Friday, August 07, 2009

Hijab, My Sun Screen

Click for Photo CreditJust recently, a person I know remarked on a particular characteristic of my skin--that it's pale--and claimed that I needed to "get some sun." I responded that my skin is lovely how it is, and that I don't need to bombard it with ultraviolet radiation.

In fact, the remark seemed to me to be a poorly veiled attempt to mock my decision to cover in hijab. Because I wear hijab, my skin (except for my face and hands) receives even less sun exposure than the average person. But my skin isn't really "average;" in fact it's quite fair. So I told the person that I was already at ultra-super-high risk for skin cancer, and "getting sun" is just about the worst thing I could do. And that even if I didn't cover (in hijab), I would be wearing sun screen over every inch of exposed skin.

Why am I ultra-super-high risk for skin cancer? Because I have very fair skin with light eyes, received severe sun burns as a child and a teenager, and on one occasion even used a tanning bed. The first two factors cannot be helped--that is how Allah made me. The latter two were my choice, something I have lived to regret. Unfortunately, I was so inundated with the popular notions of beauty that I would deliberately forgo sunblock even when I knew I would be in the sun, just to try to get some semblance of a tan. While most of my peers would tan quite naturally, I would burn, and freckle, without my skin becoming noticeably darker.

By the time of my senior prom, I thought having lightly bronzed skin was important enough to even consent to using a tanning bed--the one occasion I used it. (And yeah, I got burned in it, too.) For me, getting a sunburn was just part of the summer--although sometimes it did get so bad that I actually blistered (not a pleasant sight, not something I image anyone would like described.) It's not healthy, and I guess it's taken me quite a few years since my last burn (on a cruise in the Bahamas, burned my bad so bad it made me nauseous) to realize that my skin can be beautiful, and lovely, the very color that it is.

All my attempts to blend in, and try to fit the unrealistic and unhealthy standard of beauty failed, but also might have caused permanent damage. As far as I'm aware, I don't actually have skin cancer, but I'll have to live with that risk for the rest of my life. This is one more way that hijab projects women, I think: literal protection from the sun, and also from unrealistic ideals regarding skin tone.

Personally, I don't appreciate my decision to cover being mocked by my "failure" to live up to those unrealistic standards. Nor do I appreciate being held to those standards in the first place, especially since they are not only superficial, but also unhealthy.


Yusuf Smith said...

As-Salaamu 'alaikum,

A couple of weeks ago in the UK, it was reported that there is now no doubt that sunbeds cause cancer (see here). I remember one of my cousin's old friends who was basically a sunbed addict, and her skin was darker than all of ours but it also aged much quicker too.

I find it much more bearable to cover up in the sun. I remember family holidays in the south of France in which I got sunburn and prickly heat and really hated it, but I managed the heat in Cairo in 1999 much better. If you wear flowing clothes (e.g. jilbab and/or a long skirt or loose pants) it's even better.

Shawna said...

I was just remarking to my husband how I feel like I have this secret knowledge with regards to staying cool and protecting my skin. I don't wear hijab, but at least 80% of the time I have my arms and legs completely covered. The other 20% my forearms or arms up to my elbows may be exposed.

It's actually that 20% when I'm the least comfortable physically. Having the sun right on my skin makes me much warmer that long sleeves. After all, loose and light clothing is basically wearing your own shade.

Good for you looking out for your skin and covering for the sake of Allah swt!

Shamsuddin Waheed said...


Unfortunately, it is ignorance and hatred regarding Islam that makes people tell Muslim women things like what you have stated.

Why don't these same people tell the Catholic nuns, or the Sikh and Hindu women who wear scarves?

Amy said...

Wa alaykum as-salaam Yusuf

I remember hearing that news, and it just reminded me of what I already knew. (I'd already knew about the link to tanning beds and cancer.)

And I think it's right about covering up in the sun, especially the head. Whenever I leave my gym in the afternoons, it's so hot in the parking lot and I'm usually so hot from working out, but the sun in my face just burns almost. I'll put my sweat towel or a hood on top of my head (which already has a hijab on!) just to cover some more of my face, and it cools me off right away.

I also did something similar at a funeral I was at recently, because I was so hot just standing in the sun. Covering my head made it easier. I might not have believed it (that covering IS cooler) if I hadn't really experienced it.

Amy said...


You're right--loose and light is the way to go.

Amy said...

Salaam Waheed,

Thanks for pointing that out. I was pretty offended, and I get more and more irritated when certain people make a point of adding these remarks to a conversation. Being asked one or two times "Aren't you hot?" is enough, but for weeks on end? And being mocked for pale skin is just another level worse, imo.

Ali Zelmat said...

Assalamu alaikom, Amy,
I found the time of this post so funny. On Sunday, I spent 5 hours walking around the zoo and despite the sunscreen, I still got burned, which for me is like a bad rash or hives, after which I just turn back into my very pale self, with a few more freckles. About hour 4 I took the tail of my scarf and pinned it across my face. At that point I got some really weird looks. I told my husband that the next time we spend hours out in the sun I am definitely wearing niqab!

GroovFlowr said...

This is very upsetting to me. I have always had very pale skin too and am often told as well that I "need to get some sun". It is aggravating because we have known for decades that the sun is damaging. I have always skipped to the burn stage, and really don't look good tanned anyway. Fortunately my parents taught me all of this and to use sunscreen from an early age, so I've understood it, but it's still very frustrating when people speak unwisely, especially when they don't know your body.

A couple of Summers ago I developed a sun allergy, so even with sunscreen I will start to rash and blister after just a couple of hours in the sun. I now wear long sleeves and pants year-round. Hats too, as well as gloves (I wish they were more fashionably available for Summer wear; perhaps someday the trend for gloves will come back). I am not Muslim, but have enjoyed picking up different scarves and learning how to wear them, even to pin them to protect my face all the more if I'm going to be outside for a while. (I feel a little awkward though because I know that my style of dress, although covering, is not always modest enough for hijab and I fear that I might give the wrong impression to those who don't understand either hijab or my condition.)

I too get the "aren't you hot" comments, but it's really not. I mean, in Michigan Summertime, it's hot no matter what. Having the looser layers helps wick away sweat and let's the air flow.


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