Over the last week, a number of stories related to the beauty industry have hit the headlines, including the publishing of a book entitled “The Vogue Factor” by former editor-in chief of Vogue, Kirstie Clements where she describes the extreme measures that models take to maintain the ideal body size expected by the beauty and fashion industry. She stated that the pressure for models to stay thin was so intense that some ate tissues to starve off hunger pangs, others avoided solid food to reduce down two dress-sizes resulting in hospitalization, whilst others did not eat for days such that they could barely stand. This war waged by models on their bodies has made a grievous casualty of their health with fatal consequences at times, all in the pursuit of an irrational Western template of beauty set by a handful of designers and personalities in the beauty, fashion, and entertainment industries who have dictated to women their whimsical view of the perfect physical ideal that women should embrace. However, this unrealistic manufactured template of beauty and this “Anorexia-induced obsession with size-zero models” as one UK Independent journalist describes it, has also had a disastrous impact on ordinary girls and women within Western societies who are constantly bombarded with images of the so-called “perfect” face, body-size and shape on their TV screens, billboards, and the pages of magazines. In the US and UK there are 7 million and 1 million starving women respectively. These are not victims of famine but primarily victims of fashion. They are women with eating disorders who starve themselves to fit this oppressive template of body-size to feel valued, the result of which can be organ failure, heart failure, and death. They have been influenced by the highly destructive messages drilled into their minds by the liberal society in which they live of what beauty constitutes, that fitting this restrictive mould of beauty equates to success, and that the value of the woman is measured by her face and figure.
This phenomenon of risking death in the pursuit of beauty is not isolated to the West. It is sadly a significant and growing trend amongst women in the Muslim world who have also been affected by Western-influenced images of beauty that saturates entertainment, magazines, shopping malls, and mass media within their societies – images that assign great importance to acquiring this “ideal” look to achieve self-worth. This week Al-Jazeera ran a report about Nigeria as the country that has the world’s highest percentage of women using skin lightening agents because lighter skin is considered more beautiful by many within the society. According to the World Health Organisation, 77% of women in Nigeria use these creams or bleaches, many of which can cause kidney failure, leukaemia, and cancer of the liver and kidneys. Similar skin-lightening products are used by women in other Muslim countries. Furthermore, earlier this year, the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons reported that there has been a notable rise in demand for cosmetic surgery in Turkey and Saudi Arabia who both rank in the top 25 countries worldwide with the highest rates of cosmetic procedures. These procedures of course carry health and sometimes mortality risks.
And all this has been driven by the merciless capitalist system that has made women’s physical insecurities a marketing tool for profit. As the figures of women are squeezed down, the profit margins of the multibillion beauty, fashion, and diet industries are ever-expanding through their perpetual promotion of this unreachable illusionary beauty ideal that is based upon constantly trying to persuade women – “you’re not quite good enough”. The UK population spends over £11 billion each year on weight loss products. In the US, it’s between $40-100 billion. The Economist magazine reports that skin-bleaching products are expected to be a $10 billion industry by 2015. One Western feminist Kat Banyard writes, “As long as the beauty ideal remains, business will keep on picking the scab and then selling us a plaster”. The disastrous impact of perpetuating this beauty myth on the self-esteem and lives of women including fuelling eating disorders is of irrelevance to the heartless and conscienceless capitalist ideology whose morals are defined by money. Any right-minded individual would consider the starvation, mutilation, or grievous bodily harm against women a form of abuse but capitalism has managed to market it for the sake of financial gain as empowerment, liberation, and beauty. But what kind of empowerment is it when a woman feels she needs to starve herself to feel valued or mutilate her body through painful, life-threatening surgery to fit an irrational template of beauty? What kind of liberation is it when a woman depends on the gaze of others to feel a sense of self-worth, or is duped into spending thousands to engage in this never-ending beauty quest scam. No! This is physical, psychological, and emotional oppression!
Islam in contrast liberates women from this crippling obsession with their face, figure, and skin tone for it does not value a woman based on her looks but her piety, character and conduct. Allah (swt) says,
((إِنَّ أَڪۡرَمَكُمۡ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَتۡقَٮٰكُمۡ))
“The most honourable of you with Allah is the one who has more piety (more obedience to Allah).” [TMQ Al-Hujraat:13]
And Islam liberates women from insecurities and low-self-esteem associated with their appearance for it does not set superficial, man-made, irrational, and unrealistic expectations of beauty. Rather, it prescribes a simple, realistic dress-code for the woman in public life that is within the reach of every woman – the khimar and the jilbab – which focuses society’s attention to her personality, intelligence, abilities, and contribution to her community rather than her waist-size and weight, as well as conveying a message that her beauty is not up for public discussion or dissection. This is the view towards women that will be promoted within the Khilafah system. Is this not what women’s empowerment is all about?
Dr. Nazreen Nawaz
Member of the Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir