How Your Appearance Can Impact Your Mental Health
Guest Contributor Saba Ali
“Say, who has forbidden the beautiful gifts of God, which He has produced for His servants, and the things clean and pure, which He has provided for Sustenance?”
We are quick to judge one another and sometimes feel we are beyond worrying about appearance and dressing well – after all, there are so many other more worthwhile things to fret over and improve upon in the endless journey of self-improvement. And while this is true to a certain degree, it still doesn’t justify the notion that worrying about our outer appearance to even a moderate degree somehow makes us “superficial” and hence makes the topic of grooming, dress, and outer appearance overall a taboo one in some Muslim circles.
Fashion in Islam, Really? Yes, Really!
Our deen is one of balance and moderation. To protect ourselves from excesses, we must practice restraint in most matters as we have been taught. We must also never forget that the greatest man to ever walk the face of this earth, the resplendent and the magnificent, yet the humble and the modest, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) believed dressing well and looking good to be a demonstration of the blessings of God:
“God loves to see the result of His blessing on His creatures” (Hadith: Al-Tirmidhi & Al-Hakim)
The One who is the most beautiful, and who is the source of all beauty, surely knows what true beauty is. So what is the beauty that Allah loves? Ibn Qayyim said that it pertains to two things: First, beautifying ourselves outwardly, and second, beautifying ourselves inwardly. Think about it for a second: first, beautifying ourselves outwardly…then inwardly. Deep. And contradictory to popular notion.
“Whenever a delegation came to meet the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) he would wear his best clothes and order his leading companions to do likewise. On the day the delegation from Kindah came to meet him, he was wearing a Yemeni garment, from amongst his best attire.”
-(Hadith: Ibn Sa’d from al Tabaqat)
And similarly, applicable to everyday wear and not necessarily for special occasions – when travelers were going to meet their brothers, he would tell them:
“You are going to visit your brothers, so repair your saddles and make sure that you are dressed well, so that you will stand out amongst people like an adornment, for Allah does not love ugliness.” (Hadith: Al-Qurtubi)
Hence outward beauty is important in Islam. It’s no coincidence that the prophets and messengers–who we can thank for our faith today–were not just extremely attractive human beings but were also very well groomed. Furthermore, Islam did not spread at the hands of people who favored grunge-chic, it was given as an amaana, or trust, to those distinguished few who despite social standing, means, or lack of wealth, carried themselves with dignity, and did not go out looking anything less than well-kempt and put together according to the social norms of their times.
Cleanliness & Beauty
At the very basic level of our practice is cleanliness. We have heard not only from our own faith (“Cleanliness is half of Iman”), but we have also taken from our western, non-secular culture the famous idiom (teetering on the edge of shirk): “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. With this idea of being clean grounded in our psyche, we can then move onto the more aesthetic level highly encouraged by our Lord and our prophets and messengers: that is, to be well-dressed and presentable. As the aforementioned hadith clearly show us, dressing well is not considered showing off, unless it is done with that intention or to show that one is better than others. Rather, dressing well is a sign of prestige and distinction. Again, all of this pertains to outward beauty. We as human beings incline towards that kind of beauty in one way or another. Think of children, and their natural draw towards pretty things and even pretty people, free of any social conditioning or learned restraint. This is a fundamental part of our fitra, or nature, that needs to be acknowledged, embraced, and acted upon, versus being dismissed or taken lightly.
I was recently asked to speak at my alma matter, U.C. Berkeley, for an alumni event on the power of dressing well. Given Berkeley’s well known hippie vibe which goes hand-in-hand with it’s powerful initiative and voice for social change throughout the decades, we poked fun at our carefree undergrad take on appearance. College, and college at UC Berkeley especially, was indeed existence in a bubble, and the wake up call of graduation and emersion into the real world was one of self realization career-wise, lifestyle-wise, and…for our neglected college appearance.
Apart from its religious and spiritual benefits, in this day and age, we have no choice but to care about our appearance and make sure we are going out looking our best. With everything going on in the world today, and with several of us being the children of immigrants and refugees, we have been given the very unique position of being first generation educated, American-born and bred Muslims. Many of us are at the forefronts of our careers – we are the engineers, the doctors, the educators of our time, and since we have taken the painstaking time and effort to attain these merits, degrees and honors, we absolutely need to make sure we put the best package on that very intellect and ability that our parents made so many sacrifices for. How? By maintaining our personal best appearance, of course.
I keep using the word “personal” because it is indeed a personal best. Not anyone else’s best, but one’s very own absolute best level of personal greatness. There is a misconception that fashion and dressing well is reserved for only the elite, the skinny, the great looking, or the wealthy, perhaps a notion that those who consider themselves among the elite few bestow falsely upon themselves. Even in our own Muslim communities, we have countless blogs, Instagram accounts, and Facebook pages of attractive Muslims who encourage modest dressing while maintaining consistent “fabulousity”. As amazing, motivating and inspirational as some of those pages are, there is a polarizing aspect felt from those of us not as physically blessed or privileged. How many times have we seen those pictures or YouTube videos and thought to ourselves: “But…she’s thin! She’s cute! She would look great even if she threw on a garbage bag and wore some lipstick!”
