Drawing on personal experience, Ruqaiya Haris explores what happens when your religious values are seemingly at odds with your desire to be seen as beautiful
From a young age, most of us either experience directly or observe around us the societal value placed on beauty. As a Muslim woman, these notions of beauty and self-worth can become even more complex and something I find difficult to truly unpack and come to terms with at times. A core concept within our religion is that of modesty, not just in terms of how we present ourselves but also in regard to our interactions with people, our manners and our humility about our own achievements.
Both Muslim men and women have physical requirements of modesty, such as covering certain body parts in public. The idea is generally not drawing *too* much attention to our beauty, thus letting our character define who we are to the world. Things like plastic surgery are thought to be haram (impermissible in Islam) unless for medical reasons such as disfigurement.
The privacy of a woman’s beauty, except with those whom we want to share it with, was one of the things that I loved about Islam the most when I started practising it, and I wore hijab on and off during my time at university. It eased the pressure I had put on myself to look a certain way and it was empowering to be able to defy the beauty norms I had grown up with. It meant that I could spend less time in the morning straightening my hair and finding an outfit that wasn’t going to reveal my stomach rolls or make my bum look flat, and that in itself was liberating.
But it proved difficult and is something I still struggle to balance today, that I work in the make-up industry and find myself immersed in beauty products and images of conventionally attractive women with dainty, flawless features on a daily basis. I have always been drawn to beauty and loved playing with make-up since I was a child. There is also something that feels incredibly empowering about being able to transform myself into a better version of me, using my creative skills to enhance the way my skin looks and being able to play around with colour. I love the power make-up gives women who feel insecure or low in self-esteem some days and need a bit of a boost. It may be a quick-fix masking a deeper problem, but in the superficial world we live in sometimes it’s just like, ‘Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’
"I want to get surgery because I genuinely hate the way my nose looks" – Nadia*
While I have immense love for my religion and its values and teachings, sometimes it does feel as though the pull is stronger towards the aspiration of being “pretty” than modest, and ultimately wanting to be valued in some way for the way I look, which is partly due to the pressures enforced by social media. Many of us follow models and influencers who are living advertisements of cosmetic surgery and injectables, and much of the traditional mystery surrounding these procedures has been shattered by the wealth of visual content online – such as influencers sharing videos of their procedures taking place and surgeons showing off their best work through striking before-and-after photos.
Once considered something reserved only for celebrities and the super-rich, cosmetic enhancements have become far more accessible to the masses. From monthly payment plans to cheap surgery abroad – people are finding ways to afford the aesthetic they want, but at what cost? In recent months, two British citizens have died as a result of botched plastic surgery abroad. Doctors have made repeated warnings about the risks of travelling abroad for cosmetic surgery and compromising healthcare standards for lower costs.
However, cosmetic surgery and the quest for physical perfection are certainly not just a Western phenomenon but a global industry that is growing in popularity, with around 23.6 million procedures thought to have been performed worldwide in 2016. This includes many Muslim-majority countries that have thriving cosmetic surgery industries, including those governed by more hardline, conservative Islamic schools of thought – such as Iran who was ranked as 16th in the world for the number of body procedures performed in 2016 and Saudi Arabia who ranked 23rd in the world for the number of cosmetic procedures performed in 2014.
The blurred line that can arise between observing religious dress and aspiring towards mainstream beauty standards is one I know all too well. This may seem contradictory or downright hypocritical to many people, but it seems to be a legitimate shared experience for many Muslim women, as I have noticed while walking down Edgware Road and seeing elegant Arab women pass by with full hijab and flowing dresses, with identical pinched noses and plumped pouting lips.
“I want to get surgery because I genuinely hate the way my nose looks,” says Nadia*, a 25-year-old journalist from London who wears hijab. “I love that I have a unique look, but my nose just ruins it all. I hate that I have to photoshop it in almost every single picture I take and I can never let anyone take photos of me without my explicit approval and consent. It’s a lot, but this is what I have to do so I don’t end up crying and panicking all the time. I acknowledge that I may have some kind of body dysmorphia so I’ll stop at my nose and not get my jaw done or eyes lifted or a butt lift.”
Nadia* isn’t alone in her concerns about body dysmorphia, it’s a disorder that causes the sufferer to become obsessed with perceived defects in their appearance and is thought to affect around 2% of the population. I have witnessed a number of my close friends in recent years expressing similar symptoms and sharing their obsessive insecurities about the way they look, with some of them deciding to make cosmetic changes to their appearance as a result.
