I’ve always had the ugly duckling story. I never quite thought I was pretty or beautiful. But I was raised to value myself, my intellect, being a caring person came first. Having a lot of friends always made me feel beautiful enough. I was popular, but that didn’t make me feel pretty. Growing up, I was chubby and had curly hair. I didn’t fit in the European beauty standard that was and still is so pervasive. I so badly wanted to be the skinny, blonde girl with no butt that fit in those shorts from Hollister. My family here, though I come from a mixed family, my mother being white and my father Egyptian, my cousins used to call me bubble butt. I couldn’t come to terms with my curves because of many different factors. I experienced people calling me fat in school, doing and saying things to shame me. I used to never feel comfortable wearing shorts or bikinis.
What’s so exciting now with social media, is that there’s such a visibility and celebration of unique body types. And we’re all collectively rejecting the notion of having to abide by this European beauty standard.
As I grew older, I was no longer so hell-bent on straightening my hair or squeezing into jeans they don’t make in my size. I started to blossom in college into knowing that I am beautiful and I am worthy. I don’t have to try to be something that I’m not and more importantly that I’ll never be.
It’s interesting especially for me, being a mixed race person and trying to navigate the world. Growing up I didn’t identify as black. I knew I wasn’t really sure what identity I was allowed to claim. Identity is something I struggle with to this day. In the doctor’s office, they once checked off Latina for me, and it wasn’t the only time people prescribed me an identity. I used to lie, tell people I was Latina to fit in. Ethnic ambiguity, it’s idealistic. The goal is to identify ourselves as we please, a fight that parallels the LGBTQ/ Gender fluid community.
I don’t come from the history of oppression that African Americans come from. With my roots in North Africa, I’m part of the diaspora but not that particular bondage. Black and African American are terms conflated by our society and to me they’re different.
I’ve come to defining myself on my own terms. It has to do with having a right to claim certain things about yourself. My blackness is different, I’m not African American. When I was applying to college, my dad said to check off African American and I never felt comfortable doing that. I have privilege but I definitely do identify with a lot of parts of blackness. Identifying as Afro-Arab, it allows space for the conflicting of different identities, instead of fitting into the identities prescribed. It makes room for the complexities of identities that I feel.
I used to be Jenna Mahmoud. I grew up in the catholic faith. My father is not a practicing Muslim, but it was his cultural faith. I grew up appreciating and respecting both faiths and identities. All the people who are afraid of Muslims don’t know any, they don’t know how beautiful it is. My dad experienced racism, after 9/11. So, we had a family name change because he was afraid we would be discriminated against. We took my mothers Italian last name. I feel very connected to that collective experience of prejudice.
One thing I’ll say about my mom, she was very much the person to say, “Sweety that’s not you, not who you are,” when we complained about our features or wanting to fit in to a size zero. “As you get older, you’ll see how amazing you are on your own.” That was helpful and wonderful, but it was still hard to grasp that concept and feel good. Growing up can be brutal. Beauty wasn’t a major subject, being older now, with natural hair “maybe you should straighten your hair,” gets said every once in a while. There’s no malice, they’re open minded and accepting. I never felt rejected. I never had that. Art is a huge thing so I feel like I was exposed to a lot from an early age, that beauty is an internal thing. I obsessed over my looks but I also knew that I was valuable and it didn’t have to do with my physical self.
I hate this plastic trend. It’s awful. I want to clarify by saying that I think everyone has a right to do with their body what they ant to do, and I don’t have the right to pass judgment. This trend, however is harmful. These harmful unattainable ideas of beauty hinder what we’re capable of. Our beauty is defined by more then our physical looks. We have this cup of rotting apricot pudding as president that speaks about women only in the context of their looks. He’s such a creep. How do we talk to our children? The American idea of what it means to be beautiful is fed to us from every facet of media as very plastic and very fake. They’re advertising a fake product, we’ll never be able to attain. We drive ourselves crazy. I can’t stand the Kardashian’s. They are shallow. Is there anything you have to offer the world, other than being a figment of attaining this harmful beauty standards?
I consider myself a feminist. I don’t want to tear apart women finding agency and value in these things because that is not helping my fellow sisters, but I also don’t want my daughters to find their value in the ability to make men find them sexually appealing, fuck that. If you’re feeling damaged by these harmful standards, in the very place you find those standards you can find support. We have the platforms to celebrate ourselves. We can share our own photos! You don’t want put curvy people in your movie? Say, fine. We’ll make our own movie. There’s body positivity everywhere for people who are harmed by those images. It’s a lifeline for all of us.
Every woman has a right to define beauty for themselves, they don’t have to adhere to my idea.
What I love about myself is that I’m very empathetic. I’m deeply sensitive and connected to people and the world. Sometimes that can be hard, because I can be upset by a lot of things going on in our world right now. But, I think that it is what makes me beautiful, my ability to care and empathize, to see myself in others. Being an actress, an artist, and a Pisces (oldest sign in the zodiac; creative empathetic and sensitive, deep feelers, emotionally connected to the world) is a killer for having a bigger heart.
I remember I read a quote Dalai lama, that referenced the way western society, we don’t develop our heart enough. Obsessed with making money and heady rational decisions, we don’t care enough to develop our heart and empathize with other people, to feel what other people feel.
I’m an empath, and it makes me uniquely beautiful.
