Listen to Alicia Keys while reading.
Beauty is as much universal as it relative. It comes from within as much as it is influenced from outside. Most of the time, I know that I am beautiful because it is easy to remember when people compliment me regularly. Living in London for the last two years, there has probably never been a day on which I went to sleep without having received at least one compliment. While I am used to being the “exotic” girl in Europe, when I traveled to South East Asia, I did not happen to be the right kind of exotic, not the desirable exotic. I experienced a complete lack of appreciation for my looks, not only in form of no compliments, but also because there was not a single pair of jeans that would fit my figure or, even worse, body lotion that did not promise to lighten and therefore damage my skin. Being me was still special, but not in a positive way.
Now, living in Egypt, for the first time in my life my body is perceived to be neither exotic nor special. As long as I keep my mouth closed, I am just another Egyptian girl. This made me wonder – if I had grown up here, would I be as confident as I am today or would I be one of the girls I talk about in A Misconception of Strength: The Other Perspective? Someone who compares herself because she does not understand how unique she is, because she believes that she has to fit a certain beauty standard and has never thought outside of that little culturally defined box. As it happens, I never had a choice but to think outside this box as growing up in Germany I was inescapably aware of being different. Travelling SE Asia I learned the relativity of being “exotic” and living in London I encountered “light skin privilege” and what it is like to fit a certain beauty standard. At the moment I am experiencing being considered “average” since here in Egypt I seem to be nothing special in comparison to my interesting white friends. Consequently, the question “where am I beautiful” cannot be answered using a geographical or cultural explanation, assuming that my beauty does not change when I hop on a plane. If you are someone plagued by insecurities, leave your comfort zone and go somewhere completely new. You will see that people will like your style, your thighs or your hair even if at home you might never receive a compliment for it.
Of course, I am not suggesting that we should all move to where a society will appreciate our looks the most. Theoretically, this might seem to be the easiest way to feel beautiful, but it is also the most fragile and ingenuine. If I have a lot of body hair and I live in Sudan, where people consider this unacceptable, I need to learn to love my hair regardless. Therefore, “where am I beautiful physically” seems to be a more sensible approach. Learn to love yourself wherever and however you are, regardless of other people’s opinions. This short sentence describes a long and difficult process full of internally and externally influenced setbacks like rejections, breakups, weight gain, weight loss and even sometimes just the wrong hair cut. Defining our beauty solely considering our surface is dangerous, because there is only so much that we can do to influence it.
However, we are not only able to influence, but to build and shape our character. In contrast to society’s opinion, culturally defined truths and the fragility of our physical appearance, our personality is what we are most in control of. Nothing compares to leaving the house being the person you want to be and there is nothing more fulfilling than living your own values. Besides the fact that beauty is relative, my travels also taught me that I feel best when I work hard and take time off to write and be creative. I like myself best when I show my friends and family how much I love them, when I know that I am doing something good for someone good.
Realizing this, I started to consciously work on myself. I stopped wearing makeup on a daily basis, terminated my gym membership and I am now the most beautiful I have ever been.
Where am I beautiful? In myself.
Text by Amuna Wagner
Photos by Hannah Wolny