Redefining Beauty Through the Hijab

A look into the experience of a young hijabi and how her hijab alters her concept of beauty.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Ashley La

Growing up, I had always watched my mom dress in long flowy abayas and drape herself in a matching hijab. I loved the way my mother looked in it: like a princess whose face was illuminated by a bright light. For a long time, my mother was one of the few women I knew who wore a hijab, but in my eyes, she was also the most beautiful. I wanted to wear the hijab to be more like her, similar to how young girls want to wear makeup and jewelry to imitate their mothers. 

Initially, my mother didn’t let me wear the hijab in elementary school because she believed that it would be a big transition and that once I started wearing it, I couldn’t take it off (officially). Thus, she wanted me to wait. It wasn’t until I got my first menstrual period, near the end of fourth grade, that my mother fully integrated Islamic duties such as prayer and fasting into my life. 

When I entered middle school, I finally started to wear the hijab permanently, and I felt more confident than ever. I thought I looked radiant, just like my mother. But as I reached puberty, as many girls do, I hated everything about my appearance, even wanting to vomit when I looked in the mirror. All of my friends were “glowing up,” whereas I was growing chubbier and my acne was worsening.

It didn’t help that anyone who looked like me on TV was either stereotyped as the “depressed South Asian nerd” or a “Muslim terrorist,” or that I only saw photos of white girls on Instagram. Representation was always limited, but it felt even more piercing as I became more and more engrossed with the concept of my identity. Some girls even began to scoff at me when I walked by, making comments like, “Do you see what she’s wearing? It looks like a curtain,” or “You know it’s okay to show some skin, right?” I began to feel that dressing modestly and wearing a hijab only furthered my perceived “ugliness,” and removing my hijab and dressing like my friends would suddenly make me as pretty as them. I wanted to look less South Asian and less Muslim, all because I was desperate to be beautiful. 

And so, one night, I confessed to my mother, “Ammu, I feel so ugly.” 

“Hmm, why? Did someone say anything?” she replied.

“No, I just, I’m tired of wearing this. What’s the point? It only makes me look less pretty.”

“Are you saying I’m ugly? I wear it too, you know.”

“Ma, I’m serious!” 

“Ok, ok, sorry. Then let me ask you this: what makes someone pretty? What makes something beautiful? Define beauty.” 

I didn’t have an answer. I never thought that certain things made someone pretty—they just were. There wasn’t a strict beauty standard, like a rubric, outlining the concrete set of traits people needed to possess; everyone had the potential to be beautiful. 

I knew this, but I didn’t believe it. While I struggled to find my definition of beauty, society did not. In South Asia, to be “beautiful” is to have light skin, thin lips, a straight nose, and a slim waist. In the U.S., however, “beauty” means tan skin, large breasts and bottoms, and an hourglass figure. It’s ironic how these standards are so strict, yet they come into conflict across the globe. For instance, since the U.S. isn’t a predominantly Muslim country, many Americans view the hijab as something “abnormal” or “unusual,” or are unable to fully appreciate how it is “beautiful.”  

The essence of the hijab, however, lies in a different type of beauty, one that is different from the way society typically defines beauty. In Arabic, “hijab” means “to cover”—not just the hair, but the whole body. A true hijab should conceal the entire body: the waistline, arms, legs, and even ankles should not be seen. In addition, some women wear the niqab, an optional extension of the hijab that covers the face, so that only their eyes are visible. Some may consider this “too much,” but I have always interpreted the purpose of the hijab as this: when someone “hides” their appearance, they are detracting attention from superficial things like the shape of their breasts or how skinny they are. Therefore, their appearance doesn’t matter, and instead, beauty is based on their conduct and compassion. 

I still think people look gorgeous in hijabs, just like I did as a child. However, one doesn’t have to be “physically perfect,” a term that doesn’t have a true definition, to be considered attractive, nor do they have to match a society’s standards. Rather, they simply have to be themselves to be truly beautiful. 

While I’m more comfortable with myself, as I outgrew puberty and find myself in an environment where people are much more understanding, I still struggle with the concept of beauty or feeling beautiful. Wearing the hijab, however, has helped me view both my beauty in a new light and remove emphasis from my physical appearance. I learned that my kindness and my compassion are instead more important, and I feel more content with who I am.