Everyday I have a different reason to feel beautiful. I feel most beautiful when I’m making people laugh. It feels good. When I’m around people I care for, because I have such a great loyalty and love for my friends and family, to make them laugh, to tell stories, makes me feel beautiful. I feel most beautiful in nature. As a very natural person, I don’t tend to wear much makeup, which doesn’t mean I don’t want to sometimes. I love lipstick and expressing myself through makeup, but in general, I like to view beauty as something that emanates form the inside. Everything works together.
I feel most beautiful when I’m gardening, when I’m in the sunlight, the sun makes me very happy. Nature, and the world is so beautiful and incredible and that’s my spirituality, that’s where I see god, in growth and natural beauty. Being a gardener, planting my own food, and a city dweller, I’ve observed that you don’t often get to see life forming, seeds turning into fruit. I never knew how beautiful food is. Eggplants make these pretty purple flowers. Zucchini makes these delicate orange flowers. There is so much beauty in blooming, and a thing that blooms often serves as my muse from which to draw inspiration.
I feel beautiful when I’m expressing myself, feeling free and uninhibited, be it in gardening or in some lingerie. I’ll speak for myself, but I’m sure people relate to the thought of, “I don’t want to wear this, people are going to stare and think…” Letting that go and feeling good, enjoying those fleeting moments of confidence are pertinent to me. Feeling like you can just wear what you want, not giving weight or power to other peoples ideas of who you should be, but its definitely tough.
Now, there is more visibility for people who look like me, which is incredible. Natural hair has since become trendy, which is problematic in some ways, but cool for me because it’s normalized. There are so many more products! Before, there were no Youtube videos for me to watch. It’s such a different time, I’m only 28, but I can see the difference in society and what it used to be. I was trying to straighten my hair, white hair stylist used to say my hair was so beautiful. It was an activity to boing my hair. I just wrote an episode for my webseries “New Heights,” (The second season premiering soon) discussing kind of the way curly hair is fetishized by white people. The new season is about a mixed race person in the acting industry and finding a place for people of color. A white commercial agent called my hair dirty, it was hurtful but I made it into an episode, the whole thing became about my hair. Two white women, one white bald man, and an Indian man, and he was like, “Is that your god given hair?” He went on to say, “Your hair is on the cusp of a cut,” and commented on my having to keep my hair clean. I was so offended. The fact that I even have to consider that I hope my hair doesn’t offend people.
I have been trying to view self-care as holistically, consisting of exercising and eating healthy. You feel better and perform better. We have a million things going on, I have to be able to write scripts, memorize something for an audition, go to class, etc. It’s the Olympics, and you’re an athlete. You need to take care of yourself, drink more water, your skin, organs, and body feel better when they’re hydrated. It’s a process. My beauty regimen is making sure the insides are right. I’m a natural hair product junkie. I’m staying away from parabens, consciousness of what’s in the product. For my skin, I use Bloomsbury Sq. serums and Juara products. I like to use their eye creams toners, and nice face creams. When I think of self-care I ask myself, ‘What does my body need?”
The media, our friends, our families, our social circles, our jobs, school, and day to day take a toll on our health. Our health affects our beauty. If we’re doing unhealthy things, were not going to feel our best. When someone feels their best, they can be more beautiful whatever that means for them.
I don’t believe the content of a person’s character is defined by their look or appearance, but I do believe that your smile can be indication of who you are, like an essence you carry, or warmth you exude. Also, if you’re a shithead and a terrible person, that comes through too. Our body language and the way we carry ourselves says a lot about the life of a person.
Generosity of spirit. If you don’t have that you’re not the most beautiful person you can be. If I see someone who is selfish or is always thinking about themselves and talking bout themselves, it’s a show of character to me. I hate self-absorbed people and I love dynamic charismatic people who are interesting and can engage in a way that’s bigger than just themselves. We have to think beyond ourselves, grow beyond what others expect.
Women are historically and systemically viewed as object here at the behest of men and to serve men and though it’s changing, until recently there wasn’t much of an opportunity for women to be more than that. And we still have so much further to go to equity for all women, not just white women. One of my major critiques of feminism is that we need to be intersectional about our feminism or we ain’t shit.
For one, women are competitive and taught to compare one to another. We’re taught that from an early age, but it’s so much healthier and beneficial to one another to lift each other up to want the best for each other and fight for one another’s rights even when we view things differently we’re not free, until all of us are free. We need to do better, we need to be more. I love women, there are so many admirable women. Women are the most amazing strong people. I think we’re way cooler than men. Haha! That’s a generalization, I know, but we’re so dope. We’re so much more than we’re allowed to be. What I see for the future are multidimensional powerhouses of women. There’s no one way to be a woman. So, we need to find, I think collectively in the struggle forward toward equity, we need to listen to the people with less of a voice and a platform. I check myself, if I see a woman wearing something revealing, “Why is this an affront to you, why do you care.” We have baggage. We’ve been taught something that we’ve internalized.. I’ve figured out that my womanhood has been a process of unlearning the damaging stuff that which isn’t serving you spiritually and emotionally. We don’t question it, thought we should and we have to do the work. We all need to check ourselves and then we can be there for each other.
Give a compliment, not grounded in superficiality. Say something about their spirit, about the thought they had, an idea. Demand that the media, Hollywood, etc. invest in women of color; allow them to share their stories because representation matters. Not just love stories. Look at other stories of women being more than just that. That’s what I’m excited for, I hope to do that in my career. What representation do we need or does society need to see. It’s an exciting time that people are talking about things. America is going through a rebirth, and it’s burning. When it burns the Phoenix follows. I’m waiting for the Phoenix; rather I want to be the Phoenix.