I am fighting cancer… Not the one that infects the organs but rather a cancer that once infected my soul and still, to this day, metastasizes in the minds of people. It’s the kind that starts in schools, at home, in workspaces, and gatherings. Its cause lies in the human need to raise one’s self-esteem at the expense of others’: peer pressure to fit in, destructive judgment, and bullying into a standardized fictional frame. When you’re weak enough to let it in, it eats you up on the inside and plays a significant role in shaping who you become. Nonetheless, it’s only if you reach that stage of self-awareness, acceptance, and celebrating your real self that you get to conquer it on the inside and fight it on the outside.
Raised in a rather loving and caring family, I was passionate about fashion, music, and human interaction. I was brought up to be kind and compassionate to others and to never judge or ridicule anyone. It came natural to me that kindness would be mutual and that when you do not bully, others would act the same way towards you. Reality, unfortunately, slapped me in the face; just as it did and is still doing to others with regards to loyalty, honesty, goodwill and, more importantly here, judging and expressing detrimental opinions.
Around the age of 13, I started becoming chubbier, just as most teenagers do. It took me five whole years, a lot of bullying about my weight and critically thinning hair, along with pitiful words shaming the fact that I have such a pretty face but brittle hair, tons of “not so kind” words of advice from people who pretended to care, and dozens of doctor visits, to actually find out that I have a hereditary case of androgenic alopecia.
For those who don’t know what alopecia is, it is a case of fine, thinning hair that evenly attacks the whole scalp. It is irreversible but manageable if one responds to medication, which sadly I was allergic to.
The extra weight was more controllable compared to alopecia. However, I do not negate the fact that it shook my self-confidence and my view on how attractive or beautiful I was to the core. With lots of hard work and by seeking a healthier and more active lifestyle, I managed to overcome my body image issues. I formed an undying bond with fitness and exercise and built a curvaceous body that I am very proud of. As for my thin hair, the battle was way harder: a long trail of useless medication and failed transplant surgery helped that self-destructive cancer grow inside my mind. I was feeding the pain with the wrong statements and questions. And instead of accepting myself, focusing on my strengths, embracing who I am, and trusting in my own abilities, I allowed myself to become a victim of social stigmas, name-calling, and hurtful comments. I even used the mask of a fake snarky attitude as a defense mechanism to hide my insecurities and fears.
The focus of the story here is neither my weight nor my alopecia. I find my teenage years to have been way less traumatic than what others might have endured or are still enduring to this day. What I am addressing here are the underlying causes that make human differences an actual serious problem.
Back then, seeking psychologists and life coaches was not the “in” trend when facing such problems. Parents used to try to help by offering their wisdom, love, and support. My father promised me that one day, I would look back on these times and laugh at how vulnerable such issues made me feel.
Around the age of 16, still not convinced by my father’s uplifting words, my relationship with wigs began. I started hiding behind what I believed was a solution to what I considered to be my biggest insecurity. It was partially to please myself but, more importantly, to seek the approval of my entourage. In 2005, the real physical damage took place as I got introduced to a more permanent type of wigs that covered the top half of my head and had to be taped and glued in an oval form after shaving the designated area. Looking in the mirror, I started believing my own lie! At times I felt happier, more confident and “accepted,” while at other times, I felt like I was a hypocrite. Seeing the growing damage to my scalp and the existing hair killed me but just like any toxic relationship, the break up wasn’t easy. I kept hiding behind it for the sake of brief moments of self-satisfaction.
When I started my blog, What Works for Hiba, it was to relay my own personal taste in fashion, styling, lifestyle, values, fitness, and self-care. I continuously try to help people, especially ladies, to feel better in their own skin, push further, do more, and live better. However, a couple of years into being active on social media, I started again feeling the pressure of having to fit the norms of what worked for a section of society in terms of looks, more than what actually worked for me. I guess I was simply frightened to face my demons and relive all the weaknesses of my younger self. I was afraid that my community would view me differently and I would end up being less accepted.
This fear was a turning point for me. My fake hair that was supposed to lift me up was not comforting anymore but rather felt like chains choking me around the neck. And so my journey of self-growth began. Through a lot of reading and self-coaching, I was able to feel a glimpse of contentment on both a mental and spiritual level. I also learned so much about people who have changed lives by being different and pedaling against the current. One of them was Frida Kahlo, who I chose to give ode to in a photo shoot I did, but never felt confident enough to share. Today, I relate to her more and I am able to accept myself and turn whatever was holding me back into empowering my society and myself.
Another more recent project that inspired me to take this step is We Are Colette; a women-empowerment initiative I led in November last year. As part of the campaign, I created opportunities to interview 10 Lebanese women who have managed to conquer their own fears, embrace who they are, and find their paths in life. It was a substantial mind-opener for me to look beyond the physical and emotional cage I’ve placed myself in for 14 years. I was 100% positive that it was time for me to break those bars, rise above my fear, and encourage others to do the same.
The struggle became real and culminated heavily in the past two months. I started feeling the need to express myself with all that I am, inside and out, regardless of any judgment, any obstacles standing in the way, or any physical covers to hide behind. I remember when and how I took the decision to shave my hair. Yet, to this moment, I still do not know how I gathered the courage to actually act upon my decision, drive alone to the hairdresser, and look myself in the mirror while he was shaving away my locks of fear, let alone document it and share my experience publicly.
Personally, and even though the damage in the “taped” areas on my scalp looks irreversible, I love the feeling that my skin can actually breathe. I am accepting and celebrating my scars as part of my story. I can also be role model for my six-year-old son and inspire him to love himself no matter what. I ended my long 14-year old battle and started a new chapter. I feel unshackled from all the internal and external chains that held my soul back. I won over my fears and am now immune towards any type of labeling or criticism. I am freed!
The message I am relaying here is one of awareness about the huge risks and long-term effects of bullying on other people’s development and their views of themselves. It is also a wake-up call for the “judged” to raise their standards, identify signs of bullying, and not succumb to them. Through my humble yet impactful experience, I confidently tell them that the power to be true to yourself lies within. It begins with seeing your strengths, beauty, and what you’ve been able to give yourself and others through the years. When people achieve inner peace, everyone else will see through and come to terms with who they truly are. Not at any point should anyone yield to the pressures of society and its standards of beauty. What is beautiful, anyway? Who dictates that a thinner body is a more appealing one? Who says bigger breasts are sexier or thicker hair is more attractive? No one does. No one dictates or is allowed to define beauty, elegance, or physical appeal. No one! As far as I believe, beauty lies in the mind, soul and, more importantly, in the attitude. It is found in people’s ability to love, nurture, and develop, and to be kind and grateful. And we all have the right to look however we want and be whoever we want to be, whether bold, italic, underlined, or a million other fonts or edits.