And so the effect is almost the exact opposite of what it should be: dressing well and looking good isn’t for me. It’s for them. I’m not good enough. Pretty enough. Skilled enough. These thoughts then make the idea of looking our personal best less universal, less appealing, and less attainable. But this could not be further from the truth. Anyone, and everyone, can do something to look better, and to carry themselves to their own personally highest level. Let me make it very clear that this is not about buying the latest in designer clothes, or spending tons of money, or keeping up with the Joneses to any degree. We are blessed enough to be living in an era of accessible fashion, where what was once reserved for only the well traveled or connected is now available to the masses: the masses of every weight, skin tone, age, social standing, body type, shape, and wallet.
Why You Should Invest in Your Physical Appearance
In addition to today’s tremendous global market of brick-and-mortar stores as well as online finds, we also have a mass wealth of styling tips, videos, and resources at our fingertips via the internet today, eliminating any excuse one would have to not try. That said, if one is just starting out on building a wardrobe of great personal style, an emphasis should be placed on timeless pieces of quality that will last and not go out of date quickly. Resist the urge to run to “fast” fashion powerhouses such as H&M, who sell all the latest looks at ridiculously undermarked sale prices (no shirt should ever cost $3. Period. Can we say “sweatshop”?) for all your apparel needs. Rather, set aside a budget that emphasizes well thought-out, researched purchases of quality once a month or quarter, vs. bags and bags of so-so items that will be worn a few times and tossed aside for the next fad.
It’s the motivation of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) and the duty we have to give our faith a good face that should drive us to be cognizant of this topic and it’s repercussions as they apply to us today. It should give us the confidence to stand up say, “Yes, I’m into appearance, and it’s ok! Contrary to popular thought, it does not make me superficial, when done in moderation. It actually gives me a decent package to put over the inner part of me which I am constantly striving to grow and improve upon!”
The truth is, whether we like it or not, appearance matters. We are judged on it constantly and we should take it seriously because it affects how others view us as well as how we view ourselves. Personally speaking, I’m not all about my outfit, it’s not entirely who I am nor does it represent what I value highest in my life, but if my pants are wrinkled, my shirt button is missing, or my jacket is extremely dated or worn – then I have to wonder, is someone who knows absolutely nothing else about me going to listen to or care about what I have to say? It may seem extreme, unfair, or even unjust, but we all have to accept it as a reality of the non-perfect world we live in. Even if fashion or clothing doesn’t particularly excite you or feels like a chore, think of it as playing your part in the game, a game in which you win. Because the effects of looking good & feeling confident will not only get you that second interview or the coveted unpaid internship, but will carry you much, much further as an individual.
To Look Good is to Feel Good
It’s not talked about openly and again, it is often considered taboo, but I’ve seen firsthand just how much looking good impacts people. It’s a very basic concept. If you look better you feel better and more confident. You carry yourself differently and you are more willing to go the extra mile; to raise your hand and ask that offbeat question, to walk up to someone and start a conversation that you may otherwise may have felt too shy to. In turn you are more confident and hence… happier. Yes (gasp!), happier. What a powerful and universally all-inclusive word. It’s what we are all striving to be, no matter what faith we are, what age we are, or what social standing we have. The universal goal of all, summed up right there in that little seven-letter word.
I’ve had clients come back and tell me that I’ve helped them with their work, their careers, in their marriages and with their families, to be better wives, better mothers, better fathers, etc., just by helping them with their wardrobe. I’ve also had family members reach out secretly and thank me for helping their loved ones as they see firsthand how it has helped them be more willing to go out feeling confident, to shoot for the job or career they initially thought was beyond them, or the schooling program they were previously intimidated by. Some clients have also said they feel they are worthy of finding an upright life partner who they now feel they deserve and can offer something to in the form of their new and improved self. I’m very grateful for this feedback because after the client/consultant relationship ends, I have no way of knowing how the small changes we’ve implemented impact them. Some of these people have become more than just clients but friends because a special bond has formed between us; I’ve touched a very personal part of their lives, their closet, and by doing so the benefits have trickled down to all these other facets of their lives, the more important facets that make us who we are at the very core.
I share these personal anecdotes to serve as further evidence of what I believe to be a deep and lasting impression that improving one’s personal appearance can have on people. Oftentimes it’s a topic too personal and embarrassing to acknowledge between acquaintances or even friends. Not many people are comfortable admitting that they are greatly affected by something so external and “superficial”. But ever since I started SBD (Style by Design), my eyes have been widely opened to the deep and lasting positive social and mental impressions made on individuals. I feel as if one of the greatest paybacks for the exhilarating and humbling work that I do is that I’ve been thrust into a fascinating and complex social experiment adventure. And the ride only strengthens my faith, my resolve, and my awe of our divine influences and teachings, and the wisdom of these teachings in helping us be our best selves, outwardly as well as inwardly. My sincere wish is that through the work I do and the ability to share my experiences and views on the importance of fashion, my words will serve as a reminder for all of us to not take lightly the immense power of looking great and feeling our personal best!