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What It’s Like Growing Up Without Middle Eastern Models

I recall turning to my mother as a young girl, asking “Why doesn’t my hair look like that?”

There I was, surrounded by a sea of my female classmates with silky, straight hair, wondering why I had been cursed with a mop of untameable, dark curls. She turned to me and replied, “You’re not white, habibti.”

It took my years to understand what she meant in that simple phrase. After all, how was I supposed to understand at that age why I didn’t look like my friends? Why I didn’t have pale skin and thin eyebrows, like all the models had? I had, after all, grown up thinking  there was something wrong with my appearance, as the only standard I had to compare myself to was the white image media was projecting.

By the age of nine, I was getting my eyebrows waxed and tweezed on a bi-monthly basis. By middle school, I straightened my hair once a week. I applied the wrong makeup colours, not understanding that they were meant for someone with skin many shades lighter than mine. It seemed the older I became, the harder I tried to conform to the beauty standards of my mainly white school.

In every way I could, I tried to make myself look as white as I possible, not realizing it made me stick out even more. 

As I reached high school, it finally occurred to me that maybe the problem was not me. Perhaps it lied with the white-washed entertainment I had been fed all my life. Maybe it was the fact that I was the only Middle Eastern girl in my entire grade.  It’s not easy trying to find someone to look to for advice when the closest person ethnically to you is Indian. I can go days without noticing the divide, and then my black friends will be chatting about products to use in their hair, and I’ll suddenly wish that I had someone to ask about my hair. Even when I flipped through magazines, I couldn’t find many Middle Eastern models, if any at all. I was stuck taking advice from publications that essentially ignored my existence.

When you think about it, it’s not like this is a novel idea. Only recently have runways and magazines begun to diversify, with publications like Teen Vogue putting 7 nonwhite celebrities on the cover of their magazine in 2016 alone. But is it too late for all the girls who grew up without this in their lives, without these role models showing them that brown can be beautiful too?

It has never been easy to point fingers when the blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of a uniformly white, cis-gender society. Yet, here I am, at the age of 15, only just realizing now that it is alright for me to wear my natural curls in public, to chose my makeup based on what suits my light brown skin, not on what the Caucasian models on the billboard are displaying. And while it may have taken all this time to learn something that may seen glaringly obvious, it is a lesson that I will not soon forget, nor keep to myself. It’s vital to let young, ethnically diverse girls know that there isn’t anything wrong with them. The only problem is the image white America has been projecting to young generations.

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Emma Bel is just a teen who has a strong voice for gender and ethnic equality. When she's not writing about the glass ceiling or critiquing today's politicians, she can be found binge watching her favourite HBO dramas or spending her life savings on makeup.

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