... conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm

"Muslim Girl"

the Politics of Beauty

Iman. The name is as singular as is she who wears it. This feisty Somolian icon of high fashion is recognized around the world for her beautiful face and a neck that rivals Nefertiti.  For fourteen heady years, Iman's image was everywhere as she kicked down fashion's doors as well as many of its racial barriers.

It's probably not surprising that she started Iman Cosmetics in 1994. But her motivation is. She says she wanted to create a political dialogue, to broaden the idea of the politics of beauty. She's known a lot of beautiful people who are ugly, she says, and she wants women -- especially young women and women of color -- to recognize that there is beauty in all of us. And, please, stop trying to look like someone else.

More than simply challenging today's commercial notions of beauty, Iman wants us all -- especially women -- to recognize and bring to heel the debilitating politics of beauty. Find the beauty that is within you, she implores, what she calls your God-given features, whatever they are. Self love, self-acceptance and self-esteem come first. Then take care of your skin and have some fun doing it.

Iman carries her celebration of women of color beyond her company and its products with her striking book, The Beauty of Color.  Why? Because she could not find one that encompasses all people rather than separating us. Every picture she uses names the girl and her place of origin. When taken together, she says, the whole work is an exercise in creating a manifesto for her two daughters' from her first marriage to basketball player Spencer Haywood, and her second to musician David Bowie.  Her daughters are, she says, as diverse as everybody in the book.

It's time for grown ups to act like adults, Iman insists. Stop obsessing over what you don't like about the body you have. Start paying attention to things that really matter. Get educated. Find out what's going on in the world. Teach your children empathy for the poor instead of feeding them the latest fashion frenzy. If you really want to break the fashion addiction among youngsters, consider school uniforms.

And stop blaming the fashion industry for what you don't like about the false values and over-sexed outfits confusing little and not-so-little girls and boys. Consumers hold the power in the world of fashion, she says, not the advertisers or magazine editors. Use that power. If you think there's too much paparazzi or this or that, don't feed into it, she says. Don't buy. She's convinced that the fashion industry does not change, the zeitgeist does -- that zeitgeist composed of all of us who are consumers -- and so goes the culture.

Iman attributes her own integrity and strong sense of self-worth to being a Muslim woman. It's also, she says, why she emphasizes the importance of privacy and the sacredness of the family. Islam also emphasizes these things, she says, as well as encouraging women to be educated and considering women as important as men.

Iman has learned one final lesson sorely needed in today's world. Too much is too much.

[This Program was recorded October 24, 2005, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]





    ... fashion supermodel, CEO of IMAN Cosmetics, Fragrances & Skincare. Author of The Beauty of Color and I am Iman, Iman's meteoric rise to the top echelon of the fashion world began in 1975 when she left university in Nairobi for New York City.  There she began her remarkable 14 year modeling career. In 1994, she launched her business, the IMAN brand now sold around the world. Actively involved in Children's Defense Fund, For All Kids Foundation and Action Against Hunger, she has received numerous awards for her humanitarian work.  Somalian by birth, Iman is the mother of two and married to musician David Bowie. Sadly, David Bowie (Jones) died in January, 2016.


Conversation 1


Iman remembers being entirely unaware of the high fashion scene in 1975 when she arrived in America from Somalia. She tells stories of Diana Vreeland, Nefertiti, Somalia's ancient history and Iman's own urge to encompass all people with her brand and book.


Conversation 2


People's similarities outweigh our differences, Iman insists, especially when it comes to skin color. (Her daughter, Iman says, says father David Bowie is not white, he's pink.) Iman tells of being a political science major before becoming a model, of creating Iman Cosmetics to spark a political dialogue around the politics of beauty, and of the hard truths of the 1970s fashion industry which inspired her book. Young women especially need to understand there is no standard of beauty, Iman says, eager for them to celebrate self-acceptance instead of succumbing to mindless conformity.  She quotes Salma Hayek, then insists real beauty comes by feeling comfortable in your own skin.



Conversation 3


Iman articulates her beliefs about the politics of beauty, starting with the advertisers and magazines who use their magic to weave unattainable dreams and desires into their messages. Our daughters learn from us, she points out, concerned when mothers obsess over their bodies. Teach your daughters empathy for the world's poor instead, Iman suggests, describing how she taught her own daughter. Consumers, not advertisers and magazine editors, are powerful, Iman says, urging women especially to use that power. She describes her own contribution to the fashion industry which, she says, does not change -- the zeitgeist does. She speaks out as a Muslim woman.


Conversation 4


Girls in the West learn to wear makeup too young, Iman worries. She counsels parents on the appropriate use of makeup, offers a number of reasons why school uniforms enhance education, and objects to today's families and schools losing control of kids. She links free societies to raising children well, connects discipline to the politics of beauty and to the fickle nature of fashion. Describing what it takes to become a supermodel, Iman describes how boring modeling is. She elaborates, urging people to reach out to the genuinely important things in life.



Conversation 5


She was eager to celebrate what young black girls really look like, Iman says, referring back to the purpose of her book -- to enhance self-esteem. She explains the skills required to be her own stylist for the book. Couture has nothing to do with real life, she reminds us, and describes what cosmetics she recommends for real people on a daily basis. It's important to have sunscreen in your makeup, whatever your skin color, she insists -- cancer is cancer -- then summarizes the four basic ways to do makeup. Professional models wear no makeup when they are not working, Iman reveals. She describes her public role and that of husband David Bowie, at the intersection of fashion and music.


Conversation 6


Men are more peacock than women, Iman believes, offering colorful examples of men's sense of beauty. After comparing the challenges of male and female models, she concludes that skin is skin -- everything that applies to women's skin care applies to men's.



Related Links:

The Beauty of Color is published by G.P.Putnam’s Sons. I am Iman was published in 2001 by Booth-Clibborn editions and Universe Publishing.

You can learn more about the business part of Iman’s life at the website for her cosmetic company.

Among its many virtues, Francine du Plessix Gray's memoir Them provides a fascinating inside look at both New York's fashion and publishing industries.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


Iman's vibrant personality is as radiant as her physical beauty, the power of her passionate political savvy as strong a magnet as her famous face. We were charmed by her, enlightened by her book, and renewed in the sense that individuals can change the world, wherever that world may take them.

We applaud Iman's generosity in reaching out to needful people around the world and close to home. She is active with "Children's Defense Fund," "For All Kids Foundation" and "Action Against Hunger" and invites us all to join her.

And a special note of thanks – Iman's refreshing lack of pretense emboldened Paula to request that Iman "model" a fine old hat Paula holds dear. Not surprisingly, they were beautiful together.



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