Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva

Desirability by Design: Makeup as a Crutch

It’s not a passing obsession or brief infatuation; it has strongly latched itself onto my whole being, constituting a part of who I am: a makeup addict.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure — or misfortune — of visiting me in my tiny cluttered single room, you’re probably already aware of my incurable, borderline psychotic condition. It’s not a mere passing obsession or brief infatuation; it has strongly latched itself onto my whole being, constituting a colossal part of who I am: a makeup addict.
Back home, I have shelves upon shelves, drawers and bowls filled with makeup. I am the proud owner of basically any container capable of withstanding the weight of my innumerable MAC lipsticks, Estée Lauder foundations and even my unnecessary yet indispensable Benefit eyebrow kits — yes, kits, plural. Eyebrows are important. It’s horrendous, really, the lengths I would go to for exactly the right shade of blush. I spend a good portion of my money on tools that I firmly believe will contribute to my happiness because of their magical ability to morph me into a completely and utterly different — and in my eyes, prettier — person.
The argument can be made that my ailment is not due to any personal insecurities, abundant as they may be, but to the insecurities my Arab society has either deliberately or involuntarily implemented into my mindset.
There are expectations looming over me wherever I go to look perfect and pampered. Wearing makeup to a café outing? A must. To school? Encouraged. To the gym? Obviously. I mean, how else am I going to take a selfie to show off my miraculously sweatless Victoria’s-Secret-model-resembling complexion while working out? It’s just the way I was brought up.
But most importantly, smearing my lips with lipstick and my eyelids with eyeshadow is considered proof that I am rich enough to be able to afford this ocean of powdery colorful goodness. In a way, my meticulous application of countless products on my face is a reflection of my family’s wealth. The more expensive the makeup, the more in awe others are going to be of me, which will prove to be beneficial for my family’s street rep. To put it in simpler terms, L’Oréal, Rimmel and Revlon aid in my family’s ascendance of the social staircase. It is an unspoken rule that most of my social strata has somehow managed to abide by for years, and will undoubtedly enforce for many more to come.
You see, in the majority of the Arab world — or at least the parts of it I have been exposed to, such as Lebanon and the UAE — everything ultimately revolves around our reputations, and appearing financially stable is merely one aspect of that. The principal chunk, the most alarming part, is how my fake and aesthetically perfect appearance defines who I am within a social context.
Normally, I would rebel against any social constraints. God knows how much trouble my rebelliousness has gotten me into, but alas, if you go against the social norm in Egypt — that is, not doing that which is vital to your reputation — you face an unyielding firestorm of jokes such as, What’s wrong with you? You look like a corpse today. Or, What? Eating has taken up so much of your time you couldn’t even apply lipstick? Or even, Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed today.
I learned the hard way that a good Egyptian girl must always look presentable and pampered and glamorous, like a well-fed pig waiting to be slaughtered. In the same way, my need to get dolled up on a daily basis is directly correlated with my odds of finding a suitor.
For eons dating all the way back to the pharaohs, women were put up on an eye kohl pedestal, manipulated into thinking that their beauty was the pinnacle of their existence. Us Arab women, I believe, are taught at a young age to live to please men, to exist in order to look good for men, to grasp onto a respectable prosperous man and never let go. And our only weapon, we are made to believe, is our outer appearance. It is no surprise that about 86 percent of females between the ages of 15 and 24 years in Egypt are illiterate. Because in the grand Arab scheme of things, brains won’t secure you a husband and a family — every Egyptian woman’s ultimate goal in life. Makeup will.
Add our nationwide foreigner complex to the already screwed-up mix and you’ve got yourself a country that urges women to care more about the cover of the book than its actual content. The origins of this complex perhaps lie in the colonial period, when white-skinned and blue-eyed British and French ladies set the ideal for women throughout the country. Through our use and abuse of cosmetics, we subconsciously attempt to eye-pencil our way toward that ideal. Successfully rendering our skins whiter means that we are exotic and Western, which in turn means that we are more desirable than our dark-skinned sisters. This goes back full circle to our precious reputations.
“Mashallah! You’re so white and pretty!” is probably the greatest compliment I’ve gotten back home. And the sad part is that I relish it, that feeling of being considered presentable enough for my aunties to suggest I might make a great wife to their sons one day — my own cousins. Ew. Enough for my parents’ friends to jokingly exclaim, “How can such a foreign beauty have sprung from such a dark-skinned family?” ​ Now, you might counter my arguments by exclaiming that this is a sad attempt at trying to appear like a feminist. And you know what? I’ll probably end up siding with you. Because although this societal burden on women is real, it lies under the surface of all that glamour makeup has to offer us. It’s just after writing this article that I realized something contrary to what I thought — I realized that I buy make-up not only because it makes me happy, but that by doing so, I’m unconsciously succumbing to outdated Egyptian traditions, norms and expectations.
Even now, as much as I care about this dilemma, as strongly as I feel about this Arab blindness to the actual importance of literacy and education, I’m still going to snatch my purse, run off to the nearest cosmetics store and max out my credit card by buying 100 USD mascara. I’ll add to my Sephora collection, I’ll feel overwhelmed with joy and yet, the thought that this entire fanatical process is irrational — the thought that my compulsive behavior feeds the shallow disease of Egyptian society — will never even cross my mind.
Layan Ismail is a contributing writer. Email her at
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