A few years ago, I saw a Facebook post that caused a bit of an outrage. The post was a picture of a nearly naked, young woman who, the poster believed, looked perfect.
In addition to the photo, the misogynist who posted it had a message to all women: If you don’t look like this [his idea of physical perfection], then you have basically failed at life.
When women and girls obsess over how they look it is because of this kind of thinking- a woman’s worth as a human being is entirely based on her appearance. This message of beauty as worth is nothing new, but the pressure is intensifying as technology advances.
With the scrutiny of social media and the ubiquitous camera, the obsession with appearance has never been so gripping.
A Disease of Superficiality and Waste
Spending on beauty products has increased significantly in the past few years and has increased drastically in the past few generations. In the past decade the annual view of beauty related videos has gone up exponentially.
The obsession with appearance and the intense pressure for women (and increasingly for men) has become a disease of superficiality waste. We are taking human potential and focusing it entirely on shallow pursuits.
And the ummah is not immune to this disease. We are online, on social media, receiving these messages of toxicity day in and day out. It is hard to combat it. It is hard to overlook the importance the world seems to put into appearance in the age of image.
We are spending more on expensive clothes and make-up. We are using more of our brainpower to learn how to contour and what is trending this week in fashion. We are letting more and more life slip away as we worry over our worry lines while more lasting and meaningful pursuits pass us by.
Know the Source
“Follow the money” is a popular proverb because the root of most ills in the world can be traced back to financial interests. Fanning the flames of our obsession with appearance, the beauty and fashion industry have a vested interest in our waste and superficiality.
Clairol taught us that our natural hair color wasn’t good enough. The bleaching cream industry taught dark-skinned women they were “too dark”, and the tanning industry taught light-skinned woman they were “too light”.
We never would have known that teeth need to be blindingly white, our nails needed to be ruby red, our eyelashes needed to be miles long if it didn’t bring in a profit.
Similarly, the fashion industry has not only convinced us we are never, ever wearing the “right” thing, they have altered time itself to do so. It used to be that we had two seasons of fashion to correspond with the changing needs of the weather (spring/summer and fall/winter).
But now we have 52 micro-seasons wherein “seasonal” clothing is produced with such rapidity; it will be “over and out of style” in no time. The bottom line is that our weakened sense of self, our confusion over purpose and value is these industries bottom line.
A Cycle of Low-Self Esteem and Arrogance
When appearance becomes our only source of worth, it creates a never-ending cycle of low self-esteem and arrogance.
At first, we hyper-focus on what is sold to us as our flaws. We struggle to fix them, spending everything we have, even our own life force. Many fail at “fixing” a flaw that will in a few years be a celebrated mark of beauty.
And so we are taught to hate ourselves because our very worth as human beings is tied up in aspects of our appearance that we can do very little about.
Our esteem plumiest. And we look for any glimpse of affirmation, grasp at any straw of worth. And this is where arrogance sneaks in stage left.
Because even if we feel that we don’t match the ideal of beauty, we tell ourselves at least we are “better” than those “ugly” people. We dissect what others are wearing; how they apply their make-up; what color eyes, hair, nails, clothing they have.
Showing no mercy, we zero in on how thin, tall, skinny, short they are. And we tear them apart to make ourselves feel some worth, or at least more superior than someone.
But low-self-esteem cycles back around when we inevitably have a pimple, gain a few pounds, and eventually “lose our beauty” to old age.
Our Real Value
But we can heal this twisted thinking and reclaim our power as human beings by understanding that God is The Most Just.
This seems like a strange statement when talking about appearance. But if you think about it, we don’t choose to the genes that make up our appearance and we cannot prevent old age.
And to be judged by something that we have so little control over, such as our appearance, is unjust. It’s not only unjust, it is cruel, petty, and damaging to the individual and society as a whole.
But God is most Just because “God does not look at your figures, nor at your attire but He looks at your hearts [and deeds].” (Narrated in Muslim) Allah (SWT) looks at those things that are in our control. He looks at the content of our character.
Fortunately, how good our heart is absolutely something within our control and something we can develop no matter who we are, what we look like, or how much money we have. And, as Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) said, “Whoever beautifies himself on the inside, Allah will beautify him on the outside.”
As with all things Islamic, there is a balance that must be struck here. The Prophet (PBUH) said, “No one will enter Paradise who has an atom’s weight of pride in his heart.” A man said, “What if a man likes his clothes to look good and his shoes to look good?” He said, “Allah is beautiful and loves beauty. Pride means denying the truth and looking down on people.” (Narrated in Muslim)
Allah (SWT) is beautiful and loves beauty. He is the owner, creator, and bestower of beauty. There is nothing wrong with trying to look our best. It’s commendable to be clean and presentable. It is absolutely necessary to take care of our bodies with exercise and good nutrition. It’s not even blameworthy to love beautiful clothes and to love and actively try to look beautiful.
But the problem comes in when we waste so much of our life and money, when we buy into a false value system, and when we allow others to lower our self-esteem and/or allow ourselves to become arrogant because of the superficial.
If we find ourselves spending all our money on the superficial, we can stop and think about spending some of that in sadaqah. If we find ourselves spending all of our time in the mirror or taking selfies, we should remind ourselves that good character is more lasting beauty.
If we find ourselves only thinking about how we look, we must use more of our brain power gaining lasting knowledge. If we find ourselves thinking we are better or worse than others based on our outfit, we have to rethink that and think about how Allah (SWT) sees us.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there is no better observer than Allah (SWT).