When Egyptian tribal wear fashion designer Amna El Shandaweely was twelve years old, she started collecting fashion magazines. For a child, who used her mother’s curtains to redesign her doll’s outfits, becoming a designer was only the natural sequence. Browsing the covers of those magazines little Amna would ask her mother “Why do ALL these girls look nothing like me or my relatives? Why do they all have fair skin? How did they get to be on the covers of those magazines?”
Then there is drop dead gorgeous Gehad Abdalla, who works in the fashion industry and styles A-list celebrities for a living. When her ex-mother in law first met her, she told her son “heya helwa bas samra” (She is beautiful but has dark skin). Gehad never allows society, the media or beauty brands to define beauty for her or affect her self-image, in any way.
If there is one thread that unites these two women, it would be how they break imposed beauty standards, staying true to themselves and loving the way God created them. Most of us grew up watching TV and reading magazines wondering why we don’t look perfect like “the woman on the cover”. Feeling pressured to straighten our hair, dye our hair blonde and apply lighter shades of foundation has dominated the lives of many Egyptian girls longing to match beauty standards often set by Western media and picked up by society.
The real question should be why beauty is always associated with fair skin and blonde hair? Who do we allow to dictate how grown women need to look like and how girls should aspire to become? How come that a North African country with a majority of dark skinned people claims Caucasian beauty standards? If we need to understand something about beauty, it would be to comprehend the genuine beauty of diversity and embrace our genetic heritage. Again, we need to change the narrative. If our stories are not told and our photo is not shared, then we have a duty to change the narrative and take measures in our own hands.
Egyptian women come in all shapes and sizes, in all shades of brown and olive, with all kinds of hair and each of it is a genetic love story of ancestry and heritage. A story of pride and self-love, a story of courage and maturity. Let’s break free from harmful stereotyping and embrace our real and genuine beauty by allowing the most powerful revolution to happen; that of being our selves.
When Amna El Shandaweely was ten years old, she went for Eid shopping with her mom in Alexandria. Only to find nothing but pink fluffy dresses, which did not suit her or express her identity. She is one of many little girls who just want to have fun in shorts and jumpsuits.
At this point, Amna was introduced to a world, where she can design her very own dresses and any outfit she wants. Her mother took her to a tailor and she kicked off a bright future full of fashion statements tackling eye opening issues. Almost a decade later, twenty seven year old Amna, becomes founder and CEO of Amna Elshandaweely, the Egyptian tribal wear brand that intertwines traditional tribal trim with hip street style, combining culture, history and even architecture to create thoughtful, yet trendy pieces.
Growing up as a magazine collector Amna saw a picture of “Naomi Campbell” on the cover of magazines and she thought to herself how beautiful she was. This thought never leaving her mind, Amna’s first collection “Road to Fayoum” was as inclusive and real as it can be.
“I wanted to get models who look like my sister, my cousins, and many other real Egyptian women,” she says.
“The model I got for this collection was Menna Hussein, who was a copy of my sister.” Amna explains. Amna thinks people liked the collection, but back in 2009a collection like this was still treated as exotic. Thinking it would just be a one-time thing to check the box of inclusivity.
Since then, she realized that all her steps have a few things in common, she is walking against the status-quo of society. She also realized the power of the issues she tackles through her collections and unique designs. Amna is looking to challenge the norm through every campaign she launches. She did an all dark-skinned models shooting aiming to change the beauty norms. She stood against color discrimination in collection by featuring dark-skinned women and men Road to Nairobi and last but not least in her collection, The City of The Amazigh.
A lot of girls with dark skin, look up to natural curly heads like Amna and send her messages on social media telling her they love her work and her curls!
“My mom never straightened my natural curly hair and this created so many insecurities for me when I was a little girl,” she says.
“I asked myself why I don’t look like one of the girls with long straight hair, but it made me who I am today”, Amna says. Racing against all trends, Amna recently cut her curls into a pixie cut and the reason behind it is also related to breaking beauty standards. “A few months before I shaved my head, I did a story on social media about how people are now considering curly hair a trend, but that it’s starting to backfire when it gets commercial and mainstream”, Amna explains.
Never wanting to follow trends blindly and embracing uniqueness in every way possible, she didn’t want to be identified just by having exotic curls. She loves her face, her skin and her work and designs. She goes on to explain that she hears women saying, “I hate my hair and I want to have curls”, she adds that with the wrong message about forcing curly hair, girls who don’t have curly hair feel insecure and left out. “The curly hair movement was about embracing natural curly hair, not forcing women who have straight hair to buy expensive products to follow the trend”, Amna continues about why we miss inclusivity and diversity in our society, she goes on to talk about how the media is the most important messenger of featuring diversity.
She believes that when we are growing up we are always seeking to look like the woman on the cover of the magazine. “I read “heya helwa bas samra” on social media as a comment on my wedding pictures, but I was glad people responded asking those commentators “Why is a dark-skinned girl not pretty?”, Amna adds.
What if the Beauty of Diversity becomes the new beauty standard? A standard that makes people who work in the film and beauty industry think twice when they choose to leave out a talented black skinned or curly haired actress. A standard that makes society question how they perceive beauty. A standard that will influence us by women like Amna and Gehad who could be the role models we have been wanting to look at in magazines and think they look like us. Looking like the woman on the cover through embracing natural and diverse beauty.