Armeghan Taheri and Umber Ghauri on how to decolonize beauty standards, empower one another and build a self loving community in an image-focused world.
My best friend decided to celebrate her 13th birthday in a swimming pool. I can’t come, I said. I have a lot of hair on my legs. I am embarrassed; I don’t want to be laughed at. The truth was that I was scared that my best friend would not love me anymore because my body was ugly. The correlation was clear: hairy is ugly.
Hairy is not feminine. Hairy is not sexy. Hairy is not pretty. Pretty is loveable. Sexy is loveable. Pretty was not me. I did not get to be just loved by virtue of just being me. What are you talking about, I don’t care! She hugged me and laughed loudly. She made me feel loved. We had one of the best days of our lives. Til’ the boys came. I sat with the towel wrapped around my body holding my knees close to stomach hiding with my arms the hair on my legs, but that just revealed the hair on my arms. There was really no hiding my ugly.
With 25 I got my first tattoo on my arm. In cursive letters it says “femmes”. I got to the laser removal clinic on a hectic day. The praxis was full of people and the cosmetologist stressed. When it was my turn, the person administrating the laser slipped with the laser. The smell of burnt skin filled the room.
The cosmetologist panicked. It’s fine, its fine, I reassured her. And I meant it. It will scar but I really didn’t mind. I would do anything to be hairless – at any cost. Even if part of my body was burnt. The tattoo healed and now it says femme not femmes – with a somewhat strange looking burnt “s” at the end.
Umber Ghauri is an artist. They are a make-up artist. But their work reflects the true role and mind of an artist – their work encompasses a social and political reality. Specifically, they work with LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities and people of color. Thereby they aim to make underrepresented identities more visible, change the narrative about who can be loved, who looks like they can be loved, what does the aesthetics of love look like, and what is the process of learning how to love oneself better?
What fascinated me with Umber, is the fact that their work boils down to love: love for ourselves and one another, for bodies which are claimed to be not lovable. They taught me that putting make-up on someone is an intimate act, an act of care, an act of community building and healing by helping someone feel like they feel on the inside, recognizing themselves for who and what they are – beautiful.
Talking to Umber made me realize that all the people I love, all the people who love me and all those people who I look up to, all the people that I love and who I want to be loved by, all of them have hair on their body. These brilliant, beautiful, loving and caring people have hair on their arms, on their stomachs, their upper lip. And for the first time, I felt as if it is ok to look like me and decided to discontinue my hair laser removal sessions.
Armeghan Taheri: Why is beauty political for you and what does that mean to you and your work?
Umber Ghauri: We live in a world that is so image-focused and I am very image-focused as well – I have always been obsessed with the arts and media. So, it started there for me. I started feeling really ugly. In the world we live in, feeling ugly is feeling unacceptable. It feels as if you are not meant to exist in the world if you are ugly.
So, for me it was about: do I just hate myself for the rest of my life or do I do something about it? And the answer came to me quite naturally, as I discovered feminism and started reading more and really appreciating people around me. I started thinking “well, if I love these people and they are not seen as beautiful, then maybe I can love myself, too”.
I started helping others to feel beautiful and more in line with how they feel on the inside. It was a magic light bulb moment for me, doing that for other people. I thought, “I can do this for other people as my job, I can do this to fulfil something inside of me that feels like making this change; where queer and trans people of color and womxn who are hairy and embody all these things that are not conforming to beauty or whiteness are actually celebrated and not just covered up.
How do you connect make-up with mental health?
It is definitely connected to mental health. Since I was really really young, about 10 years old, putting make-up on myself was one of the few times I would look at myself for a long time in the mirror.
I connected with my image and also felt free enough to change my image. I think in terms of mental health, things like make-up ,but it can be other things too, things where you are actually connected to your own body and you are only focused on your face and your body – it builds a relationship with yourself where you are able to fall in love with yourself. Just like the way you would look at someone else and fall in love with the physical aspect of them – the way they move, the shapes of their face and body. I feel like people should do that for themselves, too.
We all have that experience. When you are younger and you accidentally look into the mirror or you see a picture someone took of you where you weren’t aware of, you feel this deep ugliness and “oh my god that is what I look like? That is awful. I hate this.” And you want to be not be visible. But I am trying to do the opposite of that. I am trying to make people feel the opposite and look at themselves and say “wow. Actually I LOVE the way I look. WOW.”
