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  • Nia Alexander Campbell

Beauty & Blackness in Qatar

What You’ll Find in This Post:

  • My makeup experience before & after arriving in Doha

  • The unavailability of makeup for dark skin in Qatar

  • My thoughts on how blackness & beauty tie into Qatar’s social and socioeconomic viewpoints

  • The availability of skin lightening products in Qatar

  • How black people in Qatar styled themselves (and how I was encouraged to style myself)


My first time wearing a face full of makeup

As is the case in many Arab countries, Qatar had a very prominent beauty & makeup scene. Of course, not everyone was done up all the time—and, of course, everyone had their individual beauty preferences—but generally speaking, I noticed that when girls did got their makeup done, their faces were beat. Lips, eyes, eyebrows, blush, primer, contour, highlight—Qatar didn’t have much of a “keep it simple”, “lipstick & eyeliner” kind of beauty culture. In fact, the malls offered all kinds of products and plenty of posh brands, but I noticed that many of the products weren’t made with every type of consumer in mind, specifically consumers of color.

So, today we’re going to talk about just a few observations I made when it came to blackness and the beauty in Qatar. Some observations were as a consumer, while others came from being a black woman in a new social climate, but it was all stuff I felt like talking about. I haven’t got any answers for you in this post—in fact, I actually ask a lot of questions—but I’m hoping that some of what I have to share will be helpful, even if it does nothing but get your thoughts churning.

Alright, now let’s get started!

My makeup experience before & after arriving in Doha

My face after one of the makeovers I was given. I didn’t look bad, but it definitely wasn’t what I was used to.

I was a “wash my face, put on eyeliner if I remember” kind of girl. Sometimes I wore eyeshadow (usually for art shows or that one time I went to a club), but I think the fact none of the colors in my 48-color palette had yet to run out in seven years speaks to how concerned I was with makeup. I did wear BB cream once for senior prom, and I wore some loud glittery green & gold eyeshadow when I was on high school Homecoming Court—oh—and I remember playing with my grandmother’s blush as a child, but that’s about it. Everything I just mentioned in these last three sentences was the entirety of my makeup experience.

One I arrived in Doha, though, some of my friends introduced me to their experience with makeup which was unsurprisingly hella involved. Wash your face with special soap, moisturize with special lotion, add primer, add foundation—but don’t smear it on, beat it in with an egg sponge—then there’s blush, highlight, contour, concealer, eyeliner, eyeshadow, mascara, eyebrows, lips, and . . . is that it? I think that’s it.

Then I learned you couldn’t just apply your makeup any kind of way. You had to make sure to get the inside corners of your lips, take care not to overdo your eyebrows, be sure not to add too much highlight or too much contour, carefully prevent your eyeliner from getting too thick, use different brushes to apply eyeshadow to different parts of your eye, make sure everything was blended correctly—a bunch of little things to remember in addition to all of the new things I was being introduced to. Compare it to 30-minute Kindergarten art class (me with makeup) versus a professional fine arts program (them with makeup).

My friends did my makeup.

In introducing me to all this makeup, my friends naturally had to give me a makeover. It turned out pretty—I resembled a black Barbie doll and my friend’s mom jokingly said that I’d get a marriage proposal—but it wasn’t me, I didn’t recognize myself. Not recognizing myself made me feel uncomfortable, and the little actions like leaving lipstick marks on my glass or transferring foundation to anything that touched my face kept catching me off guard; I felt hyperaware of the fact I didn’t look or feel like myself.

However, these early experiences with having a fully made up face did open the door for me to figure out what did make me feel comfortable. I was later able to find a nice balance, to figure out what products I was comfortable wearing and when I was comfortable wearing them, but this only happened after I came back to the U.S. I had wanted to start experimenting with my own makeup while I was still in Qatar, but I quickly found that the country didn’t offer me many tools to experiment with. Sure, there were a lot of cosmetic products, but not many for black and brown people.

Makeup for dark skin

My third time wearing a face full of makeup . . . lord, I hated that shade of lipstick.

Some thoughts about why makeup should cater to all complexions

Let me just list a few things that are on my mind, some statements I’ve had to reference when people bring me arguments about why it’s okay for a country or retailer to simply not offer makeup for darker-skinned people:

  • By “darker-skinned” people, I mean anyone who doesn’t have fair skin.