Nadia also told me about how she reconciles her faith and desire to get plastic surgery, “I’m submitting to Western notions of beauty and I hate myself for it. But, controversial opinion here, I still think you can be modest with fillers and surgery. Modesty is more than your appearance. What’s really underrated by Muslims and the wider community is that modesty lies in your behaviour. At the end of the day, I know what I’m doing is haram (impermissible). But my nose has caused me psychological stress and pressure and God is merciful and understanding.”
I asked Nadia if she thinks social media has played a part and she told me, “Absolutely. Anyone who downplays this is lying to themselves. Every day you’re scrolling on Instagram and you see these perfect women and girls, with flawless skin, small noses, big lips, practically looking like models… and it takes a massive hit on my self-confidence.”
Lailli Mirza is a 22-year-old Muslim woman and influencer based in Dubai and London, who has been fashion blogging with her sister Alizey since they were teens and who also runs the luxury fashion and lifestyle YouTube channel PintSizedFashTV. Lailli is one of the few Muslim influencers I have come across to document some of her cosmetic procedures and speak about them openly.
“I was 18 when I decided to do my nose,” she says. “I grew up hating it and waiting until I was legal in Dubai to do it. In Iran, girls as young as 12/13 get rhinoplasty but as your face grows with age, it’s advised to wait until you’re at least 18. My sister and I did ours together, then a couple months after decided to try lip fillers. I haven’t stopped since because I love the outcome. We’ve been blogging since we were 14 and it didn’t really have any direct effect on us. Growing up I felt comfortable in my own skin, being in the press a lot definitely boosted my confidence until I learned that I could tweak the little things I didn’t like, which is when my ego skyrocketed.”
Lailli acknowledges the effect that social media can have on young people. “I definitely feel that the recent rise in social media has had a negative effect on the younger generations as everyone online is looking more or less the same. Societal beauty standards today are also much higher than they were five years ago. Like everything, social media has positives and negatives.”
There often seems to be an assumption that all Muslims who have gained popularity or a presence on social media are by default spokespeople for Islam, and interestingly Lailli explains that while she is a Muslim woman, “I haven’t positioned myself as a “Muslim” influencer as I don’t wear hijab nor do I promote modest fashion, or preach about religion on Twitter. Many people think and say I don’t deserve to call myself a Muslim because as a woman, I don’t follow all the basic rules; I get plastic surgery, I don’t cover my head, I wear nail polish, eat non-halal food, amongst many other things.”
"I like to promote self-confidence through minor surgical or nonsurgical cosmetic enhancements" – Lailli Mirza
Lailli reconciles her faith with her cosmetic procedures “by having a healthy balance of both. I don’t favour one more than the other though it may appear that way publicly. I’m a little unconventional but I choose to keep my relationship with God personal... But because I know my faith is strong I’m not bothered about the scrutiny, my relationship with God is stronger than it’s ever been!”
She tells me about her nine-year-old cousin who wears hijab and was bullied for having “dumbo ears” and that despite her ears being covered all day publicly, she had them pinned back. "I think it’s amazing how the smallest cosmetic enhancement can make a huge positive impact on someone’s life. It’s a superficial business, but I like to promote self-confidence through minor surgical or nonsurgical cosmetic enhancements.”
I ask Lailli if she feels a sense of responsibility towards younger Muslims that may look up to her. “I feel responsible for all my younger viewers, not just the Muslim ones. I like to think I promote cosmetic enhancements responsibly. I do believe people should know that all these “beautiful” women they see aren’t always natural. I feel now with society’s new standards of what “beautiful” is supposed to be, many feel insecure or do suffer from low self-esteem if they don’t look a certain way. I think it really depends on the individual.”
There’s no doubt that plastic surgery allows people to confront and address the things that make them feel insecure, giving them the tools to be able to fix things they dislike. I can see how many people feel empowered by that decision, rather than shrouded in shame, and it’s refreshing to be able to speak with another Muslim woman so candidly about cosmetic surgery. It’s clear that Muslim women are by no means a monolith, and each of us has unique relationships with both our faith and our culture. Religion and spirituality are far more than skin-deep and transcend what we can perceive through appearances. Cosmetic surgery and faith do not appear to be mutually exclusive at all, but rather the tension between them seems symptomatic of the fact that Muslim women are also exposed to the same social pressures and beauty standards that all other women are exposed to.