Reclamation founder Simra Mariam: “Beauty is reclaiming yourself”
By Simra Mariam, Guest Contributor
It’s funny how memory works. Our brains somehow retain information we’d otherwise consider minor or insignificant, but I can distinctly recall the sharp smell of mehndi filling my senses as I watched my childhood home fade slowly away, a sturdy concrete building surrounded by greenery and protected by two heavy wrought-iron gates. The waving hands of my grandparents and cousins grew further and further away, until they were nothing but tiny dots in the distance, as though an artist had left forgotten smudges on a busy canvas.
I was 7 when my parents moved from my hometown of Bangalore, India to the United States. The only knowledge I had of American culture stemmed from Western movies, magazines, advertisements, and of course, Kal Ho Naa Ho. The idealized image of the Statue of Liberty, neatly aligned row homes and friendly neighbors, golden retrievers on leashes, and the piercing American accent excited and terrified me then — I can trace my later fears of not fitting in to this moment between 2 worlds, when everything seemed at once exhilarating and horrifying.
One thing I did not take into account was how my identity would come to define me. Bangalore is known for its social and economic diversity, in those days an example of harmony between religious groups. 9/11 created some animosity towards Muslims, even overseas, but I had been privileged to live in a place where I was not subjected to that hostility.
America would change everything.
This quote by Rumi wholly encompasses the immigrant and first-generation experience:
“Maybe you are searching among branches for what only appears in the roots.”
My initial encounter with stereotyping was at the beginning of first grade, when I was placed in ESL along with several other non-white children, some of whom looked just as perplexed as I did when the teacher began sounding out the alphabets. I remember having to explain that I was already fluent in English, having been to an international school in India, a country that still retained much of its British-colonial influence. The ‘model minority’ trope then followed me everywhere, often making me feel ‘too brown’ for the majority and ‘too white’ for the minority.
When you’re placed in a situation where you’re forced to quickly adapt, especially at a young and impressionable age, an identity crisis is bound to occur. My accent, heavily influenced by Urdu and what’s referred to as the ‘Indian-British accent,’ was consequently replaced with something tailored to the American tongue. In the process, I lost my old accent almost immediately, and it became increasingly difficult to speak my mother tongue, a language that had once come to me effortlessly. I began shedding my old skin, whether it was the food I ate in front of my white counterparts, the clothes I wore, the music I listened to, the celebrities I adored. I patted down and styled my curly Indian hair so it took up less space, felt self-conscious when hairdressers would run their fingers through the knots and exclaim that my hair was “so thick,” the intonation in their voices rising as they did so.
photo credit: Raiyaan Shakir
I remember catching my reflection in the mirror once and barely recognizing the girl that stared back — the ends of her hair were uneven and frizzy, the result of indiscriminating heat and far too many chemicals, her eyes swollen up as though she wanted to desperately find her way back to herself again. I did not correct people when they mislabeled me as an Arab or Latina, nor when they’d crack jokes about Osama Bin Laden and “those Mooz-lums.” I felt embarrassed being seen in public in the presence of a hijabi, ashamed when our classes would discuss 9/11 and all heads would turn my way, as if I had some insightful contribution that would reaffirm their belief that Islam was a violent religion. In the process of internalizing all this guilt and shame, I was quickly losing sight of who I was.
But that’s the thing about roots, no matter how deep we bury them, they’re always there, evergreen and enduring.
I found solace in books — whether it was fiction, history, or politics — words fascinated me. In a matter of seconds, they could completely change my outlook and perception of the world. It was through my own research that I began to truly uncover the impact of 9/11 on Muslim communities around the world, as well as the persisting social and political issues that existed in India — the gap between poverty and luxury, colorism and the idolization of fair skin, tensions with neighboring Pakistan and Kashmir, and the day-to-day subjection of religious persecution that Indian Muslims faced in less tolerant parts of the country.
Understanding anti-Blackness, colonialism, and systemic racism paved the path to comprehending privilege, power, and the spaces I needed to claim, fight for, and help create for others. I turned to writing as a way of expressing myself — an art and talent I later learned was embedded in my genes — and slowly but surely, analyses of others’ works shifted to incorporate personal narratives that allowed me to explore my identity on a cellular level. This is what motivated me to pursue Communications and Gender/Women’s Studies at Ursinus College, the small liberal-arts atmosphere being the perfect environment to connect with others on a personal level and have intellectual discussions about the power of representation and advocacy.
It was during those early years of undergrad that I began to embrace my culture and religion with such astounding passion that it startled even me at first.
All the years lost of neglecting, condemning, and repressing my identity only made me want to fight harder to reclaim it.
I wore my curls with pride. I began to look beyond the stereotypical attributes of my race and ethnicity. I was able to educate friends, even professors, about my country, my hometown of Bangalore, the rich history of Muslim kings and queens who ruled there, the devastation that followed the partition of India and Pakistan, the families scattered across borders and the diaspora, the impact of British colonization and the loss of culture.
