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The Beauty Industry is Overlooking Middle Eastern Women

The Middle East has the fastest growing beauty market in the entire world, so why are brands ignoring them?

by Oset Babur

On a recent visit to my aunt’s Bogazici University classroom in Istanbul, I was surprised to see a girl wearing red lipstick and glittery shoes along with her hijab. I even gaped a little at her ornate jewelry. It seems ridiculous to say that women who wear the hijab or other modest religious clothing don’t or shouldn’t care about appearances or beauty, but many of us see these women as replacing their individuality with religious identity, and rendering themselves invisible. I’m a first-generation Turkish-American woman, intimately connected to negative effects of sterotypes based on religion and culture, but I’m not immune to them.

Neither is the beauty industry.

I’ve never felt that my skin tone was a burden, or something to change or correct, but I have fair skin. My visits to the beauty counter usually include a couple of swatches on the back of my hand and some idle browsing in the check-out line. The experience is almost always fun for me, but for many of my peers, it’s the opposite. When I asked a Turkish friend why she didn’t just pop by the Sephora on Istiklal Street to pick up a new bottle of foundation, she responded with, “because it’s never just a quick trip.” To get the color she needs, she sometimes ends up buying and mixing multiple products, settling for shades that aren’t quite right, or hunting down and purchasing something from an expensive, niche line. All this is happening in a country with thousands of women who look like she does and share her needs.

The fashion industry used to have a similar problem of exclusion. Thankfully, over the past few years, Muslim women have begun to claim their place at the table. UNIQLO recently featured a line from designer Hana Tajima, which injects flare and personality into modest garments by playing with textures and patterns, and last January, Dolce & Gabbana released a beautiful and well-received hijab and Abaya collection. Seeing modest options, hijabs and Abayas included in mainstream fashion is significant, but these lines aren’t just taking a stance against Islamophobia, they’re also making a ton of money. The Middle East and Africa have a $25.4 billion beauty market—the fastest growing in the world. If it’s so profitable to market to Muslim women, what’s holding the beauty industry back?

Partly, there’s a celebrated bias towards whiteness in Middle Eastern beauty markets, and the world over. In Asian markets, products that claim to whiten, brighten and blanch skin are everywhere. Pond’s sells a line of products named, “White Beauty.” Chanel makes the “tone correcting” whitening cream Blanc de Chanel. I was acutely aware of this bias as I walked through Cevahir, a shopping mall outside my parents’ Istanbul apartment. Department store advertisements feature women with blue eyes, blonde hair and pale skin selling you their version of beauty, while women with darker features tout brightening serums and creams. My heart sank when I noticed crowds of young girls sampling those products, hoping something in that little vial would bring them closer to the Western norm. Western beauty editors are starting to talk about the politics of skin whitening, so it’s on the radar, but there still isn’t much progress from the real change makers in the industry—the brands.

The exclusion of Middle Eastern women from the beauty industry is largely political. For many brands, making products that feature and include women from these regions isn’t just unsexy, it’s scary. Western audiences aren’t used to seeing Muslim women as anything but blurred, oppressed faces on CNN. In fact, people are always surprised to hear that I’m Muslim or that my family is from the Middle East, because I wear sleeveless dresses and love chatting about BB cream. It’s shocking to see a Muslim woman wrapped up in modest garb, but somehow also shocking to see one who looks and dresses just like you do.

In the Western media, the Middle East is regularly portrayed as a terrorist haven or fundamentalist desert. The prevailing assumption is that if you wear a hijab or other religious garb, you clearly want to assimilate and disappear, and you definitely don’t care about beauty. But there’s a long, rich history of make up, bathing and dress up in Middle Eastern culture, which the Western world has happily and slyly adopted as their own. It’s apparent in the perfumes and kohl eyeliners they sell, and in the beautiful, ritualistic practice women here partake in when they primp.

I’d like to see brands create products that are inclusive of my peers. They shouldn’t be forced to buy from expensive, exclusive lines. There’s a massive, lucrative opportunity to make a marginalized group feel much less othered, and while I, along with many other girls with darker features, am thrilled that the bushy brow trend is so big right now, can’t we make products for different skintones equally trendy? Whether we wear religious clothing or chose not to, and no matter where our skintone falls on the color spectrum, we are all “regular” women, and it’s time that the beauty industry started treating us that way. We want to buy your products, but we also want to walk up to the counter at Bloomingdale’s and find items that work for us, modeled in campaigns featuring women who look like we do.