Love Thyself (Inshallah)


Bookstores are my turf. They’re my territory, where I live and breathe. I’m intimately familiar with all aspects of it: from the selling of books (bookseller, two years) to the buying of books (lifetime member of Bookaholics Anonymous, which, like most things, is a figment of my overactive imagination), from the writing of books to the reading of them. I will devour any word on any page.

And yet…there is a part of this kingdom I’ve refused to go near: the fashion and beauty magazines. I ventured into this exotic and dangerous area a few years ago. I looked to my left, looked to my right, stepped gingerly in. The array of lipsticked, perfectly coiffed, exquisitely dressed women both bewildered and terrified me. I skulked for a bit until someone else started perusing the section, at which point I hightailed it back to my political journals section with unseemly haste. Back on solid ground.

Here is where the Venn Diagram of nerd girls and Muslim girls intersects: there is something inherently shameful about a woman paying attention to her own body. One of my favorite blog posts of the year perfectly captures the strangely contradictory dichotomy that both Muslim girls and nerdy girls face. We are simultaneously desexualized and hyper-sexualized by the societies we find ourselves in.

I fear I’ve double-whammied myself on this one.

For the nerdy girls, you are either the cerebral type who scoffs at fashion and beauty in an attempt to both stand out and cling to an inherent sense of authenticity, or you are the Cosplay “slut,” the fetishized figment of every nerd boy’s wet dream. “This is who I am at heart,” scream the jeans and the cardigans the cerebrals pull tighter to us against the chill of the library. The key to their kingdom is knowing the witty/clever/obscure fan reference on their never-ending supply of t-shirts. Meanwhile, at Comic Con, women dressed as their favorite characters from science fiction and fantasy face unwelcome comments on the floor. If you are anything in-between – a normal woman who cares about her looks but isn’t baring her cleavage – you are branded as a “fake geek girl.”

And Muslim girls? Oh Muslim girls. We have grown up in a culture that simultaneously hyper-sexualizes us and desexualizes us, yes, but what have we done to ourselves? Like plastic surgery addicts, we reach forever for the idealized female form, to the point where everywhere I go, I’m starting to see the same cookie cutter formula. For Desi women, there’s a type: slender frames, swishy long black hair to mid-back, the same smiles, the same mannerisms, the same Facebook pages with endless photos in the same poses – chest out, chin down, collarbone jutting, hand on hip, elbow out to the side to achieve maximum skinny arm, a smile that screams both sultry and innocence . And if you’re not that girl, you’re the one whose body language practically screams an apology to the world for your very existence. “I’m sorry my breasts are distracting you,” say your arms crossed over your chest. “I’m sorry my brazen gaze intimidates you,” say your lowered eyes. “How small can I make myself to I’m not noticed?” asks your bent body.

In a quest to set myself apart, in pursuit of a weird stubborn individuality, I’ve managed to work myself into the worst combination of all four corners. The 22-year-old woman who discovered how unabashedly fun her body could be on the innocent dance floors and cobble-stoned streets of Germany – where there was no backstory and no cultural baggage to carry – lost sight of the lesson along the way. A combination of things (grief, living at home again) sapped something out of me.  It’s not uncommon to find me in jeans and a cardigan over an obscure nerdy t-shirt, arms crossed over my chest while debating you on the political philosophy of John Rawls or seeking to engage you in deep, meaningful conversation in a search for genuineness. Meet the quintessential cerebral Muslim nerd girl.

The cliché goes that when you hit your 30’s, you loosen up. If the 20’s is holding your breath under water, your 30’s are an exhalation. And suddenly, you’re comfortable in your own skin again. It took a makeover with two women who eased me intelligently and gently into experimenting with clothing one drizzly Sunday afternoon in New York for the slow re-acceptance of my body to be complete. This past year has, in many ways, been a slow unfurling from the fetal position I found myself in after my return home and my brother’s death. That day in the dressing room completed the transformation.

“There’s only one rule,” my friends told me. “You have to try on everything at least once, with an open mind, no matter what we give you. And we promise to stay within the parameters you gave us to make you comfortable. Deal?”

“Deal,” I said, taking a deep breath.

They chose, I followed, my only function being an arm rack for the clothing they chose. While we walked, one friend explained her philosophy on her look. “Every few years, you make an assessment of your ideas, you do an inventory of what you’ve read and how it’s changed your mind,” she said. “You redefine yourself because you’re always learning something new, a work in progress. Every few years, when I redefine myself, I also redefine my look. Because why shouldn’t your inner change reflect also an outer change?”

I’m not sure how many outfits we were in before I emerged from the dressing room with a stunned look on my face.

“Guys,” I said urgently. “Guys, guys, guys. I have legs.”

They’re used to me by now, but the look they exchanged doubted my sanity.

“No you don’t understand. Like I have legs? Nice ones? Really nice ones.”

At this, they smiled. I think that’s when they realized they had finally broken through.

I can promise that I will never be a cookie cutter girl. Individuality is too important to me. But I’m enjoying experimenting with my sense of style, and experiencing the inherent joy that comes from being happy in my own skin again, in loving every curve of my own body. To find love, perhaps the first step is to love thyself. Inshallah.

Zainab Chaudary works in politics by day and as a writer by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets  @TheMemorist

3 Comments on “Love Thyself (Inshallah)”

  1. […] Love Thyself (Inshallah) by Zainab Chaudary  […]

  2. I can certainly relate to this! I always did feel like “the awkward brown (Muslims) girl” growing up, both when I was in public school (surrounded by ‘beautiful’ white girls and ‘glamorous’ brown girls), and when I was homeschooled (feeling even more awkward about that!).

    It took me until I was 19 and married for my then-husband to convince me that I truly *am* beautiful, and to love myself completely. Now, I take a gleeful joy in figuring out my sense of fashion and self-beauty, no matter how outrageous it appears to others!

  3. Anisa says:

    Love this, thanks for writing!