What Self-Care Looks Like in a Refugee Camp

Originally published by Celine Semaan for The Cut


I was raised to believe that self-care is an intrinsic part of Arabic culture. For most women, knowing how to groom yourself and celebrate your femininity — to an extent that even makes me uncomfortable, at times — is a core part of being from the Middle East. Both of my Lebanese grandmothers are still alive, and they tell me about self-care every chance they get.

Photo: Céline Senaan, The Slow Factory via The Cut

Photo: Céline Senaan, The Slow Factory via The Cut

Taking good care of myself and being beautiful, they say, is part of my duty as a woman. I enjoy the celebration of self-care and self-love, but the “duty” part can make me uncomfortable. I find in all cultures, women have a fine line to walk between loving themselves and performing for the male gaze. But when I show up with my hair undone and without makeup, they take offense, as if I’ve given up on myself. Sometimes I feel like I have.

Their beauty routines have always been simple and natural: they wash their face in the morning with Aleppo soap, followed by almond oil as a base for everything. To keep their skin smooth and hairless they make sukar — sugar wax — at home as a depilatory concoction. The first time I was allowed to remove any kind of hair from my body, my grandmother did it with sukar, and I screamed in pain. The first time I was finally allowed to pluck my eyebrows, my mother did them perfectly. She kept them thick and explained, “This is how they need to stay, understood?”

Everything my Lebanese relatives, and especially my grandmothers’ generation, use for beauty products returns to nature as food, not as poison. They do facial and body peels with a pumice stone, or a pinch of baking soda mixed with water. They color their hair with henna, a plant dye, and apply homemade rosewater to their faces in the morning, to soothe redness. “Boil artichokes and drink the water to lose weight,” my Grandma Souad suggested after I had given birth to my first daughter. This is what my grandmothers have taught me, to the exasperation of my mother, who loves anything she can find in a Sephora.

After the civil war, the Lebanese notion of beauty became distorted — at times, it was the only mechanism available to feel in control of one’s self. Both extremes are now present in modern Beirut: the beauty standards of the Kardashians on one side (Lebanon has a very high rate of plastic surgery), and a rebellion against postcolonial aesthetics on the other, in which women embrace their body hair and natural hair. Still, whether we’re going to the grocery store or a party, we dress up, and we wear makeup. Beauty is something we can control, love, and celebrate. It is, at some of the worst times, all we have left.

Photo: Céline Senaan, The Slow Factory via The Cut

Photo: Céline Senaan, The Slow Factory via The Cut

One young teen I befriended, Amal (which means hope in Arabic) told me, “There is makeup for every occasion of the day. Maybe you are sad and just going to the store — I suggest a little mascara to change your mood. Or if you are getting ready for a party or to celebrate a wedding, eyeliner heavy on the eyes is important to make you feel elegant.” This was makeup as a coping mechanism.

“In the media, refugees are portrayed deprived of their dignity, without any beauty left in them,” said Skylar Lawrence, ANERA’s director of donor development. “This is far from how we have experienced working with them,” she said. In the refugee camps I visited, beauty was not considered superficial, especially when used in the act of reclaiming one’s dignity and self-worth. In the face of adversity, looking and feeling good had become a human right — the right to celebrate one’s self.