naturally, nobody liked me. 

All of these attributes slowly weighed me down. That same year, a girl asked me to show her my hair, laughing cruelly when I did. That void from second grade instantly came back, but I knew there was nothing I could steal to fill this emptiness. I ran to the bathroom, taking my last shred of pride with me as tears streamed down my face. After that day, I wore my hijab wherever I went. People would praise me, saying masha’Allah (“look at what Allah has willed!”) for wearing my hijab at such a young age, but little did they know I wasn’t doing it for Allah. I was just using my religion to cover up my insecurity. 

My void and insecurities grew with me into high school, but I was no longer confined to the Muslim bubble that I grew up in. I could see that these beauty standards definitely weren’t limited to the Muslim community, but I also felt that most people weren’t trying to fit in like I was. I kept thinking about those who were indifferent to the physical pressures that society upholds—those who had real character and personality to them. They made me wonder if I had a personality. My brain couldn’t ignore the fact that I envied these people. The common denominator was that they all were comfortable being themselves, able to express their own opinions and display their true personalities no matter who they were with. 

Different—those people I met were memorable because they were different. I felt myself getting acquainted with this thing called “logic,” which made me reflect on every disagreement I had seen. Most of them didn’t result in divorce, broken friendships, or loss of respect. If I wanted to leave a mark on this Earth, there would come a time when I must spit out what I had learned from it. Although hard to digest, I had to admit to myself that people don’t hate different points of view unless the point of view is pro-genocide. 

The first time I prepared to share my differing point of view with someone, my stomach churned. My mind became a battlefield between young Ayia, who advocated  just going with the flow, and logical Ayia, who wanted young Ayia to grow a spine. I took a mental break and had to be honest with myself: I needed to get over this fear that was hindering my character development. After a short pep talk, I shared my point of view. Surprise: no one hated me. 

 I’m in college now and I’m still a perfectionist, but in terms of meeting my own standards. I’m comfortable with the fact that I’ll never be perfect, and that I should accept what I have physically and mentally. It’s easier to live my life now without having to worry about what others think of me, but I couldn’t help but recall the struggle that I once went through alone. Was I just an anomaly out of millions of girls? Impossible. I am reminded by the pouches of Fair and Lovely my mom owns and the hundreds of DIY Western beauty scams my aunt has saved on her phone. I think of those that feel pressured to take off their hijabs to “compete with other girls” or to “attract a suitable husband.” I definitely didn’t struggle alone. My mind began to swirl with questions. Why was I pushed to follow a culture that teaches our daughters to allow others to evaluate them at literal face value? 

We are not merely girls. We may soon be the women who will go through the tiredness of pregnancy and the pain of labor to bear our children. We may raise—or ourselves become—engineers, doctors, sheiks and Imams (religious leaders), revolutionaries, teachers, lawyers, leaders, and more. When our children fall and claim they lack the competence to follow their dreams, we will lift them right back up—by throwing a shib shib (slipper), giving a hug, or both, exactly in that order. We are the backbone of the creation of our future generation. 

There’s a reason why the Prophet told us our mothers are three times as deserving of our good company as our fathers. There’s a reason why the Prophet told us paradise lies under the feet of our mothers. And I am damn sure it’s not because of our hair, skin color, wealth, or cool school supplies.