Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 June - 6 July 2005
Issue No. 749
Living
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Beautiful people

Serene Assir gauges ideas of female beauty in modern-day Cairo

Click to view caption
Then and now: the ideal blonde beauty of yesteryear epitomised by actress Hind Rostom contrasts sharply with today's olive-skinned singer Ruby, Egypt's current seductress par excellence

A young brunette dreams of being a television anchor. She tries and fails -- until she starts to apply Fair and Lovely, a skin-lightening cream sold and used widely throughout the Third World. The last shot of the advertisement, broadcast on Egyptian state television and carried by a number of pan- Arab satellites, shows her doing a live broadcast, smiling from ear to ear while her skin looks significantly fairer than it did at the start of the spot.

"Sales for Fair and Lovely cream are very, very good right now," a pharmacist working in the up-market area of Mohandessin told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity. "There are several other brands of cream that claim to clear the skin of blemishes and generally make the complexion lighter -- Fair and Lovely is not the only one that sells."

The packaging of these creams resembles that of any other successful cosmetic -- small, quaint boxes, usually pink or beige in colour. But the idea behind them is rather more context specific, for it capitalises on the fact that women across the Middle East seek to lighten their skin by applying them on a regular basis, thus coming closer to what still seems to be perceived as an ideal of feminine beauty: fair skin, the whiter the better.

Yet "anyone who thinks that they will become fairer by using these creams is terribly mistaken," the aforementioned pharmacist went on to say: "Over time, they do prove effective in removing dark patches of skin. But they won't make anyone paler."

Reham, a professional beautician, concurred: "Most women now know that these creams don't actually lighten the shade of the complexion. Anyway, the fashion is changing now. No longer is it a question of colour, but rather one of style. The standards of beauty have become far higher now in terms of how well a woman is supposed to take care of herself and her appearance, but the focus has shifted away from colour and onto other things." Regarding the sales figures for the skin- lightening creams, Reham was somewhat disdainful: "Actually, you'll notice that women who seek to look lighter tend to come from the lower to lower-middle classes. Upper and upper-middle class women follow different models."

Traditionally, as in many parts of the world, including Western Europe, a fair complexion was perceived in Egypt as being synonymous with money -- simply because a well-to- do woman would not have had to partake in labouring in the sun. Many accounts indicate that, to this day, older Egyptian women still urge their daughters and granddaughters to stay out of the sun. Yet according to Reham, "the tan is all the rage now. If you look at popular Western fashion magazines and films, you'll find that holds there too -- the tan."

But this raises another controversy. Are standards of feminine beauty set simply by what happens to be fashionable in the West? Is the core of Egyptian society still unconsciously affected by colonial power relations, whereby the former white master is perceived as inherently superior? "Well, fashion and beauty in the Middle East today are synonymous with what comes out of Lebanon," Nermine, another beautician, testifies. "As women, our ideals are set in absolutely new ways," though, she goes on. Whereas, just a few decades ago, the ideal of feminine beauty was something purely imaginary and extremely vague -- with the perfect woman simply described as curvaceous, fair-skinned and blue-eyed -- "now the Arab world is so mediatised that there are specific models that women look for: Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wahbi, Ruby; these are all looks that the average working woman now yearns to achieve, and many will seek to emulate all these pop singers' features, whether in terms of hair colour and style or actual facial features, the latter through plastic surgery."

As Reham points out, however, many of the models have already undergone plastic surgery themselves: "Nancy Ajram is completely invented, as is Haifa Wahbi. So, in a way, I suppose that today's model is a direct product of the imagination of the plastic surgeon." Underlying all these issues is the question of why Egyptian women are so intent on attaining an ideal in the first place. "But that's obvious," Reham retorted. "It's all about getting male attention. Any woman who tells you she takes care of her looks in order to satisfy her own sense of self is lying. After all, men don't look for specific physical types as much as they look for confidence and personal strength in a woman -- so that in the end it all ties up."

But fashion changes. "Right now," according to Reham, "the rise of the messy, Mediterranean look is very suitable for us Egyptians. And though we are ready to experiment, this new trend with its focus on a strong, tanned look is not too far from what we've always looked like anyway." A look at how women look or seek to look these days confirms this idea, even though "too dark" is still perceived as unattractive. This is confirmed time and again when female attendants, for example, persuade you to buy clothing that will make you "look lighter". Yet this doesn't necessarily reflect men's views.

Youssef, a 30-year-old journalist, for one, prefers brunettes, favouring women "who are fully conscious of their appeal, and are erotically self-aware. There is no physical type that I prefer, though, ideally, I favour the dark, Mediterranean look." Khaled, 35, a graphic designer, agreed: "My ideal woman is dark, hazel-eyed with long, black hair."

It seems the long-standing fashion for north European looks is now fully and officially dead. Of course, there are remnants of this power dynamic, and they usually only come out in the form of off-the-cuff comments. "She's quite beautiful, actually," said guitarist Mohamed, 26, while admiring the photograph of an African model, "despite the fact that she's black." Sales manager Ahmed, 24, expressed a similar feeling while watching Lebanese pop singer Cyrine Abdul-Nour's videoclip: "She's not great-looking, really. The only point that she has to her favour is that she's white." Perhaps colonial-inspired fashion has simply been replaced by a new series of importations, whereby women are expected to look tanned, sexy and natural -- but still in line with a Western imported into the Middle East via Lebanon, not with locally determined standards. "I guess it's like that everywhere, though," Alex, a young American woman studying in Cairo, told the Weekly. "Maybe in Egypt women seek to emulate their counterparts in the West. But in the United States, women endanger their health by spending hours in the sun, to look more like women do here."

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