Suzy : Hi Charlize! I was just looking at your instagram and getting inspired again and thinking about how you remind me so much of my younger self! I’ve been following you for a while now and I find your feed really inspiring
Charlize: Really?! That genuinely makes so happy
S: It’s a beautiful thing to see, and it makes me remember what it was like to choose to express myself every day when I was your age. Spending a lot of time putting my outfits together and doing my makeup… I guess as you get older, you lose touch with your inner child a little bit. I’m trying to bring her back again, thank you!
C: That’s so good though ! I looked at your instagram and I love everything you do as well. I prepared some questions for you if you’re ready to jump into it?
S: Let’s do it
C: Obviously, I’ve grown up with social media and the good and bad that comes with it. I wanted to ask you your opinion: How do you think social media affects young people and their perception of beauty – and do you think it overall has a negative or or positive effect on one’s self image?
S: My gut instinct is to say that it overall has a negative effect on younger people. I visualize myself as a younger woman in today’s climate and I think it would be really confusing growing up thinking that there is a certain way you should look. I feel like there is a false perception of natural beauty overall. The way it has been normalized to get fillers, botox, plastic surgery and so on makes it seem like this is the natural thing to do. You’re bombarded with this all day long. In that sense it can be a negative impact, but if you have a strong sense of self worth and practice some kind of spiritual practice – whatever that may be for you – I feel like that may be a way to navigate yourself through it all.
C: I completely agree. Obviously I have a platform on social media, but I also feel like it can be not the best thing if you are struggling with insecurities. On social media, people put on a mask and only present the best versions of themselves and when you are only exposed to that, this is what you think is reality. I think it can have quite a negative impact on kids, especially since it’s so normalized for very young children that are so impressionable to have a phone with access to these places online.
I also do think it can be beneficial though. Growing up in the UK, I didn’t have much representation of middleeastern people, so I do think there is a value in the representation social media presents now. That’s what I try to do with my platform because I didn’t have that growing up, showing how our differences are normal.
S: I’m so enamored with the way you present yourself and the way you articulate things – it’s inspiring and beautiful to see such a young woman speak with such eloquence. And I do agree, there are positives; the way there is more representation in terms of shapes and sizes is a big plus. And seeing women like you, with your own take on what the women of Iran should look like is beautiful. I’m sure it’s helping other young Persian women who are confused about how to express themselves or not sure what is accepted
C: Beauty is really embedded in Persian / Iranian culture, it’s such an important thing. Plastic surgery to look more western is very normalized. In my own family we talked about it, and what everyone would get done when they turned 18, it’s just very common. I think what opened my eyes to something else is when I started studying fashion design and looked more deeply into the history of middle eastern fashion and design.
It’s so hard growing up being spoken to by a beauty industry that is capitalizing on everyone’s insecurities. They create a sense of wanting to help and ‘correct’ everyone, but in reality, they are profiting from the fears and insecurities. The beauty industry as it looks today, wouldn’t exist if no one was insecure about their looks. I think it’s up to people on social media to kind of break that glass and show that you don’t have to look like everyone else. What the industry is sending out is an endless cycle of showing us how we should change ourselves, because they want our money, so it’s important for me to help people try and find their own voice and beauty.
S: I love that. I didn’t realize that it was so normal to speak openly about plastic surgery in Iranian culture?
C: I’m not sure if it was more in my family perhaps, haha! But I’ve heard from a lot of my Iranian friends that they also spoke about it in theirs. I was born here in the UK, but growing up I had a large Iranian community around me and it was definitely something that was spoken about a lot everywhere.
S: My half-Iranian friend who now lives there used to speak about how growing up, every woman she knew wanted to be blonde with a small nose, and how sad it was to see so many women changing their appearance to look more Western than their ancestors
C: I get compared a lot to paintings in the Qajar style which is from a period before Persia opened up its borders more. As I looked into this style more, I learned that the women featured in this style really do have a lot of features quite similar to mine and a lot of other Iranian people. They represented the beauty standard of that time. As the country opened up more, their ideals became more westernized. What once was deemed as beautiful is now no longer, and it’s so sad to see that develop in younger generations. So I am hoping the gap will bridge, if young people look to their roots more.
S: Yeah and I think you’re definitely a big part of bridging this gap! That’s what your platform embodies for me. I relate to it, because my Palestinian culture shares similarities with the Iranian, we have a similar aesthetic, our features can be similar… That’s why I was struck and felt a connection with you, unapologetically expressing yourself through your interpretation of your culture.