  • Being dark skinned is not synonymous with identifying as black. People who identify as black are typically people who identify as being of African descent. One can be dark skinned and not be of African descent just as one can be of African descent without being dark skinned.

  • People who identify as “brown” can be from various non-white racial & ethnic backgrounds.

  • “People of color” refers to people not of European descent. There are plenty of fair-skinned people not of European decent, which means one can be a fair-skinned person of color (e.g. most East Asians have fair skin).

  • Remember that “minority” refers to statistical figures and isn’t always synonymous with race, ethnicity, or—in the case of makeup—complexion. For example, the Qatari nationality (most of whom are fair-skinned) is a minority in Qatar.

There are a few more definitions, statistics, and analyses that could be tossed in that list, but you see how complicated it already is? Race, ethnicity, identity, and discrimination is a difficult topic to discuss if only because there’s an uncanny amount of nuance, buttload of history to reference, and each country & culture has their own relationship with it. So, for now, I’m going to leave that list as it is.

But do you see what I’m getting at? I’ve heard arguments like “Qatar’s black population is so small, it makes sense why there shouldn’t be makeup options for people of color,” but hopefully some of the stuff on that list I just blasted will help clear up the problems in that statement. Alternatively, there’s the simple counterargument of makeup being made for people with faces and everyone has a face, thus cosmetic products should at least attempt to make some colors for the variety of skin tones found in the world (and the retailers should sell said products).

My ultimate point is that there’s no excuse for a country, retailer, or makeup company to not carry products for people of darker complexions.

Cheap & expensive makeup brands

Qatar offered a lot of high-end makeup brands, so many that I had a hard time figuring out where someone could buy the affordable brands. In the U.S., we can run into any Walgreens, CVS, Target, or Walmart to find a whole section devoted to affordable, quality, name-brand makeup (many of which had finally begun selling a variety of shades for darker skin around 2017/2018). Something I noticed immediately, however, was that the more expensive the makeup was, the less options there were for people with darker skin.

I remember walking into some stores and the darkest shade of brown I saw was the color of an Eggo waffle. I also remember entering these stores and having the shopkeepers look at me, then look away, offering to assist someone else. Sure, this could imply a certain level of discrimination, but I also think that to an extent they knew that they sincerely couldn’t help me because there was nothing in the store for someone my complexion.

At this point I couldn’t help but wonder about the relationship these stores & brands had with black and brown people from a socioeconomic standpoint; I began to wonder if they simply assumed darker skinned people didn’t have the money to afford their product, or that the [dark-skinned] laborers wouldn’t be interested in their products because their profession didn’t warrant an attractive appearance. Granted, most of the laborers in Qatar were male (and men wearing makeup is not socially accepted in Qatar), but there was still a social association between seeing a black or brown person—be they male or female—and assuming that they’re at the bottom of the economic totem pole.

I will say, though, that Fenty (by Rihanna) was available at the Sephora stores in Qatar. Fenty has a ton of shades, plenty of options for black and brown people, but the foundation alone was $35. That wasn’t as expensive as the some of the other high-quality brands I saw in Qatar, but also not the $6 Maybelline I was accustomed to, and thus, hella out of my budget.

This also feels like a good time to bring up the fact Qatar still sells a variety of skin lightening creams

Nivea “Natural Fairness” face & body cream [top]

The first time I ever heard of skin lightening was in the Dear America book Color Me Dark. I read it when I was about ten years old and it not only solidified the bits of historical racism I had been taught thus far, it also introduced me to the concept of colorism within the black community. The book (which takes place in 1919) also couldn’t help but reassure me that these types of racist issues were a piece of history, crumby aspects of life that didn’t happen anymore, the type of blatant racism that had been long since over by the time I read the book in the 00’s. Afterall, my everyday surroundings corroborated this; the same way black people were no longer denied entry into white-owned businesses fell hand in hand with no longer seeing things like skin lighteners on store shelves or commercials.

But then I went to Qatar and skin lightening cosmetics were one of the first things I saw.

