Words by Layla Qais
Featured video: Performance video by Marina Abramović – Art must be Beautiful; Artist must be Beautiful, 1975
This article is part of the “My Hair My Hair” issue
Trigger Warning: The following article contains mentions of eating disorders, symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors.
It is every Arab woman’s job to want to be beautiful. Wanting to be beautiful is a state of mind that exists independent of one’s physical attributes. Arab women exist, by definition, adjacent to men – as daughters, as wife, as mothers. A wanting-to-be-beautiful woman is a woman who agrees to all of those things. She knows that, for her to be safe, she must be man-adjacent. And, for her to be man-adjacent and ascend the hierarchy of roles, she must want it; she must want to be beautiful.
An object of stolen glances of desire, the perfect body is hairless. This is essential even for mothers, because even at her highest rank in the social hierarchy, she must maintain ideals of innocence and self-sacrifice. Her perfect manner is one of obedience and meekness, nurturing and prioritizing the desires of others over her own. The perfect hair is covered, under a veil, a symbol of the piety of the men with whom you are adjacent.
When I turned nineteen, I read a letter to myself I had written when I was twelve.
Hi me! I am you! I am 12-years old and I like to read and do ballet. I weigh 45 KGs and I am hoping to lose weight. I hope when we are 19, we are skinny and beautiful and have long beautiful princess hair.
I was a twelve-year-old wanting-to-be-beautiful girl who wanted to be skinny grown-up with beautiful long hair. It was funny when I read this because I had just cut it and dyed it blue. But it was also devastating; at nineteen, I was a woman in the trenches of an eating disorder.
At twelve, in the depths of an abusive household, I wanted to be a grown-up with more control than I had. So as twelve became eighteen, eighteen became nineteen, and nineteen became twenty, I was falling deeper and deeper down the hole of eating disorders and body image. At twelve, I had this image of a woman and what a woman is, this obsession with the elegant, graceful, flawless woman that I am to become – skinny and princess hair. I had no idea that this image was based on men’s desire. I never had much interest in what men wanted, but knew that this was what I was supposed to be or become.
At 19, I fell in love with a woman. This shifted my perspective slightly, but was not enough to free me from the ideal. I kept chasing an ideal set by the desire of men to gain the love of women; it was all I knew. Now that I was seeing people romantically, the stakes were even higher. The first time I slept with a woman I was completely shaved; she didn’t care of course but it mattered the world to me. I didn’t eat for two days.
What they don’t tell you about having an eating disorder is that your body goes into survival mode. Your physical body doesn’t care if you’re beautiful; your body wants to be alive. It starts hoarding things for warmth, sustenance, and energy even when you don’t want to give them to it. It grows hair to stay warm and preserve energy, wherever seems vital and in places you never thought you’d be insecure about. And, it starts losing hair in places it deems unnecessary. If it weren’t so indescribably difficult to manage, it could be funny how priorities to stay beautiful can directly contradict needs for survival.
It’s a pit, a catch-22, a life steeped in irony. To strive for this male-determined image of beauty I held so tightly to attract a woman’s love. I thought that being queer was an identity or role I could adopt; short hair, unshaven, etc. To be a child coming to terms with sexuality and gender identity, I wanted love and I wanted control of my image and others perception of me. At some level, I knew this was based on a warped idea of gender performance, and that I loved people regardless of their own gender performance, body, or hair. I just couldn’t extend that standard to myself; my hair and body were everything to me, and were eating me alive.
It manifested in cutting and bleaching and dying and shaving my hair, and also starving. I wasn’t seeing anyone but it became compulsive. The image of the woman I was to become – based on the male gaze, based in religion, based in control – consumed my identity, and I started to hate her.
Through loving women though, I have realized that the love I seek is independent of the desires of men. Independent of the cautious ever-wanting-to-be-beautiful woman, independent of piety, and veils, and adjacency, and obedience. The love I seek is divine on its own. I am learning to find that divinity in my own body and to love my hair for the fingers that run through it regardless of how I decide to wear it.
I don’t believe in being “healed,” but I believe I am trying to extend to myself affection and attraction and knowledge of an inherent entitlement to love. I no longer believe in the wanting-to-be-beautiful woman, and maybe another little girl will give a different meaning to princess hair.