C: That really does mean a lot to me, thank you… I had a question – I grew up around only women, my mum is a single parent and I only have sisters, so when people ask me about my first experience of womanhood and femininity, I think about all the strong women around me in my childhood. I wanted to ask you, what is your first experience of womanhood – were you born in Palestine or the US ?
S: I was born in the Bay Area in the US, so I am first-generation Palestinian-American. But to me, I am Palestinian first. I feel very connected to my culture. However, with quite a few subjects, there wasn’t a sense of openness and my first connection with my own womanhood during puberty was very uncomfortable, quite challenging and confusing because my mom wasn’t comfortable talking about that at all. She never said that, but I observed it from her behavior and inability to talk about what was going on with my body. We never spoke about sex, ever.
I had to learn how to respect and have a relationship with my sexuality on my own. So speaking of ‘womanhood’ I didn’t feel that support and openness with my mom, it’s something that’s connected to shame.
C: My mum is actually quite similar, she wasn’t very open and still isn’t. I went to an all-girls school growing up, so there was some talk and learning from each other, but still I had a very hard time when puberty hit. I was ashamed and hated getting my period and felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone about it, that was very much a taboo for my mum. Luckily, my sisters and I are very close. I have an older sister who listened to all my questions and was very open about teaching me everything there was to know. My mum and I still don’t talk about sexuality or even relationships, I think it’s just how that generation was raised
S: What a god-send to have your sister! I always wanted a sister, so I didn’t get to experience that
C: How did you get to accept yourself then?
S: We’re all on our own healing journey. I’ve dealt with a lot of trauma in my life, including ancestral trauma – you just feel the trauma of your lineage. By dealing with this trauma and being on this journey to heal, I’ve learned a lot about myself by becoming more spiritual, or just gaining knowledge and understanding my power and self-worth. It’s been a journey of self-discovery and I’ve tried to be more open with my mother, but sometimes there are just certain topics you cannot open up about. The lack of support and understanding can be hurtful, but it’s something I’ve learned to forgive. She grew up in such a different environment, the stigma in our culture around topics like this is just what she knew, so she doesn’t have the tools to meet me where I feel like I need to be met. That’s okay, I learned to not hold resentment.
C: I’ve learned that with my mum as well. She brought a lot of generational trauma as well, but at the end of the day, she didn’t know any better. Sometimes it’s better to forgive someone for their actions and try to understand things from her perspective. She was brought up in an environment so completely different from mine, and while it did take me some time to get there, I no longer hold any resentment either. It is difficult, because you want your parents to understand how you feel. Growing up in a multicultural place like London, and spending time in a predominantly white school, I had friends who could speak with their parents about everything, so it was hard to not have that myself. I’m thankful I have a great support system in my friends and sisters and I do feel a sense of privilege in having that at least.
S: Growing up in America, I also had a sense of being out of place or feeling like I didn’t quite belong to any one group. I was the only Palestinian in school and it was hard to know where I fit in. You know how there’s boxes for everyone on paperwork in school ? There was never one for me…
C: Exactly !
S: I’m not any of these things you’re making me choose from, and I don’t want to be ! I don’t want to be an ‘other’ because who I am is important. That was a confusing thing to navigate, and I believe that’s why I was so expressive with how I dressed, I would try to really stand out, in an effort to try and find my tribe, you know? Expression and art helps and heals that part of yourself.
C: What was your family’s reaction to you going down a creative path? Especially in middle Eastern culture that can be very frowned upon. Academics are so important and creative paths are not seen as “real” careers…
S: My parents actually didn’t have much of an opinion… They let me figure out what I was doing, on my own terms. But when I graduated at the top of my class, it did become real to them. “She really means business, she is serious! I think my mom especially has learned to appreciate and respect what I do more and more as time goes on and she sees how determined, focused and passionate I am about what I am doing. She shows me by telling me how proud she is of me, which means a lot to me, because my parents were never great about expressing themselves. When she first said that it turned into a crying session between the two of us, because it was an expression of so many more thoughts and feelings that hadn’t necessarily been communicated before.