These were sold in the mini Al Meera in the Student Center at Education City. I took this photo during the tour all us exchange students got our first week in the country.

I had never thought about the existence of things like skin lightening products in other countries, countries with a different history than the U.S. and thus a different relationship with black & brown people. Granted, skin lightening products are still used for normal, non-racially charged cosmetic purposes (like lightening dark spots or scars). And sure, the U.S. still sold skin lightening products in 2018, however, most (if not all) U.S. products were marketed completely differently. They came in neutrally designed jars and tubes, vessels that didn’t advertise turning your skin—your natural skin, not a blemish—from darker to lighter, and they use more “polite” language (like “fading” instead of “lightening” or “bleaching”). The image of seeing a “before and after” image of a face transitioning from darker to fairer blatantly suggests that the skin of the darker person was what needed correcting (as opposed to a dark spot or scar). In fact, let me quote the instructions from a bottle of Philippines-manufactured SkinWhite PowerWhitening Whitening Lotion that I saw in the grocery store one evening:

... SkinWhite® PowerWhitening® Line that uses an exclusive Advanced Tripower Technology®. Wow, fancy schmancy! But what it does is it safely combats the three stages of melanin production and helps achieve your whitest white skin with continuous use.

Here's how it works:

1. Helps suppress excessive melanin production

2. Prevents the resurfacing of dark pigmentation

3. Screens the harmful UV rays from entering your skin

Cheers to your brightest - ever!

Here's how you should use it:

Use twice daily all over your hands and body. If needed, re-apply. But for best results, use with SkinWhite® PowerWhitening Glutathione + Vitamin C Soap.

Not to be used for children under 3 years of age.

Boy oh boy! The things I could rant about right now. The lighthearted tone of the packaging. The use of words and phrases like how it "combats" and "suppresses" "excessive" melanin production, or the concept of dark pigmentation "resurfacing" (like a stubborn pimple), or the overall goal of achieving "whitest white skin". Or how about the fact it's apparently okay to use on 4-year-olds, what does that say about physical health and social standards?

Ah, but don't worry, I'm not going to go on a tirade. I'm just going to continue relaying my observations to you, like how I thought it was really odd to see so many options for skin whitening products in the mini mart on campus. They had more options for skin whitening creams than they had laundry detergent and toilet paper, and they were placed right at the entrance, arguably the first thing anyone sees when entering the mini mart. Though the Student Center was open to the public, it primarily catered to students, and as racially diverse as the students in EC were, it seemed like an odd place to sell something like skin lighteners.

My first thought was that there was an underlying social statement being made about race on campus, but then I stopped for a moment and tried to think about it from a marketing standpoint. How would selling skin lightening products on a college campus make a company money? I asked myself. Well, in the U.S. skin lightening products were targeted toward older women, women who have been living life for a while and have the scars, dark spots, and blemishes to prove it. Attempting to sell bunch of 20-something year-olds skin lightening goo just wouldn’t be profitable (especially in comparison to things like soaps, cleansers, and pore strips).

I learned that in Asia, however, there really was a market for skin lightening cosmetics amongst young women, women in my age bracket. It was more popular in South, East, & Southeast Asia than the Middle East, but then I began to think about the huge Asian population in Qatar (the largest expatriate population in the country). This is when the whole thought process rumbling around in my head got a lot deeper.

  • These skin whitening products were (possibly) being offered so as to cater to a large demographic that would be accustomed to having this product in their passport country, but then that initiates a conversation about the practice of skin whitening in other parts of Asia. Based on just a surface level amount of research, skin whitening in Asia is popular because of beauty standards: Simply put, fair skin is more attractive than dark skin.

  • Even if Qatar sold these products specifically to cater to the large Asian population, most of them worked as laborers (as opposed to being students), which still begs the question as to why sell it on a college campus?

  • Does the fact Qatar sold these products mean Qatar supported the idea of fair skin being prettier than dark skin? Are they doing this based on what their possible target consumers believe, or are they doing this based on their own social beliefs?

