This is a story of my journey realising the true definition of beauty, for myself.
I have a big dark dirty secret and after years I am mustering the courage to share it. Over a decade ago.... I was a beauty queen.
Now most of you are probably thinking something along the lines of either “what’s so bad about that?” or “that’s something to be proud of right?” Or on the other hand, “lol, gross”.
And I felt the latter. I was so ashamed of my participation and subsequent crowning as a pageant winner that I always dodged the topic when it came up.
A beauty pageant, quite obviously, is about beauty. Outer beauty to be specific. The premise is simple - Contestants are ranked against each other purely through the lens of what society considers to be "beautiful."
How could 17 year old me know that something as innocent as a local pageant would kick my confidence to the curb and leave me with scars of insecurity that would take years to overcome?
The Back Story (Feel free to skip ahead)
But, first I need to share the back story of how I got myself involved in this mess to begin with. Well, my family lived in New Zealand, with the exception of my dad who continued to live in India, earning in our family business so he could support us in NZ; sending money to his wife and kids so we could have a shot at a better life. My mom missed him terribly, and his visits to us were very infrequent - probably once every 3 years.
My dad, the hard working businessman who has spent 16 hour days in his rubber factory for the past 40 years was once upon a lifetime ago, a Supermodel. Mr. frickin INDIA to be exact. He had a flourishing career as India’s top model for a few years before his parents made him join the family business, and well that was that.
(Left: Dad as a model back back in 1978 | Right: Mom & Dad in Sydney 2019 - Model then & a Model now!)
He often talked off his modelling days so fondly, and he always wished one of his kids would follow in those footsteps in the limelight. So at 17, when I learnt of this “pageant” I thought not much of it but an excuse to force dad to come over, and finally reunite him with us, but mostly for mum who missed him so terribly.
What I did not expect, is somehow my awkward and honest presence on stage would make me the winner.
(Top: Winning Miss India NZ in 2009)
Despite the wonderful feeling of sharing your talent (I’m a closet singer) and the fun I had on stage performing, there was a deep sense of uneasiness towards the whole thing that I couldn’t pin point.
Fast forward to representing New Zealand at the world competition, this pit in my stomach feeling got stronger.
A group of absolutely gorgeous girls inside and out gathered in Durban, South Africa. Getting to know these smart, wonderful and amazing personalities has been something I cherish till date, but we had all gathered there for one purpose. To be crowned the winner of a competition where winning was purely underpinned by just one thing; outward aesthetics. The kindness, generosity and intelligence was not given as much weight as compared to your face, body, and sadly, skin tone.
I was the youngest contestant by a mile there, and I think I was very confused internally. Reflecting back, I now realise I couldn’t understand how my worth was purely judged through my external self, when the best of me to offer is who I am.
I was UPSET that we were paraded around like eye candy, forced to smile, and rated against one another. I couldn’t understand why the other girls were ok with it, and if they weren’t, we’re they also being forced to keep their uncomfort mute like me?
(Top: Some of the girls from over 24 countries competing in Durban, South Africa)
Prior to going to Durban I was “trained” by a former miss world winner, who so bluntly told me I had none of the makings to be a pageant queen. She wanted to change the way I walked, talked, and everything in between; and my feeble attempts at resisting this fell short.
The entire experience forced a traumatic change to my sense of self & body image. I tried, and failed to hang on to my self esteem. It withered with every move that was scrutinised and every piece of pressure “to beat the competition”; and I have spent years unpacking and tending to my damaged self with a lot of self empowerment and TLC.
(Top: My first photoshoot I remember being super uncomfortable + a whole lot of of photoshopping in the end photos. Note: Nobody has blurred skin like that in real life. I especially didn't at the time!)
There is a really important reason I’m sharing this story. It’s not ironic that I now operate in this beauty world, infact this entire experience has lead to me coming full circle.
I grew to loathed that beauty pageant experience because I felt I became defined by a beauty standard I did not truly wish to subscribe to. I wanted to scream that true beauty is internal!! It is your actions, your words, your thoughts. Not this. Never this.
I like all of you, listened, and heard the various advertising campaigns from beauty companies that targeted this external beauty standard and convinced you you needed to be upheld by it. Clear skin. Thin body. In my case of a dusky complexion, fair skin.
It didn't only make me anxious, but it also made me angry. Because I had been subjected to this bitter messaging so intimately and brutally that when companies casually preyed on the self-esteem of young woman it brought up that insecure Jumana at the pageant within me, and I knew with such force that she is who I do not wish to be. Worse, I was hurting knowing it was doing the same to hundreds, if not thousands of girls just like me.
So whilst Herbs & Heart came to life through my initial skin struggles (read our about us section), there is this silent motivating factor that I’d like to say a big screw you to the face of a beauty industry that tells woman they aren’t good enough the way they are. We have to stop pitting women against each other by creating narratives in media that measure a woman's worth through the way she looks.
Herbs & Heart is my chance to tell all the younglings they are absolute perfection just the way they are. You are bloody gorgeous. Perfect. Every wrinkle, bump, pimple, and freckle. All absolutely stunning. You do not NEED any skincare or make up to FIX anything, they are nice to have, but you are just as awesome without anything too.
Where I am today
In all fairness, I think the pageant world has changed dramatically over the past 10 years to be all inclusive and appreciating of the contestants as a whole person.
I’m grateful for what my personal experience taught me about beauty, and whilst it so easily could have gone the other way, I’m sure now more than I ever was, that everyone is truly beautiful in their own unique special way, and that your inner beauty is what truly radiates and lights up the world.
I hope I can show my customers this is my true intention for them, not to point out flaws that our product will “fix” but a skincare range is an extension of you and your magnificence.
September 2019. My truest & happiest self. No make-up. No Filter. Messy Hair. Surrounded by Nature.
Jumana, first and foremost I want to say how proud I am of you for finally building up the courage to address this issue and give your perspective. No doubt there will always be backlash for such topics but I want you to remember that regardless of what anyone says, it may have been something you wanted to participate in at the time, you may have been young and you have known that beauty pageants can be cut throat but no one has any right to judge you, your beauty or change the woman that you are to the point where it has hit you this hard. I’m not beauty pageant winner and I’m no pageant professional either but what I do have a strong background in is believing in my own kind, believing in individuality, standing up for a point of difference and sometimes trying to understand perspectives even if I may not agree.
I watched you walk that stage, I’ve watched your journey thus far but what I am most proud to see is your natural beauty remains, the biggest smile you had on your wedding day wasn’t changed because of all of this and till date you still shine. Your story shall bring strength, understanding and love to those around us and to you.
I hope you feel a weight lifted off your shoulders.
After reading this, I don’t feel alone anymore especially with flaunting with what you already have…these ‘imperfections’ labelled by beauty standards, which ironically turns out to be perfectly beautiful! Meeting you at MBS Sydney 2020, you are so beautiful and didn’t know you’ve also struggled with self esteem and inner beauty. I’ve had imperfect skin for a long time and it has been a hard long journey to be comfortable with it. The ‘cynical’ comments, avoidance of eye contact, minimising companies….I do get the message very subtlely (think I’m dumb) so I’ve been and always struggling with self love, when I know that’s my ticket to never ending joy and living fully. I constantly seek validation, result of low self confidence as I’ve convinced myself dangerously that I’ll never be good enough for anyone. Especially with this skin and scars. But I know deep within me, I have the most wonderful smile and I always see good in others and cherish them with all my heart, including my enemies. I love your products and hope this is another step forward to completely fall in love with myself!
Love this story Jumana!