C: I was very creative from a young age and my grandmother taught me how to sew. In fact, prior to her passing, she made sure I would receive her sewing box with all her tools. It became my life. I sometimes struggle to find a way to express how I feel, so when I do get to do something creative I immerse all my emotions into my work, and I feel very connected to my grandmother through this. I can relate to what you are saying about your mum, mine had difficulties understanding the path I chose when it came time to pick my lane. My older sister is a lawyer which is something more along the lines of what a middle eastern mum wants her child to be haha… To my mum it was very foreign to have a child who was just completely creative and didn’t have any academic aspirations in that sense. It took a while for her to adjust, but she’s beginning to be incredibly supportive.
S: We’re privileged to be blessed with supportive parents…
C: Yeah I’ve been asked by a lot of other middle-eastern kids how I came to be respected and supported by my parents in pursuing a creative career, it’s definitely something I need to appreciate! If I had been forced to go to uni I just know I wouldn’t be as happy to be where I am as I am now.
S: Yeah, I’d love to hear more about what you are doing. Are you planning to go to university?
C: At the moment I am doing freelance middle eastern costume design. I work with a lady who is Kurdish who has an editorial book with her Kurdish-Iranian boyfriend. It’s centered around telling mostly middle-eastern stories, creating films about these stories coming to life in a modern context. We connected immediately and it’s so helpful to have someone I can mirror myself in, being a middle-eastern eastern woman trying to navigate my way in the fashion world. It’s hard to break into this world, especially as a young woman of color, and making sure your voice is heard. Uni may be in my future – I’m only 19 – but presently I am just focused on my own work and figuring things out.
S: Go with your heart, let it lead you. Don’t worry about all the things you “need to be doing”
C: Did you go to uni for fashion?
S: I did, I went to Academy of Art University San Francisco, I graduated with honors and won a scholarship to go study in Paris, which I quite honestly didn’t love so much. Paris to me was not so much the embracing artist community I had imagined, I got quite the cold feeling instead of my dreams. My scholarship was for a year, but I cut it down to 4 months. Noone smiled back at me. One of my favorite moments was actually leaving Paris and going over to London for a brief visit. Alexander McQueen was and is such a big inspiration to me and without having an appointment, I just showed up at his studio with my portfolio and got to sit and watch them at work. I could see his most recent collection hanging in the background, it was a dream come true. But yeah, Paris was not my thing. As I’m sure you can relate to, through my middleeastern community, I am used to such a warm culture where everyone welcomes you with open arms, and I got the complete opposite there, it threw me off.
C: I completely understand. In general, middle eastern cultures have a sense of comfort. When I speak to people who are of the same culture I feel a real sense that we are genuine. They genuinely want to help and care for you. When you experience a more closed off culture, as a creative that can really dampen your drive and feel stifling. I need to be in an environment where I feel I can thrive, when I am engaged in a creative project I need to be in a warm environment, most likely at home or with people I can connect with in that way.
S: My self expression wasn’t accepted, even in the way that I interact with people. I needed to change that environment quickly.
C: It leads me to ask you, I wanted to hear how your journey was in embracing your own beauty and specifically your Palestinian features? Did you struggle with that growing up?
S: To be completely honest, It was extremely difficult. I hated my nose for the longest time. The other girls in grade school didn’t look like me and I really started to hate parts of myself. Looking back, I wish I could talk to the younger Suzy and tell her how beautiful and unique she is, instead of choosing this destructive and sad path instead of seeing that. I wish my parents could have instilled that in me more. Instead I started resenting the way I looked and I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin for a long time. It wasn’t until late high school that I learned to appreciate my uniqueness. I get triggered to this day, this constant bombardment of unrealistic beauty can be confusing for someone much older too. Luckily I know myself so much better now and can swing the pendulum back faster.
C: It just is normal to not feel completely confident all the time isn’t it? Obviously I have my days where I feel so good and I’m amazed, but there are loads of days where it’s difficult to maintain your confidence. My Instagram is all about embracing your own unique and cultural features, but even I find it difficult to fully accept myself. You’re fed so much specific beauty from a very young age, and it’s still hard to find the diversity in media in general. For instance, body hair. A lot of Iranian women have a lot of body hair and it’s quite obvious because our hair is so dark. Being around other girls who weren’t developing in the same way, you can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with me? I understand I am still very young and it might change for me in the future, but your inner child holds onto that feeling and makes you insecure. It took me quite a while to accept myself. I was quite a chubby child too.
S: So was I !!!