  • The “sin tax” came out in 2019, adding taxes to products deemed harmful for human health and the environment. Things like tobacco, soda, energy drinks, pork, and alcohol saw a price increase. Well, some bleaching creams are known to be hazardous to one’s health, but this product isn’t subject to an extra tax. None of those are cosmetic products, but I do wonder what deems this skin whitening products less harmful than a cigarette? Afterall all, they both run the risk of causing cancer.

  • Was this just one small component of the larger beauty industry in Qatar? Do products like this get lumped in with lipstick and charcoal masks because they’re all “harmless” beauty products? Do few people give it a second thought when they see it on store shelves?

  • Is this just about Qatar making money (in the way all countries do) or are there some rooted discriminatory social beliefs when it comes to the acquiring, marketing, and selling of these products? Is this a clear statement about Qatar’s comfort with colorism & discrimination?

A lot of thoughts I had, my friends, a lot of thoughts indeed. However, I’m not going to try to answer all those questions now, nor am I going to dive into the historical relationship between making naturally dark skin lighter in order to achieve social acceptance. I’m not going to talk about role Europeans have played in the worldview of “light skin = good, dark skin = bad”, and I’m not going to talk about the relationship between fair skin and wealth, or status, or beauty, or intelligence (or learning potential, or respect, or opportunity). I’m just going to say that every culture has their own special relationship with racism and colorism, and the variety of skin whitening products I saw in Qatar was just one example of the racial vibes one country was dishing out in 2018.

After all, we can talk more about this stuff in the post about being black & American in Qatar.

Hey, and here’s a link I stumbled upon that actually covers some history when it comes to the stigmatization of dark skin around the world in regard to skin bleaching.

What are black people encouraged to look like in Qatar?

Another occasion where my friends did my makeup, but this time they also dressed me. The only thing that’s mine in this photo is that backwards cubic zirconium necklace.

Were black people in Qatar encouraged to look like the dominant race?

The U.S. has a history of black people being encouraged to “whiten up” their appearance in order to better fit into society by doing things like hair straightening, skin bleaching, and adopting the dominant culture’s habits (like modes of speech and dress). The expectation for African-Americans to change themselves in this way is slowly dying out in the U.S., but I couldn’t help but wonder whether this atmosphere existed in Qatar between blacks and Arabs.

Well, it did sometimes seem that way, that blacks in Qatar were encouraged to minimize their blackness. We’ve already talked about the prevalence of skin whitening cream, and you can read about how common hair straightening was compared to the natural hair in my post Juices & Berries. Plus, the stories I heard from other blacks who had grown up in the country—many of whom referenced being bullied for their blackness and as a result changed their appearance—also gave me the impression that looking “too black” in Qatar was no bueno.

However, sometimes it was hard to tell what actions were done in the name of discrimination-based assimilation and what actions were done as harmless embracing of the local culture. For example, spending time and money on beauty (like hair, nails, and makeup) was huge in Qatar—a part of their modern cultural identity one could say—and a lot of black women partook in these things also. That didn’t necessarily mean their actions were inspired by racial tension; in fact, if anything we could get into a conversation about economics more than blackness (after all, many people in Qatar are hella wealthy and wealth has a particular “look” that perhaps people want to emulate). It could also mean that maybe the black women who grew up in Qatar simply grew up surrounded by all these things, so it’s a part of their culture too in the way a lot of immigrants raised in the U.S. can say about American culture. Or hell, maybe some of these women just have an affinity for that kind of thing, sometimes the subject just isn’t that deep.

Even the women who weren’t wearing much makeup seemed to always have their nails done. After witnessing for the first time how acrylic nails were removed and applied, I knew then that I would never ever get them. Something funny, though: One student claimed that men were scared of the long nails women had. I didn’t quite understand, and so she walked up to two male students she knew, reached out her fingers, and they genuinely recoiled. They kept a good distance away from her for the rest of our conversation.

What was I encouraged to look like?

Looking back at my camera roll, I noticed that in every first photo of me wearing makeup (or someone else’s clothes) I looked rather unenthused.

I’ve been talking this whole time about observations I made, but what about what I experienced?

