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Beauty in contrast: How beauty differs in the Arab and Western world

By Naila Missous

“Beauty is imperfection. Imperfection is character. Character is individuality. Individuality is what you need to fall in Love. And someone you can fall in love with has the truest beauty of all.”

When discussing the topic of beauty, there will always be a fraction of the discussion that relates to the inner beauty of a person; this being intelligence, personality and so forth.  But what will also be evident is the clear contrast of perception as to what beauty really is in regards to women in two distinct cultures – that of the western world and the Arab too.

In terms of Arab beauty, it must be remembered that religion also plays a part in why certain opinions are held about what beauty is. Mostly, that of Islam and the role it plays in the Arab world and sometimes the controversy caused about beauty with those who believe extremely in the Islamic religion and those who abide but do not restrict their life to it.

Fighting the stereotype that all women in the Arab world are required to wear burqas and cover up is the shining example of Haifa Wehbe: one of the more famous singers and models, but who also causes a divide within the Arab world. Raising eyebrows in more conservative Muslim countries, she has even had a motion passed against her in Bahrain, where Islamist urged her concert to be banned. She is an example of one extreme for women and the respect of their body.

Controversial pop star Haifa Wehbe

Lebanese poet and writer Kahlil Gibran wrote ‘Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror’. Here, Gibran is interpreting beauty as timeless, and always available; never to be lost. Opposed to this is the western idea of beauty, where women are applauded for how  tall and slender they are.

Most of the Western ideals originated from early artist’s rendition that depicted women in plumpness and opulence, which has made these women appear rich because they could afford to eat more food than thinner women.

Arab culture and its view on beauty are very much influenced by the religion of Islam.

Hair is extremely important in Arab culture, with the preference being for women to have long, dark curly or wavy hair. D. Behrens-Abouseif recites ‘In Arabic poetry light hair had gloomy associations , being almost a symbol of evil’; which contrasts such seventeenth century artists as Peter Rubens, in his painting of the ‘Three Graces’ (1639) where the women are all depicted with light hair – but also notably curvaceous figures.

The Western culture seems to be obsessed with a very narrow ideal of feminine beauty, and women are derogated if they do not match this ideal. Many women spend hours each day picking just the right outfit and styling their makeup and hair before they will even step out of the house. The Arab world, though usually more traditional, is slowly catching up with the west in how it expects women to present itself and its standards of beauty.

The celebrity world may be deemed by post-colonialists to be dominated substantially by  the white celebrity. Thus, making people believe that stardom and fame is more readily available for those of white ethnicity. It is distressing to think that the colonialist mentality is still alive in the hearts of the mass media.

One could write a novel about ethnocentrism and the way it has infected society. Why else would dark skinned minorities go through the extent of bleaching their skin? The beauty industry has sold us ‘white is beautiful’ for years, it is not until recently that they’ve shown other sides. And of course, this isn’t to say that the Arab celebrities are any better than the western celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez or Shakira: Nancy Ajram and Asalah Nasri have both opted for surgery as well as other alternations.

First the blonde hair and now blue contacts. We don’t need to advertise white beauty standards to minorities.


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