One Woman’s Tale in Overcoming Beauty Standards
“Women often feel that they do not deserve love and acceptance from themselves. We have to first overcome the barrier of self-criticism and self-loathe.” Nabila Shahood Din
Cosmetic interventions in the UK were worth 3.6 billion as of 2015, up from 2.3 billion in 2010.1 It is not a surprise that more than 90% of the customers happen to be women.2 Women are prepared to go under the knife to attain a look that they perceive to be beautiful. Media and culture play a vital role in shaping our perception of beauty. For instance, in Asian countries like Japan or China, light skinned and petite women are considered beautiful. Cute or ‘kawaii’ in Japanese seem to be the ideal look for a young lady; to be extremely feminine and submissive. There is a proverb in Japanese that say ‘white skin covers the seven flaws’.3 Indian television and movies are saturated with whitening creams and light skinned actresses.
The media and advertising companies tend to sell a mirage to women; unattainable beauty standards that women chase after. Models in advertisement media often do not resemble their real selves and are heavily photo-shopped or airbrushed to meet the idealized and worshipped beauty standard. Young girls who are exposed to these messages are heavily influenced and tend to undergo body image issues, eating disorders and low self-esteem. Globally, we are facing a body image crisis today which, affects millions of girls and women around the world. Over 10 million women in the UK report that they are depressed about body image.4 To discuss the negative effects the unattainable beauty standards can have on young girls, I was delighted to speak with Nabila about her journey growing up.
A conversation about women and their relationship with a uniform standard of beauty, an obstacle for women’s success with Nabila Shahood Din
Maisha: You are truly an inspiring woman who has achieved so much at just the age of 26. Share with us your personal journey which, has shaped your work today and the challenges you faced.
Nabila: I am a 26 year old single mum with a 4 year old beautiful daughter. Currently, I live with my elderly widowed mother. I grew up watching my mum consistently being abused and struggle to raise me. My father passed away when I was just 1 year old and I had never experienced or understood the love of a man due to the absence of a father in my life. I was mentally, physically and sexually abused as I was growing up. In a quest for love and protection, I hastily got married to a gangster at the age of 19. I thought I would attain the happiness I was searching for but I was wrong. After I gave birth, he abandoned me with my 3 month-old baby girl and a $10,000 debt on my shoulders. I was lost and alone. I had to struggle just like my mother and worked in 3 jobs every day. It was an arduous and challenging journey.
After 18 months of painful struggle of juggling my family and work to sustain my livelihood, I rediscovered hope and joined the ihelp Academy. I picked up multiple life skills and expertise on Beauty and Nutrition & Natural Healing. This was the turning point in my life. After I graduated I cleared my debt of $10,000 within 2 months. That is when I made a decision to step up and help as many ladies as I could to love, embrace and accept themselves. I realized that change begins from us and the best investment is to invest in ourselves. This is what sparked my interest in Personal Development. I have devoted my life to the empowerment of women because I know how it feels to struggle alone as a woman, with no support system. I truly believe that if I can educate one woman, I educate the whole generation!
Maisha: Different cultures construct their own strict and narrow beauty standards for women to adhere to. How do you feel that these beauty ideals affected you in your daily lives?
Nabila: I remember vividly, during my childhood, being labeled as ‘Black’, a term used in a derogatory manner to belittle my complexion. I felt like the ‘Ugly duckling’ in the fairytale that I heard as bedtime stories. My self-esteem and confidence plummeted and I constantly felt bad about myself. I took up modeling just to prove a point to my critiques that I am indeed beautiful and attractive and to gain their approval and acceptance. However, inside me I still suffered deeply. I did not accept myself, nor could I love myself. In fact I was persistently unhappy with myself.
The media and pop culture aggravated my struggles. All the actresses on television were light skinned and slim, which seemed like the one and only standard of beauty. I cringed at the sight of whitening advertisements which dominated most commercial breaks. They depicted girls being turned down for marriage due to their dark complexion and this problem magically disappeared after they applied whitening creams. She achieved the highly celebrated light skin and men started swarming her with marriage proposals. Advertisements like these dug a deeper hole in my self-worth and confidence.
Maisha: Do you feel that the problems you experienced is common with other women as well? How do you help these women?
Nabila: When I started off my own mobile spa business, I met many ladies who suffered from self-esteem issue due to their skin complexion, an issue I realized many Asian women had. I took it upon me to educate women on inner and outer beauty. Many ladies have shared with me how they felt compelled to have sex with their boyfriends against their will just because they were afraid of being abandoned by their partners. They felt that sexually satisfying their boyfriends will grant them that acceptance that they were craving for. It is difficult for me to share that many ladies attempted suicide because they were bullied for their complexion and their size. It is an issue that is often overlooked and many women suffer mentally and emotionally because of the pressure to look in a certain way.