Well, I got a lot of compliments on my (natural) hair, but I encountered more critiques than anticipated when it came to everything else (and by “critiques” I really mean comments from people to change things about my appearance without explanation as to why these things should be changed). I should wear subtler earrings, I should trade my glasses for contacts, I should get acrylic nails, I should wear less headwraps, and my shoes always received that restrained “Oh . . .” of discontent, the kind of reaction one has when they hate something but don’t want to say it in but so many words so they can instead sell you on their idea.

And whenever I didn’t wear makeup or when I did my own (extremely minimal) makeup it was never good enough for others. Sometimes people said the way I dressed or did makeup reminded them of a 12-year-old, and the surprise they expressed when I looked “so grown up” at formal events was a bit over the top. I knew I had a young face, but I was 21, a world traveler graduating from a Bachelor’s program—I was a true mini adult—but somehow my appearance just made all that second tier. Sometimes it felt like I wasn’t taken seriously or respected because I wasn’t meeting a particular beauty standard.

The thing is, I wasn’t getting these comments from men or Qataris or authority figures or even dissatisfied old ladies, instead I received all of them from young black women. The fact we had just those three things in common—being female, black, and in the same generation—automatically meant that we shared similar life experiences, experiences that informed the way we understood and spoke with each other. These people couldn’t help but be a part of my community, which is why it felt really odd—and at times hurtful—to have my appearance judged so harshly by them. Me being me, though, I couldn’t help but wonder why, because unthoughtful criticism of the people in your own marginalized community just didn’t make sense to me.

I wondered:

  • Was it because I was black? Did they want me to look a certain way because I should flaunt the beauty found in blackness? Did they want me to be able to function in a discriminatory society (similar to the way blacks in the U.S. have historically had to tailor their appearances in order to succeed in society)? Did they want me to take pride in my appearance, but based only on their definition of what black pride looked like?

  • Was it because I was a woman? Did they want me to emphasize my femininity? A reassertion of the fact women can be both feminine and deserving of the treatment men receive (both professionally and socially)? To take pride in the fact I was a woman and to display that pride through my appearance? Or were their expectations of what a woman should look like based on the standards set by men?

  • Was it because I came from a different ‘hood? Did they want me to fit in better in Doha? Did they want to shake the thrift store dust off me? Did they want me to style myself in the way blacks in Doha did, to mix in better with the folks in their community?

  • Was it because I was new in town? Did they want me to look more like them in the name of friendship and sisterhood? Did they want to introduce me to new things?

  • Was it because I was single? Did they want me to attract a man? There was plenty of talk about that, after all.

  • Was it because they thought I was unhappy with my appearance? Were they unhappy with my appearance? Did they want to fix all the things “wrong” with my appearance? Did my appearance bother them? Did they think I wasn’t living up to my true beauty potential? Did they want to make me feel prettier?

Each of those questions is a discussion topic on its own, but we won’t go too deep into any of them right now. I just wanted you guys to know what was on my mind, as always.

Overall, though?

The beauty experience I had in Qatar was an odd combination of familiar and new, and at times felt contradictory. I was in a country that encouraged beauty culture but seemed to discourage my natural beauty as a darker-skinned black woman. To realize that some makeup stores didn’t even give me and my melanin the option of looking as beautiful as the women they advertised was stigmatizing (and the abundance of skin-whitening cream added insult to injury). It was also odd to never get a compliment from other black girls my age unless I was wearing someone else's makeup or clothes.

I won’t front, you guys: The four months I spent in Doha was the first time in my life I felt self-conscious about my appearance. I had been bullied before over my blackness, and I knew what it was like to not have certain brands or products cater to people of my complexion, but Qatar was different. This was the first time I ever truly felt pressured by both the people in my community and my surroundings to change how I presented myself. And as nice as it was to see my face fully made up, I felt disconnected from myself.

With all these experiences, all these feelings, I couldn’t help but think about the larger relationship between blackness and beauty in Qatar. I’m not placing all the blame on the country, the beauty companies, or the retailers when it comes to the underlying discrimination I felt with things like makeup and beauty expectations, but I do think that each of those components contributed to the problem.

If nothing else, though, I hope that some of what I talked about today was useful! I hope it gave you some food for thought, that you’ll know what sorts of beauty products to pack in your carry-on, and that you have a better understanding of what the beauty vibe in Qatar was like for a melanin-rich black woman.


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