We explore the confusion of navigating your personal identity when you have multiple heritages with conflicting beauty standards
I’ve grappled with the complex relationship between mixed race identity and beauty for a long time. Both my location and my heritage – I’m half-Lebanese, half-Pakistani – upheld beauty ideals that were at odds with each other. Looking too overdone would court much derision growing up in North London, but this minimalist approach conflicted greatly with Beirut’s – a city I spent most summers a teenager where ‘more is more’ is the unofficial beauty mantra. Once the plastic surgery capital of the Middle East, appearing permanently preened and polished with a face full of make-up isn’t just encouraged, it’s expected – even if you’re simply loitering in a shopping mall.
I’d never seen myself reflected in advertisements in the Middle East, where heavily groomed women subscribe to traditionally narrow ideas of femininity – carefully sculpted arched eyebrows, immaculate nails, hairless body, paired with long, sleek black hair – but that didn’t stop me from trying. In the lead-up to visiting for my holiday, I’d spend hours in beauty salons having head-to-toe treatments including a manicure and pedicure, eyebrow shaping, and a full-body wax. It wasn’t unusual for me to have an entirely separate make-up bag bursting with products. It was trickier when I factored in my Pakistani roots and when I spent time with my Desi London-based friends, I’d deliberately kohl my eyes and straighten my hair so our differences wouldn’t be glaringly obvious.
The fluidity of my beauty regime, which shifted according to the spaces I inhabited and the people I was surrounded by, felt stifling, as if there was only one ‘right’ way to look. This would be further exacerbated by Instagram, where I’d be confronted with dozens of images of what a ‘normal’ Lebanese or Pakistani girl should look like.
The term ‘mixed race’ itself tends to lump people as a monolith, and just as their experiences and heritages can wildly differ, so can their beauty identities. Dr Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor at Duke University who studies racial identity and social interactions, says that mixed race people report higher rates of social exclusion than other racial and ethnic groups. “They’re constantly being questioned about their racial backgrounds and denied their identities and group memberships,” she explains. “These experiences are known to cause increased levels of stress and depression at times and can be associated with more difficulties in forming a true sense of self and a sense of being an ‘imposter’.”
As a woman of Venezuelan, Curaçaoan, and Lebanese descent who grew up in the Netherlands, Rachel Rumai can relate. “Because I didn’t look like an ideal Venezuelan woman or Dutch woman, I was very lost in adapting a beauty regime that fit me,” she says. Rumai recalls spending summers and holidays following a rigid beauty routine that involved chemically straightening her hair, making sure she didn’t tan, and never leaving her house without a full face of make-up and heels. “It took a lot of years of trying to fit into another woman’s shoes to realise that I had forgotten to simply wear my own,” she adds.
“It seemed that by subscribing to one part of my heritage – and Lebanese glam always won out – I was negating my Pakistani side. By picking between them, was I in one sense picking between the parts of my heritage?” – Layla Haidrani
When I found myself gravitating towards tanning, something that was encouraged in London and Lebanon but contrasted with the Pakistani ideal of lighter skin, I started to feel conflicted about which part of me I wanted to highlight. It seemed that by subscribing to one part of my heritage – and Lebanese glam always won out – I was negating my Pakistani side. By picking between them, was I in one sense picking between the parts of my heritage? Rumai too recalls how she occasionally struggled with the feeling of ‘choosing’ a look and by extension, a side of her heritage: “I definitely used to, because I was either Latina, Afro-Caribbean, or Arab in my eyes and the eyes of others.”
Zuleika Lebow, a white-passing mixed person of Jamaican and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, says it has been tough to navigate her personal identity and how she fits in with her family and peers over the years. “Growing up in Tottenham and Wood Green in the 90s, I spent many days wishing I would gradually get darker as I got older so I would fit in with my black and mixed peers more,” she says. “Then as I got to my teens and into heavy metal, I wished for straight hair like Evanescence’s Amy Lee.”
I, and most of the women I spoke to, have accepted how our mixed heritage manifests in beauty terms as we’ve gotten got older. “I used to have a toxic relationship with make-up – it was always a mask I put on to look different than my natural self, to erase all my imperfections and mould my face into someone else,” Rumai says. “But I recently turned 29, and now I wear my freckles with pride and use colours on my eyes and lips to enhance my features rather than covering them up.”
The rise in projects like Halu Halo and Mixed Race Faces, social platforms for mixed race people to share their experiences, give enlightening insights into how they’re embracing all the parts of their heritage. “Sometimes the things that set you apart from everyone else, that make you feel insecure about yourself when you’re younger, are the same things that give you confidence when you grow,” Lebow says. “I don’t go around expecting to fit in with the ‘look’ of the moment because I don’t look like anyone and no-one looks like me. So I may as well do what I want and have fun with beauty!”
It’s clear that asserting your beauty identity as a mixed race woman can be a challenging – and often frustrating – process. But I’m now comfortable with using make-up to highlight my best features, rather than trying to fit in for the most part, and I relish the fact that I look different to other people. And despite Instagram occasionally triggering feelings of not belonging to either side, Lebanese or Pakistani, I hope that in time I’ll be as confident as Lebow and Rumai are.