Abu Dhabi Ideals: The Beauty Standards of the UAE

By Lizzie Sexton

The similarities and differences in beauty standards in the United Arab Emirates and the United States.

What defines beauty? Is it the symmetry of one’s face? Is it the amount of plastic surgery a body can withstand? Or is it in the eye of the beholder? Beauty standards can vary widely depending on the individual, their background, and the country they grew up in or currently live. 

For Spring Break 2023, while many SMU students jetted off to Cabo, the Bahamas, or headed back home to cuddle their dog, I took a trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This was the trip of a lifetime, though, I couldn’t help but notice the differences in standards of beauty between the United States and the UAE. Here’s how the beauty standards of Abu Dhabi and Dubai compare and contrast the United States of America. 

When visiting the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, women are required to cover their hair.

Beauty is a societal construct. Not only does it vary from person to person, it varies depending on the community. The United Arab Emirates is largely Islamic, so women sport Islamic veils that range from light coverings to completely covered. Some of these veils are a Hijab, a scarf that covers the hair, a Niqab, a veil that covers the face and only shows the eyes, a Burka, a full face and body covering, or an Abaya, a cloak that covers a woman from her neck to her toes.

During my time in Abu Dhabi, I visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in the country and a major tourist attraction, where I wore an Abaya and headscarf of my own. Because it is a place of worship, visitors must adhere to a dress code, which requires men to wear long sleeves and pants, and women to cover their hair, wrists, and ankles. While the crown of my head was covered by my scarf, some of my hair was loose at the front to frame my full face of makeup so I still felt, to my own Americanized beauty standards, beautiful. 

As Americans, we tend to hold beauty and physical appearance to an unattainable standard, pushing workout culture, diet culture, and plastic surgery to an overwhelming degree. This is even noticeable in other countries. While walking through a souk, an Arab marketplace in Dubai, shopkeepers and street vendors attempted to persuade me into their shops by calling me “Shakira” after the blonde international pop star. Though this was a flattering experience, it demonstrated the locals’ attempts to appeal to my Westernized standard of beauty. Shakira is widely viewed across nations as a gorgeous blonde and, as an outwardly-appearing Westernized, blonde female, they compared me to her. In my personal experience, in the UAE, the pressure to look a certain way comes in a drastically different form. 

In Abu Dhabi, diet culture isn’t plastered on every billboard and there certainly isn’t a SoulCycle seated on every corner. Though some women do choose to wear makeup, it appears to have a more artistic influence as a form of self-expression. The women in the UAE choose to express themselves through mediums like makeup, rather than their clothing or hair styling, both a similarity and slight difference when compared to the United States, where women tend to treat every visible aspect about themselves, from dying their hair to painting their nails. 

The beauty standards in the US and the UAE vary according to different cultures, societies, religions and areas of the world. While women in both countries personalize their appearance in different forms, self-expression is clearly a similarity between all people.

Lizzie Sexton

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