Main Point: Anecdote of Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World, a book by Katherine Zoepf, a journalist and author
Writer: Katherine Zoepf
As someone who is constantly resolving to spend less time thinking about clothes and cosmetics, I remember looking forward to my first reporting trip to Saudi Arabia, in 2007, in the way a compulsive Instagram user might anticipate a weekend stay in a place with spotty cellular coverage: as a period of enforced, but not unwelcome, abstinence. I was, at that point in my life—in my late 20s, and working as a reporter in Syria and Lebanon—increasingly pained by my interests in fashion and beauty, which seemed very much at odds with the serious journalism I aspired to.
Arab society is highly gendered, and though female Arab culture, which can sometimes take the cultivation of beauty and femininity to extremes, had not yet occurred to me as a subject in its own right, I felt its influence every time I set foot outside. Many women covered themselves, of course. But those who didn’t always looked, well, amazing. Arriving in Beirut after a few weeks away, I’d find myself suppressing the kind of acute anxiety about my appearance that I hadn’t experienced since middle school. I had to do something about my hair and nails, and right away, if possible. I was 26 when a concerned Lebanese friend advised a prophylactic Botox regimen; fair-skinned women like me aged so badly otherwise, she explained. I considered the idea with more seriousness than I’d like to admit. I had to get a grip.
If ever a secular, American, female reporter were disposed to embrace the abaya—the floor-length cloak that women in Saudi Arabia are obliged to wear in public at all times—it was this self-conscious beauty junkie. It was the fall, and I was heading to Riyadh for one of my first big magazine assignments. The thousands of pages I’d read about Saudi history and culture all seemed to confirm a picture of the kingdom as a sort of frivolity-free zone. And I couldn’t wait. I would buy a black abaya during my layover in Abu Dhabi, I decided, and that would be that.
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