I was surprised at how easily I was able to articulate these things, as if the words had always been bubbling under the surface, yearning to break free and in some therapeutic way, lift the veil of shame that hid who I was and step into her — fully, completely, unapologetically.
photo credit: Raiyaan Shakir
I became a public advocate against the brand Fair and Lovely because my darker-skinned cousins and friends were beautiful and deserved to be treated as such. I started to watch more Bollywood films, not only for entertainment purposes, but to relearn the languages that felt so familiar on my tongue. I strengthened — and continue to strengthen — my relationship with my faith, so that the next time an Islamophobic comment is hurled my way, I’m prepared to combat it with my knowledge and dignity intact.
Creating Reclamation Magazine, a name that is first and foremost so personal to me because of the message it conveys — reconciliation with the self — felt like an idea that had existed in my mind for as long as I’d been on this journey towards self-acceptance.
I wanted to provide a platform for others to express themselves and learn from one another, because I know and can attest to how sacred storytelling is.
There’s a reason why ancient humans crafted symbols on the jagged walls of caves, why scriptures and personal accounts throughout turbulent times in history have been preserved — it is through words that life finds its meaning, and meaning gives life its purpose.
Beauty is Reclaiming Yourself
When my nani would dip her fingers into a bowl containing a thick reddish-brown mixture and apply this to the roots and strands of her hair, I would watch, utterly fascinated. She’d wrap her hair tightly around her head, secure it with a few pins, and pull on a plastic shower cap for good measure.
I grew up watching this beauty routine and the way my nani’s hair would turn a beautiful shade of auburn after every wash. I still have fond memories of sitting on a stool with her fingers in my own hair, humming a tune as she applied the mehndi over my stubborn curls. The same pattern repeated when we applied coconut oil, or honey, or a mix of egg and yogurt — remedies that were so simple and accessible, yet did wonders to preserve the health and length of our hair. Additionally, Haldi (turmeric), rose water, aloe vera, and cucumber had always been staples in our pantry, both in India and here in the States.
I’ve always been a fan of natural therapy when it comes to my beauty regimen, and this derives from cultural practices passed down through generations.
Hair thinning, acne, and weight loss/gain are a part of growing up as our hormones fluctuate, and I struggled with all three in the later half of my teenage years. There’s a lot of self-hate and resentment that builds up when you’re exposed to body types that only look a certain way, a height and weight that’s idealized, and skin and hair texture that’s more often than not severely modified for magazine covers and Instagram posts. No matter how much you exercise, eat healthy, and apply an array of face masks (these are great for self-care but not the only solution), learning to love the body and skin you’re in is a process, and a choice you make every day.
I am still learning to manage my ever-changing skin, and not surprisingly, gravitating towards home remedies in order to do so. Aside from aloe vera and rose water, a favorite product of mine for the last couple of years has been the Aztec Indian Healing Clay, made of natural calcium bentonite clay, perfect for cleansing your pores and treating acne scars. Mix this with water or organic apple cider vinegar (it smells awful, but works wonders, I promise), add half a teaspoon of raw honey, and apply at least once a week to see long-term results. For casual self-care nights in, I swear by Formula 10.0.6’s face masks — they’re lightweight, easy to apply, and the packaging is travel-friendly.
photo credit: Simra Mariam
To strengthen hair, I highly recommend the Viva Naturals Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil, available at most grocery stores and supermarkets. Recently, I’ve started mixing a portion of organic castor oil, which can have a thicker consistency, resulting in added benefits for your scalp and roots.
photo credit: Simra Mariam
For makeup, I’ve been advised by my dermatologist to use oil-free products that will not clog my pores, especially given the fact that I have combination-skin, where certain areas (also known as the ‘T-zone’) are more prone to breakouts than others. I absolutely love Young Living's Savvy Minerals line for foundations and bases (their essential oils are terrific as well), because of their philosophy of “banning mainstream questionable ingredients… and taking a deeper look at what you should really be putting on your skin to nourish it.”
My love for the glowy, all-round natural look is again pertinent in the eyeshadow palettes I use, namely Too Faced’s Sweet Peach palette and Natural Eyes Neutral Eyeshadow palette. If you’re looking for a sultry, smoky look in the fall, Anastasia Beverly Hills’ Modern Renaissance palette is great.
photo credit: Simra Mariam
photo credit: Simra Mariam
Natural beauty was always subtly emphasized in my family — when I’d flip through old photo albums and come across pictures of newly married aunts, or vintage photos of my dadi in her sari, they looked simple and absolutely radiant. It’s easy to internalize what society feeds us regarding beauty, but these images stayed in my mind like a steadfast presence, a comforting reminder that those things were meant to enhance us, not cover up what we were outwardly and intrinsically gifted with.
I truly owe my sense of style and beauty regimen to the women who raised me and the women I love. In addition to their impeccable taste, they’ve also maintained a sense of empowerment in the philosophy they’ve preserved and passed down:
Beauty is simply enhancing what you already have, and in essence, reclaiming who you are.
About — Simra Mariam is an Indian-American Muslim writer and artist who is currently based outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her work primarily focuses on human rights, intersectional feminism, mental health, and decolonization. She is the founder of Reclamation Magazine, a digital platform dedicated to elevating the voices of marginalized communities in the mainstream media. Outside of her advocacy work, writing, and building Reclamation, Simra can be found with a cup of coffee at a local bookstore, worlds away with her nose buried in a novel.