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.
There’s no stopping unique trendsetter, Gehad Abdalla. As a celebrity fashion stylist she works in an industry that has long been depicting and showcasing models, which look the closest to western white women. From fair skin to long straight blonde hair, slim perfect bodies and the list goes on. The persuasive Nubian origin stylist speaks her mind about the issue of beauty standards and including diverse women in her everyday work and on fashion shoots. When Gehad works with brands in styling fashion shoots, sometimes the brands wouldn’t want to include a dark-skinned model, on the grounds that she is “not beautiful enough”. “If a dark-skinned woman saw the designs of your brand wouldn’t she wear them?
“I want to see myself in this dress but the woman wearing it doesn’t represent me,” Gehad says.
“Businesses need to see inclusivity as a step that’s beneficial for them. Even from a business standpoint we cater for everyone,” she adds.
Gehad has been working in the media and fashion industry. She worked as a fashion editor and stylist at Enigma Magazine and as a fashion director at MO4 Network. She also worked as a Managing Partner in leading PR agency Carousel World, alongside her equally inspiring sister, Daliah Galal. Gehad has styled several top celebrities in TV series and films.
Chatting with Gehad about an infamous Egyptian stereotype that wearing white isn’t suitable for women with dark skin, she says that it’s a problem of how we see ourselves and why we dislike being darker in the first place. “I love wearing white, it’s actually my favorite color. I think it compliments me. What’s the problem with looking darker?”, she adds.
Growing up, thankfully Gehad had all the support she needed from all power women in her life. She and her sister, Daliah, were raised to believe they are beautiful and to feel comfortable in their own skin. “Growing up in Aswan, I was always surrounded by beautiful dark-skinned women, I used to see my mother as very beautiful. I never asked my mom why do I have darker skin or why do I have different hair than other girls in my school”, Gehad says. When Gehad first heard the comment “heya helwa bas samra”, her confidence and intellect kicked in, which led her to laugh it off with her mom, when she told her about it later. “I feel sorry for people who think like that, they are mothers who are about to see their sons getting married and all what they care about is that their wives have fair skin”, she says.
As a child watching TV, Gehad would notice that there aren’t many stars and actresses that are dark skinned. “I knew that there was a problem, we know that the audience are not used to seeing dark skinned women on TV. “When we become inclusive in the media, it will be the norm to see diverse beauty on the screen,” Gehad says.
“When we become inclusive in the media, it will be the norm to see diverse beauty on the screen.”
Giving examples of dark-skinned Egyptian stars who previously had challenges and finally made their way into fame by proving their talent, she reminisces on legend Ahmad Zaki who faced challenges, it took time for people to see his brilliance.
Passing on her experience in styling, Gehad talks about how some of us are blindly following fashion rules and losing our fashion identity and identity at large in the process. She adds that there’s a stereotype, that to be lovely you have to be fair, “The products we see every day tell us you have to be white to be beautiful, I don’t understand why some makeup artists use whitening products or foundation when they do my makeup. I want to be dark and have my dark skin”, Gehad adds.
“The products we see every day tell us you have to be white to beautiful.”
Looking at the bigger picture Gehad, doesn’t let racist comments get to her, she is very proud of her origin and mentions that she gets calls from people who want her to compete for Miss Egypt or Miss Africa, “you look so Pharaonic, they say. I feel different, it’s a good thing to be unique, and it’s a gift.”
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.