I have the sense that you are able to build a community with what you do. How did you start a community within those realities?
It happened quite naturally because I was exploring feminism and queerness and just learning about so many things – accessibility, justice, and classism. I was at university, which I think is a time where people expand their world. So that was a time when I was making friends and being part of a community where people made me feel like I was nourishing my soul. I was doing right by my ancestors and right by the people who are like me and who look like me. So I was making friends with people platonically and non-platonically.
I fell in love with people and this whole process meant that I spent more time looking at their beauty – queer and trans-people and other people of colors’s beauty, beyond watching something on TV where everything isn’t that real looking. So, I had that experience of building these strong relationships and some of the people really needed the space to explore their beauty with make-up, and because I had experience doing that, I was able to facilitate that for them.
I think putting make-up on another person – the act of just sitting at their bedroom, touching their face, all of that is so intimate that it builds community; I’d say it builds friendship and relationships and through that it builds community. So, I wasn’t actively looking for a community but it happened when I started having these intimate experiences with all the peoples faces and bodies, that really fed this part of me that has been starving for so long.
That is really beautiful. And talking to you makes me realize that make-up is love.
Love is so political. Who looks like they are lovable and who is treated as if they are loved? So many marginalized people are treated not only as if they are not loved, but as if they are hated. And to switch that and make them feel loved and to encourage people to love them and connect with them does actually change the world. It changes the way people view people who are not like them and therefore they are able to feel empathy and love them.
What does it mean to really care for yourself? What is the depth of it?
I think the theme, really, is love. Bodies that experience violence have a lack of love so when you are able to do things like take a bath, scrub your whole body, put on face masks and do your make-up, do you hair, it is that touch and that self-care that is really going beyond trying to look good. It is really about connecting with your own body and undoing and healing experiences in which your body suffered.
Me for myself, every time I take care of myself and my body - doing things such as scrubbing it, moisturizing, using nice lotions - it is usually when I know I am going to have sex. So I hardly do it for myself, but to make my body lovable for someone else or accepted for love.
Yes, only the last couple of years have I started scrubbing my whole body , painting my toe-nails, but I am not going to have sex or going on a date. I just do it because I want to and that only has been a recent thing, for me even. It is a whole process of “I am just going to enjoy these. When you scrub your body, do your hair, put a face mask on, its that touch – that is healing the trauma that your body has suffered.
You speak a lot about “decolonizing beauty”. What does that mean to you in concrete terms?
I think because a lot of our ancestors and the land where we come from was colonized, that historical experience goes deep. It runs through the body, it applies to beauty standards. So decolonizing, for me, is about trying to heal from colonization in a way to not appeal to our colonizers but in a way to appeal to us without looking for validation from the colonizer, but actually doing it purely because you are beautiful and you are loveable – that is decolonizing in terms of my role in this world.
I think there are multiple ways to do that – prison abolition, actual concrete changes to law, and the way that people’s lives and the structures of society work. That is all part of a decolonizing project. In what I do, it’s the time we spend to strengthen ourselves. Because if you don’t have the time to strengthen and take care of yourself, how will you strengthen yourself and your community?
What would you tell young teenagers whose surroundings makes them feel ugly and unaccepted by virtue of their “otherness”?
To be realistic, it is not going to be an easy time. One lie that we are told a lot as teenagers, is that it is the best time of your life and to enjoy it. But actually they were the worst period of my life and a lot of people I know share this experience. Just don’t think that is it the best time and it is getting harder. Being an adult and the responsibilities that come with that are a million times worth the freedom that you get. So, when you are in adult, you don’t have to spend time with people that you don’t want to spend time with.
You get all the choices. So, school is really hard and you just have to know that it is going to get better and also that the parts of your life that you have control over, for example who you follow on instagram, what you’re reading, what music you are listening to, the way you look at yourself in the mirror, the way you talk to yourself, all those things are under your control. So whatever you have control over, completely take charge over those things. It helps to balance things out a little bit and to keep you going. Just survive it as well as you can.
The interview was conducted by Armeghan Taheri.