C: It affected me a lot ! I changed schools quite a lot and it wasn’t until I was in high school that I went to a very diverse place, which was such a shock to me. I’m really grateful that I went there, because not only was I finally around so many other Iranian kids, I learned so much about other people’s cultures, their own struggles. By chance I ended up in another predominantly white school after that and it was such a shock to my system. I felt out of place again and it took a while to find myself again. Once you end up in that real point of self acceptance though, it becomes hard to fall back into the trap of trying to change yourself according to trends. Once I could see my beauty, it was set – although I still have days where I don’t appreciate it as much – there’s no going back.
S: It’s a strange thing when you are sort of forced to search for your identity because of your cultural background. It forces you to explore your self expression in a different way than others in a way? I was really going through it in high school in the 90s, searching for my own voice by wearing strange vintage clothes, wearing wild makeup and putting beads on my face. I got teased a lot for, but it somehow turned around and I got voted best dressed in my senior year in the end
Charlize: Would you say you found your sense of style though this period?
Suzy:Yeah I found a lot of inspiration through thrifting and finding colorful clothes from the past, all the way back to the 50s. Björk was a huge inspiration then – as she is now still by the way – because she just felt like she came from an entirely different planet. I couldn’t find myself for so long and I felt like I could relate to her, the sense of otherness. She allowed me to have fun and find myself through playing with my look.
C: How do you incorporate a sense of your cultural heritage into your way of dressing and how you design?
S: I feel like nowadays, Palestine is in every fiber of my day, it’s what inspires me to do what I do creatively every day. Even when it comes to dressing, I think of it everyday, be it my jewelry, the way I do my eye makeup or even wearing embroidery.
I guess my whole point and mission is to create a conversation and bridging a gap between the western world and my culture. I feel that when you create something fresh and modern that is grounded in the heart of where you are from, people can relate to the modern part of it and start to explore and ask about your culture. Through my work I’ve gotten so many questions about Palestine, some people didn’t even know it was a real place or what it was about. It begins to open people’s minds and nurtures a conversation in a gentler way, one that doesn’t start from a place of war, political injustice and trauma. A lot of people turn a blind eye to that and don’t want to see it, but when you introduce it through making something beautiful, it creates a safer space for them to learn about your culture and their minds expand
C: I can relate to that . Growing up I was quite ashamed about my culture and I didn’t like when people asked me where I was from. It took me a while to accept it. I’m not sure where it came from, possibly because I had some embedded insecurities within my features that I associated with my culture. I obviously love and embrace it now. I’ve done so much research and include it in my creative work all the time. It feels great when people are educated about Iranian culture through my work and get an understanding of where I am from. It’s freeing in a sense. Have you ever experienced a backlash about what you do from Palestinian people ? I sometimes get comments from Iranian people who aren’t as fond of the way I dress, how I keep my unibrow and so on. A lot of the hate I receive, does come from Iranian people…
S: A million percent yes! And by the way I am obsessed with your eyebrows, haha! It’s a heavy topic for me. During Gay Pride Month I had created a harness and sold it to this man who is half Palestinian and half Irish who happens to be gay and I received a lot of negativity from posting about that. I have so much love and compassion for my gay brothers and sisters, I grew up around such a great group of people from all across the rainbow and was so happy to share this piece on social media. I lost like 500 followers in one day from it. People felt it was so urgent that I received so so many DMs from people telling me I should be ashamed of myself and that they were unfollowing me because of it. Someone told me that my ancestors are spitting at me and “how dare i use our culture to talk about gay people!”
I felt like it was authentic for me to stand up and speak to this topic that so many are afraid to talk about. I’m so saddened by how many Palestinianas have to hide their true love and feelings out of fear of violence or being shunned by their families and I wanted to share where I stand on that issue. I knew it would get backlash, but what people wrote to me felt like an attack not just on me, but on humanity.
C: That’s horrible! There are so many wonderful things to talk about in middle eastern culture, but there is such a taboo surrounding sexuality. I know so many people whose families aren’t accepting of them. You think society is changing but then we have these people who are stuck in their ways, maintaining what the culture was like in their countries when they or their parents left. If everyone would be a bit more open minded, our communities would feel so much more welcomed.
S: It was so upsetting because my post was about accepting all walks of life and that we want to see freedom ! If we want to see a free Palestine, we should not create a divide within our own communities. That’s what the oppressor wants, to see us divided and create hate amongst ourselves. My whole point with the post was acceptance and coming from a place of love. There’s no way you can fail in life if that is where you’re coming from.
