Modeling as an Art: Exploring Beauty, Feminism and Identity with Egyptian Model Mariam Abdallah

Modeling as an Art: Exploring Beauty, Feminism and Identity with Egyptian Model Mariam Abdallah

Egyptian model Mariam Abdallah (@cactellah)

“I am beautiful because I am black,” is a statement once said by supermodel Iman Abdulmajid. These few words carry a lot of power for three reasons: it reveals a woman taking pride in her own identity, her freedom to express it, and most importantly, her ownership of her image and beauty and not being afraid – or ashamed – to show it.

‘Beauty’ in this case is a personal self-expression; it is part of the realization of who we are. Just as we try to understand and build ourselves through values, thoughts, and ideas, our relationship with our physicality is a reflection of these same values. In other words, what we see as ‘beautiful’ can be a mirror of the society we are in, whether it is inclusive, diverse, and treats all faces and bodies as equal.

Yet modeling still carries a lot of negative connotations for most people, particularly in Egypt where it is associated with derogatory terms for women. Thinking about beauty and fashion through the prism of women’s empowerment is also excluded from feminist circles. “Fashion has a negative impact on women,” is what is often said.

But the real question we need to be asking is: why are we so uncomfortable, or afraid, with the idea of a woman expressing her beauty? Why are we always trying to suppress this part of her identity, or treat it as something that is futile, unnecessary and worthless?

As the first modeling agency of its kind in Egypt, UNN Model Management explores the answers to these questions through giving these young women the chance to express their identity in many different ways. Iman El Deeb, the main founder, started it with the goal to push to the world different types of beauty, and tap on the potential of the modeling industry in Egypt. It is not simply just ‘expression’ as what I first thought it to be, but also an art; a profession where, just like actresses and artists, young women are creating dreams, emotions and stories through the art of photography and film.

Egyptian model Mariam Abdallah (@cactellah)

Egyptian model Mariam Abdallah, who is now a model with UNN Model Management, started off with no clear idea of what a ‘model’ is, due to the many misconceptions that surrounded it. Yet there was also something that caught her attention to it: her desire to feel unique. “I always like to feel different. I never wanted to be a model, but I knew that I liked to feel unique and have a sense of style,” she tells Egyptian Streets.

Yet her journey to actually secure a place in the modeling world was not encouraged or supported by her family, a challenge that UNN model agency also frequently faces in their goal to flourish the industry. “My parents never understood the concept behind it, and did not support me,” she says, “my mother sometimes looks at my photos and watches me on television, and she would get very happy and actually show it to her friends, but then she wouldn’t understand that this is actually what I enjoy doing – that this is a job.”

So, what is this ‘job’? Most people’s understanding of the profession is often limited to narrowed and patriarchal definitions of ‘modeling’, which objectifies women’s bodies and physical appearances. Like all the other professions where women can face exploitation and objectification, such as cinema, modeling can also face the same challenges. Yet this does not erase from the fact that it can also provide women with their own power to take ownership of their own story and image, and that it is an art where the power to express, create and narrate are paramount.

Supermodel Pat Cleveland, for instance, was known for her ways in transforming the ordinary runway into ‘performance art’, where she did theatrical poses, lyrical hand gestures and several expressions with her face and body, in which was described by a fan as ‘painting in the air’.

“I create a persona that helps me pose and pull different emotions and reactions,” Mariam explains, “modeling is sort of also related to acting, like when actors try to get into a certain role and express certain emotions, this is how it is with modeling too. I have to act and convey a certain image and story, and do different facial reactions for the shoot. It is translating what the client wants into facial expressions and body postures.”

It is not about the glitz, the glamour, and the show, as what is often believed. “Sometimes I would have a shoot in like 5 hours, and I would have to try to get into the character to get the right emotional and facial reaction, and also the physical reaction in the shoot. So it’s a lot more complicated than what people think,” Mariam says, “It’s not that I am just standing in front of the camera, and someone is putting on me make-up to look good and that is it. It is an entire where you have to take care of yourself all the time because you can have a shoot any minute. You have to keep proving that you’re professional and that you do what you have to do as a model.”

Like art, it is a profession that allows us to appreciate beauty in all its forms. Beauty in itself is akin to the highest form of expression and emotion, and just as it can be expressed through a song, a dance, and a painting, it can also be expressed through photography. A model, in short, is an embodiment of a dream. It is an idea or an emotion that gets translated into a powerful image, which in turn translates beauty to the audience.

“Before, my understanding of beauty was quite limited. I grew up with the idea that having straight hair and colored ideas is the most beautiful. But this actually all changed when I joined modeling. I began to appreciate beauty in everything. I no longer characterize people as either beautiful or not, but recognize what is unique in every person, and I think this is also what modeling is essentially about,” she says.

The question remains as to how far, in times of social media and Instagram, will women feel fully confident in taking ownership of their image and beauty. Their realization of who they are as workers, mothers and citizens is also in line with how they feel and interact with their physical appearance. It is to transform ‘she is beautiful’ to ‘I am beautiful’, objectification to self-awareness, and suppression to full expression.

“We’re giving birth to the idea of modeling in Egypt,” Mariam says, “our whole lives we’ve only known models that existed in the past, but we are reintroducing this concept today.”

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Mirna Abdulaal is a writer, researcher and aspiring public/political communication specialist interested in women's rights, cultural heritage and fashion, and political communication.

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