Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Being Beautiful

Commenting Rule starting now:
No one’s allowed to comment and tell my how pretty I am.
I know I’m darling, etc., so just skip this part and think about yourself in this context.
I’m not fishing for compliments, just sharing what’s goin’ on. Thanks. :)]

I want to tell you a little secret: I have never thought of myself as being a pretty girl.

But then I came to the Middle East.

And it was here that all my suspicions were confirmed. Exponentially.

Every day I am surrounded by these gorgeous women, with olive skin and long, dark, luscious hair. Their eyebrows are amazing and face-framing, and their usually dark eyes sparkling beneath their ridiculous eyelashes are really just to die for. They can do this belly dancing stuff, where they, like, detach their rib cages and hips from their vertebrae, as they move for hours without tiring. [I can last about 4 seconds and then grow too self-conscious.] There’s this yelping celebratory call that they do… [I’ve had to practice it and still only get it about one out of three times.] They have an eye for the aesthetic, and can put outfits, accessories, makeup and hijabs together like I’ve never seen. They are always, always, always dressed up more than me, with full makeup and hair done. I’ve never seen any of them a mess. And then there’s just the confidence that they exude—can you tell I’m jealous and insecure yet?

And so, everyday as I’m faced with their sheer beauty, they… get to look at me.
The thrown-together American who’s, some days, just surviving.

I told some of my friends one day that I wanted to dye my hair black.
An unprecedented cry rang out through my office:
Don’t you TOUCH your hair color! It’s perfect.
Don’t you realize that it’s the exact shade… shades… we want?!
We’ll kill you if you dye your hair. Absolutely kill you.”

[I believe them.]
Four or five of them swarmed me,
yanking my hair in opposite directions to put it over their own faces,
discussing, in rapid-fire Arabic, what color they would want as their own.

While I was only half joking [I really did want to dye my hair darker],
I was surprised by this flattery.
I didn’t know they liked something, anything, about my appearance.
And then, to add to my surprise, they started bathing me in compliments.
[Well, not directed at me, just about me. But I’ll take what I can get.]
They started talking about my eyes, skin color,
“bone structure” [can you really see it in my face??],
dimples, smile, teeth.
[They’re concerned about my eyebrows, though. That makes 10 of us.]
I was in shock.
This whole time I was feeling like an inadequate, ugly duckling
among these voluptuous, confident swans.
I was sincerely feeling bad for the woman I sit directly across from every day.
She has to stare me in the face.

This has really started me thinking.
About how we always want what we can’t have.
But even more than that: how just being different is beautiful.
To them, I’m the exotic American girl, “Shagra” [blondie],
who they’ve started dressing because I was wearing things like…
the yellow dress outfit… because I just don’t care.
But when I try to look like them, I get scolded because I’m abandoning or trying to alter the things that make me beautiful—
to them.

Recently, one of my friends got a whole head full of blonde highlights.
When I saw her, I said the necessary hair-change comments.
She asked me if I liked it and I told her “No.”
"Ya, Sarah!!! Whhhhyyyy???? It’s like YOU!!”
And I told her, “I don’t want you to look like me, I want you to look like you.
You’re much more beautiful in that way.
But don’t worry—you can have him change it back, no problem.”
She was disappointed with this answer.
But later, she walked back in, as the original Lubna.
I congratulated and praised her 10 times over.

And so goes the struggle
to assimilate and acculturate yourself,
in appearance and behavior.

My friends love teaching me
to dance like them, wrap a hijab or sing in Arabic.
But they really despise when I try to make alterations to myself.
Every day, every encounter is a little bit of a test.
How “American” should I be in this context?
Should I celebrate my way or theirs?
Should I fix my hair the way I like it, or the dumb way they like it?
When I’m just being myself, in the midst of their language and culture,
they find me the most beautiful. And, ironically, I do, too.


  1. I loved this post! About half the time I feel FRUMPY, UNDER DRESSED, OVERWEIGHT here in Turkey, surrounded by thin, beautiful, well dressed women.

    I'm letting it go and being myself (as you are trying to do) AND I've also over years learned to "take better care of myself." That's what a Turk would say! That means do my own hair (cheaper than going to the salon), do my nails, wear nice clothes, and OCCASIONALLY I HAVE MY EYEBROWS DONE, it makes a HUGE difference.

    But I still can't live up to their standards, so I just laugh about it.

    You are beautiful, Sarah!

  2. ps. I've learned the belly dancing thing too, but am too embarrassed!

  3. It goes against everything in me, but I will resist telling you how darling you are, since I do get what you are saying and why.

    Wonderful post once again. Reminds me of when I was a single teacher in Thailand. The students (all young men close to my age) greeted me daily with "Pretty Teacher." Another teacher, a very df of mine, who was in the process of losing weight, was greeted with "Fat Teacher" - not in any way intended as an insult, btw.

    Then I got the wacky idea to get a perm (not a good idea if you don't speak the language very well!) so they would stop calling me Lady Di (this was back in 1982, the year of the "other" wedding). After that I was greeted daily with "Ugly Teacher" - not an insult, just a fact. Demoralizing, let me tell you.

    Cross-cultural viewpoint on appearance is an interesting topic. Many MKs here go through the phase of wanting their hair dyed black. I'm fairly comfortable in my own skin, face, and hair at this point. Then again I am in a village, not a big city where it matters.

    Olive, if you send me a video of your belly dancing, I'll probably never post it without permission and erasing your face. Hahaha. Seriously I'd love to see that!

  4. this is wonderful. great analyzation. love you

  5. "Ugly Teacher?" I've realized that other cultures can be a lot more frank when commenting on a person's looks, but that takes the cake!

    Jamie Jo, my kids would probably divorce me if a video of me doing Turkish "oriyantal" dancing showed up on facebook! ha ha ha

  6. I too have had to weigh, how 'Western' to look today v. how 'African'. It changes with my moods to be honest. Some days I'm all about hanging around in my sweats!

    I agree that 'looking like yourself' is the most important. No matter what we do, we will always look somewhat different. Avoid the 'fear of man' path. Pleasing them is not our primary motivation, right? On the other hand, I think sometimes we do well to wear the local norm of someone our age (dress it up girl!). Don't you think it raises the status of local dress if you, the exotic one, participates? Depending on the system, it also funds local tailors to wear what they wear. Just my two cents. xo

  7. Olive Tree: I get ya, girl. It's a challenge living in a society that has a standard for grooming--and if you don't meet it--you're a target. ha. Keep on finding your balance, sweet friend, & keep on dancing!

    Jamie Jo: Ugly Teacher? Sorry... I would've failed them. After I got my hair straightened, of course. ;) Let me know when you get that video from OT...

    Christina: I love you, too. :)

    Kimom: I agree with what you're saying. I'd live it out if I had the money. Also, in one day, I go from a very conservative population to a not-so conservative one & back again. SES is always changing & so I try to stay in a mid-range, where I can be respected by all my friends. I don't want to overdo it & shame my poorer friends who wear the same clothes almost every day, but then I also need to be pretty fashionable & not let my hair frizz out for my upper class friends. It's a struggle, I tell you what. Also: there's been an unexpected weight gain... ;)



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