C: The negativity I’ve received has come more about my actual appearance, from other middle easterners and Iranians. It was hard for me in the beginning, I did take it quite personally and even thought about toning down my eyebrows a bit. Online commenters have such a heightened sense of emotion and honesty because they’re hiding behind their screens and I think they tend to forget that I’m only 19. I’m still only just going through my own journey of accepting myself. It’s especially hurtful because I post my twin sister a lot too, so when I do get negativity on those posts, I tend to delete negative stuff, because I don’t want her to see that. But I am quite thankful for going through this, because in the end it boosted my confidence, it forced me to work a lot on myself. I can’t let people that I can’t even see affect my self worth. I still get quite a lot of negativity, but it doesn’t affect me much anymore. I am doing my best to represent us, showcase our culture and make people feel more seen, so it just hurts a bit more when it comes from my own people.
S: I felt like I was coming to the situation with compassion. You’re dealing with toxicity and maybe someone who isn’t healed or hasn’t accepted themselves fully. Hate comes from fear, so I met it with love in my heart and let it go.
C: …The best way to do it, because if you’re approaching it with kindness and compassion, you’re not doing anything wrong essentially.
By the way, do you go to Palestine often?
S:I have gone a few times, we have a home and lots of family there. My mom is currently there trying to get her citizenship back, which is very complicated. It’s always a tough trip, but I love it so much there.
C: I’ve actually never been to Iran. My mum doesn’t like the idea of me going back right now, because of how the government is currently. I’m not accustomed to the society they live in, I would have to cover up a lot and she thinks that would be very difficult for me to adjust to.
But I would love to go, it’s my dream. I think I will learn and grow so much as a person. The architecture, history and diversity of the country is so inspiring to me from afar, so I can only imagine how much that would inspire me to see in real life. Has it influenced your creative work to go there?
S: I think what’s most inspires me when visiting Palestine is to see the reality of what my people are going through everyday, which helps fuel the fire in me to keep fighting to spread awareness of the situation there. What inspires me everyday is wanting to make a positive impact and to show the beauty of our culture. I want to influence the world outside of Palestine through introducing tradition into modern pieces like sneakers, hoodies and harnesses. I love those things and also know that a wider audience can relate to those easier and that’s a way to introduce the culture of embroidery. Men didn’t wear embroidery traditionally in Palestine, so I’ve made a lot of things that all genders can wear.
C: I try to do the same in a way – I wear traditional jewelry and accessories but I don’t wear Iranian cut clothes, I mix them with my more western looks. I like that you incorporate your culture into modern clothes like this. I wear almost exclusively second hand clothes, but if I do look to buy something from a designer, I want to feel connected to where they come from and who they are, to wear their story. I’ll take that as an inspiration for my own work, they way you do this.
S: Switching gears at the end a little, what is your goal at the moment – where do you see yourself in five years?
C: I actually think about this a lot ! I think in everything I do, my goal is to be a form of representation. Whether that’s with my social media, artwork, with everything I do I always want people to look at me and feel like they can be their true and authentic selves. It doesn’t have to be a middle eastern thing, I want people to see who I am and realize that you can do whatever you want, no matter who you are. In terms of concrete goals, I want to have started working completely on my own fashion stuff, focusing on costume design. I’m still working on how to incorporate middle eastern aspects into my work and bring that to loads of people. I want to continue to grow and learn more about myself and develop my strong connections with people around me. I want to stay authentic and I hope I keep my style, wearing lots of jewelry and doing my thing. I would say, I hope that people can continue to use me to feel comfort in what they do.
S: I will say that as you get older, life catches up with you and things get more serious. I definitely found that I can’t always spend hours getting ready and playing around with my looks the way I used to. But I think it’s so important to keep that with you, because getting ready and dressing up for yourself is like an artform in itself. Going through covid in pajamas was a thing, but it’s so important to make an effort.
C: Yeah, I definitely feel more confident when I’m wearing my jewelry, if I am not dressed up I feel like there’s something missing. I just feel so connected to my own self and my culture when I wear my jewelry.. What are your goals for the next few years?
S: I want to keep expanding and explore collaborating with other artists more. I want to reach a wider audience. I want to be able to express what Palestine is about and share the beauty of our culture, which in turn will also gain some awareness of humanity and hopefully help to further along the message and to unify people. I want to see a free Palestine in the next five years – I want to see it now ! – but before I die, that is definitely one of my biggest goals. That would be the happiest moment in my life.