During My Life Coaching session, I try to tackle the root of the problem by conducting programmes to educate these women with the right tools to love and accept themselves. That is how I grew, from an abused and bullied girl to a beautiful and confident woman. Many of the women I have worked with have significantly improved their relationship with themselves and their families. They have gained financial independence and confidence and have overcome their past to create a brighter future.
Maisha: At work and in our social lives, women are expected to put in extraordinary efforts to look pleasing superficially while men are not subjected to this a superficial test. Why do you feel that women are still having to struggle and work harder than their male counterparts to reach their goals?
Nabila: I believe the main reason for this is patriarchy, where men are assigned as the leaders of the families and are decision makers. Women are largely excluded from this process. Women’s efforts in the workplace are therefore not as well accepted or appreciated. It is assumed that they would not be able to perform as well as men. I grew up in a system where men were always given priority over women and were treated better. No one believed in the potential of a woman and her ability to achieve or be as successful as her male counterparts. We were told since young that our place is ultimately at home, in the kitchen and our primary role was to care for our families.
To defy this, I started working during my school term breaks to prove my financial independence. Yet again, I was compelled to mould myself to fit unfair standards set for women by my employer. The female employees were told to wear thick make-up, high heels, skirts or dresses as part of our job requirement since we were on the front lines dealing with customers. I kept wondering, why do we need to look this way when our appearance did not compromise or determine the quality of our work? Why did our appearance need to please our employer or our customers when the same was not expected out of men? Men were assessed primarily on their skills and their talent whereas women had to pass the ‘looks’ test first.
Maisha: Young girls who are constantly exposed to messages from the media and advertising that define unattainable beauty standards for them often undergo body image issues, eating disorders and low self-esteem. What do you think different levels of society can do to help alleviate this crisis?
Nabila: First, we must start with ourselves and share this with as many women around us as possible; that the first step to being beautiful is not to check out on what models or actresses look like but to love ourselves as individuals and to accept ourselves the way that we are. It is easier said than done, but it requires consistent effort. Every morning before I start my day, I look into the mirror and tell myself, ‘I love you Nabila’ and ‘You are so beautiful Nabila’. These might seem silly or childish but it goes a long way in building self-esteem and accepting ourselves, our flaws and imperfections. You will be surprised how much difficulty many women face in telling themselves small things like these. Women often feel that they do not deserve this appreciation. We have to first overcome the barrier of self-criticism and self-loathe.
I would strongly urge the media to stop portraying women of standardized beauty, limited to a particular skin tone or size. The media is also responsible for shaping the mindset of women by repeatedly portraying the same images and delivering the same message that a woman must have flawless skin and perfectly shaped body. Change also starts from home! We need to expand the definition of beauty as we raise the next generation of children to have open discussions about beauty and have realistic expectations. I also hope schools can have workshops on personal development for girls in primary school and secondary school to equip them with the tools to survive in the outside world. Teachers are our parents in school! So it is very important for schools to teach students on loving and accepting everyone for their unique talents and strengths.
Maisha: It has been such an insightful experience talking to you Nabila. On a final note, what tangible advice would you personally give to young girls and women to overcome their insecurity?
Nabila: I am very grateful and blessed to be given an opportunity to share my mess as a message to all ladies! For all ladies reading this interview and supporting your great work Maisha, they should not hesitate to get in contact with me and apply for a 21-day free online coaching I am offering, to equip women and girls with the tools required to acquire confidence and transform their lives. My advice would be to always find out the root of your problem. Where does your insecurity stem from? Question if what people say around you is necessarily true. Are the images you see in the media and magazines real? As I was growing up, I forgot about loving myself and keeping myself happy and instead kept trying to please everyone around me. I am grateful that over the years I learnt that I do not need anyone’s approval to accept me for the person that I am and don’t need to change myself for anyone! Women and girls need to work on themselves, love and believe in themselves! Instead of trying to become what people around them or society expects them to be, women should embrace themselves and their emotions. Women do not need to work harder to achieve their goals, they just need to keep working consistently and they will achieve what they are aiming for.
This interview series with outstanding young women aims to promote Sustainable Development Goal 5: to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls.
- Aidin, B. (2015, July 30). Cosmetic procedures are the new make-up. Retrieved from https://www.raconteur.net/lifestyle/cosmetic-procedures-are-the-new-make-up
- Donohoe, M. (2006). Women’s Health in Context: Cosmetic Surgery Past, Present, and Future: Scope, Ethics, and Policy. Retrieved from http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/542448_2
- Fujino, M. (2013, December 8). Skin Color and Beauty in Japan. Retrieved from https://japansociology.com/2013/12/08/skin-color-and-beauty-in-japan/
- Sanghani, R. (2014, October 13). New research says 10 million women are ‘depressed’ over body image. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/11151074/Body-confidence-week-New-research-says-10-million-women-depressed-over-body-image.html