Nabela Noor on social media, standards and keeping it real
Starting off as a beauty vlogger, and later delving into several other lanes including activism, the powerful strides made by Nabela Noor, a Bangladeshi-American vlogger, activist and YouTube star, are undeniable. In this edition of Avenue t, Noor gets very real about how trying to fit into a certain mold is everything that is wrong in this world, and redefines perceptions of beauty and power.
Please tell us a little about yourself and how you started off as a beauty vlogger, and a social media influencer.
I live in the US and am a first generation Bangladeshi-American. I am one of six kids and my parents came to the US in 1991. I am married to my husband, Seth Martin, who is of French, British and Irish descent.
I started making videos after being inspired by beauty vloggers who were women of colour. Seeing them so confident in their own skin empowered me to look at the things that made me different as beautiful rather than “weird” or ugly. I grew up in a predominantly white town and I remember wishing that I would wake up with blonde hair and blue eyes and have a “normal” name like Rebecca or Ashley. I was so ashamed of what made me who I was and that was a huge part due to the fact that I didn’t see girls like me represented in the world around me. Brown girls rarely were leads in TV shows, movies, or magazines. All I saw was fair skin, thin bodies and light hair as depictions of beauty. YouTube allowed me to begin making the content I wished I saw in entertainment, and in the beauty and fashion world.
What’s the best and worst thing about the popularity that social media has brought you?
The best thing has been the fact that I have been able to have an impact on people I could never meet without this platform. Meeting my followers in person every day is such an awesome, inexplicable feeling.
The worst thing is that with the popularity comes more exposure to cyber-bullying and hurtful commentary. While I have developed a thick skin through my time online and in this industry, words still hurt and my heart aches for anyone reading the shaming comments about me and it affecting how they see themselves.
Although you started off doing beauty, you have branched off to several other categories including activism. How do you juggle all of these powerful lanes?
For me, it has always been about spreading goodness into the world. All I want is to spread light into a world that so often is consumed by darkness. If that is through YouTube videos, music, acting, activism or just using my voice, then I’m 1000 percent there and am 10000 percent interested. I am not just a beauty lover. I am a writer. I am a singer. I love to act and dance and bring smiles to faces. I am an advocate for social issues. I don’t want to just absorb what I need from the world. I want to pour goodness into it. I want to serve it and encourage others to join me.
What inspired you to delve so deeply into the world of activism?
I could never imagine having a platform and not using it to evoke change in some way. I have always dreamt of working with the UN as a little girl. This year, I was able to work with the UN in a way that was even more special than what I could have ever dreamt of. I was able to use my voice to talk about refugees and migrant children and how the youth can get involved in social issues. I’m currently working with UNICEF to continue raising awareness for social causes and I could not be more excited for the journey ahead.
Many cosmetics brands, be it South Asian or western, do not cater to a huge demographic segment of men and women that are of darker skin tones. There’s an impression that most South Asian women want to look fairer, which is why the rest of us end up settling for a foundation that is a few shades lighter than our natural skin tones. The ranges of the darkest shades that these brands offer are often nowhere near our skin colour, but much lighter. What can be done to spread the message that all skin tones are beautiful and we need more options?
I think South Asian standards of beauty are extremely damaging and non-inclusive. When visiting Bangladesh, I remember going to the salon and my makeup being done several shades lighter. I went to the store and saw firsthand how limited the shade range is for foundations. I was shamed publicly for my size in Bangladesh and I was significantly smaller at that time, but still not small enough to fit the standards of beauty present in our culture.
Here in the states, I have used my platform to shed light on these issues. This year, I was one of the faces of Tarte Cosmetics’ shade range expansion for their hero foundation. I worked with Benefit Cosmetics and Maybelline in creating content for their platforms promoting their products as a plus size, Bangladeshi-American Muslim girl. I have used every opportunity I have had with CEOs and beauty executives of the world’s largest beauty companies to talk about the incredible need for inclusion of all shades and all sizes in their campaigns and product selection. But the thing is, what is honestly more impactful in my opinion, is the consumer’s voice.
When the consumer speaks and speaks confidently about what they want, the market cannot help but listen. Continuing to speak out as a consumer and making waves through your own individual voice is more powerful than you may think. So, my biggest advice to consumers in South Asia is to use your voice and require change.
On a social and societal level, we need to chill out with the obsession with fair skin. This is so harmful in our culture. Dark skin is beautiful. Tan skin is beautiful. Fair skin is beautiful. There are no metrics or scales to this. Something you can do within your own communities is again, use your voice. This time use it to put a stop to non-inclusive beauty standards. When your aunt says, “Oh you have gotten so dark,” if you feel comfortable, reply asking what is wrong with that and share that you love your complexion no matter what. Or if you overhear someone body shaming someone else and you feel comfortable checking them - check them! Call them out! As cheesy as it sounds, be the change you wish to see!
Let’s talk about the ridiculous beauty standards of the industry. Your social media presence has provided your audience with some much-needed size diversity. But how far have we come in terms of breaking out of the rut and embracing all types of sizes and features? And what needs to be done now?
There is still so much work to be done in the fight for diversity, inclusion and representation. I hope to see even more efforts of inclusion for people of colour, people of all shapes and sizes and ages and more. Plus size girls can be the leading ladies. Plus size girls can be confident and fashionable and anything they want to be.
You have done a lot of skits to promote positivity and minimize negative connotations associated with Muslims and Islam. How do you think we should go about addressing these issues?
I think a huge issue today is more people are talking about who we are and spreading their own narratives instead of getting to know us and learning who we truly are. The best way to develop connection is through communication. A great way to change minds is to open their eyes. I love creating content that could potentially open some eyes and help people see that we are more alike than we are different. The thing is, we need to remember that as humans we are all connected. So we need to find those connections, the things that bring us together and hold on to that.
South Asian parents are often very protective of their children and they still consider screening and playing matchmakers when it comes to marrying off their sons and daughters. One of the things you’ve shared with your audience is your struggle to convince your parents to marry the man you love. Many people are in your shoes and do not know how to go about it. What would your advice be to them?
My biggest advice is to never ever be disrespectful or belligerent with your parents in the pursuit of acceptance of your partner. This journey is so tough and can feel impossible to win, but no one wins if you are unkind. Stay kind. Stay patient. Stay the incredible daughter or son you are even as you pursue a path they may not approve of. It is so much easier to disapprove of something that is turning your child into a monster than it is to disapprove of something that is genuinely making your child a better and kinder person.
This year, you have been really active on making a difference and being a role-model for young girls all around the world. Are there any projects you are looking forward to for the end of the year and in 2019?
I am currently working on a bunch of really exciting things, including music, writing my very first book and launching a brand. One of the biggest blessings of this career is being able to pursue all of my passions so I’m doing just that!
Are you coming to Bangladesh any time soon?
My goal is to be in Bangladesh this winter and I am so excited to show Seth my beautiful country! There is so much beauty that I have only been able to describe to him. I can’t wait to show in person!
What are your top three tips for self-care?
2 Spend time with supportive people who uplift and empower you.
3 Make time for your mental, emotional and physical health - whether that means talking to a counsellor or getting a massage or giving yourself a facial while reading a good book that calms you and gives you perspective.