Fatimah Asghar feels comfortable in her skin these days, but getting to this point has been a journey. “I have come into myself as I’ve gotten older,” she says. “I’ve realized I don’t have to look like someone else.” A Chicago-based poet, writer and performer, Fatimah wrote the loosely autobiographical web series Brown Girls, which just got picked up by HBO. Ahead, she talks about embracing thick eyebrows, the best purple lipstick and the runaway success of her show…
What are your thoughts on makeup?
I did a lot of theater growing up, and I’d wear stage makeup. But since I was a person of color, most people didn’t know how to do my makeup. When you’re young and getting advice from people who don’t look like you, it doesn’t really work. But a few years ago I told my cousin, who knows a ton about beauty stuff, that I was interested in makeup and she took me to Sephora. She showed me some basic application tips. It was fun, so I kept experimenting. I started following a bunch of beautiful women of color on Instagram whose makeup game was on point and looked into their techniques and the brands they used.
How do you change things up for special occasions?
If I’m performing, I’ll wear foundation and black mascara. When I’m going out and feeling dramatic, I will make things more colorful. The Huda Beauty Rose Gold eye palette is everything. I also use the Hi Wildflower’s purple lipstick and love NYX colored mascara — I have the blue and the purple, and I feel like a mermaid when I wear them.
How many piercings do you have?
I have my ears pierced, plus two nose rings and a septum piercing. I love my nose rings, and won’t ever take them out. They feel like me.
Tell us about your web series Brown Girls.
It’s about two best friends in Chicago — a South Asian Muslim career woman and a black musician — and how they rely on each other. It’s an intimate portrayal of their friendship within the artistic community of color. The show is loosely based on my friendship with my best friend, Jamila Woods. Another friend, Samantha Bailey (pictured) is the director. It was a total grassroots effort and we weren’t sure how people would react, but when we posted the trailer on Facebook it went pretty viral. It’s a relatable story, but it hasn’t really been done before, so people were excited. It was my first time working with film; I usually write poems.
What are your poems about?
The book I’m working on now is mainly about my family and how they emigrated from Kashmir and Pakistan to America. I was born in New York, but we moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I was five. The poems are about my childhood and learning what it meant to be American. I don’t know Pakistan intimately, only through family stories. But if you’re a person of color, people often ask you where you’re from.
How has this affected your sense of self and beauty?
Growing up, I had the feeling of being a perpetual foreigner. I have big eyes and a big nose, and those weren’t necessarily seen as beautiful. I’m also really hairy. I lived with my aunt when I was a teen. She was great, but she was very anti-makeup and didn’t want me to shave my legs, which didn’t help with my confidence. I remember this particular picture day in fifth grade — I wanted to shave my legs and get rid of my mustache and she said no. But I took my uncle’s razor and tried to shave my mustache and ended up cutting my face!
Did your aunt teach you any beauty rituals?
My aunt oils her hair. You soak it in almond oil in the morning, leave it in all day and sleep on it before you wash it out. It makes your hair super soft and strong. I did it growing up, but then I got self-conscious about walking around with oil in my hair. I see things like this happening with my younger cousin now. Her dad wants her to wear traditional South Asian clothing to her high school graduation, but she doesn’t want to. I didn’t appreciate how amazing South Asian traditions and clothing were until later in life. I love wearing them now for photo shoots and events, but I totally understand the feeling of being like, ‘Nobody I know is wearing them, so it’s not cool.’
How do you take care of your hair now?
I swear by DevaCurl no-poo and conditioner. My hair is short, so I never brush it; I just spray it with DevaCurl styling mist. I keep the travel size in my bag, so I can spritz it whenever it gets too frizzy.
You have such a cool haircut. Have you always worn it like that?
My hair used to be down to my mid-back, but I cut it off in college. My whole friend group was experimenting with beauty transformations. These powerful women of color at my school were cutting, dying and changing their hair, so it made me feel emboldened, but I was still super emotional about it. But short hair feels so much more like me. I’m a low-maintenance person, and now I can just get out of bed and go.
Do you have a signature scent?
I love Hi Wildflower Night Blossom so much. It reminds me of home. A lot of the women in my family smell like jasmine; it’s very prevalent in Kashmir and Pakistan. This is a light smoky jasmine scent with some amber, too. When I was smelled it, I was like, ‘Woah, this is so good.’
Do you have any beauty or style inspirations?
I love Rihanna. You put her in anything and she kills it. I die any time she releases a photoshoot. I love how she’s so unapologetic; she’s just so badass and fierce. If I got an email with a picture of what she was wearing every day in my inbox, I would feel very happy.
You have amazing eyebrows. How do you take care of them?
In high school, thin eyebrows were really in and I had these thick bushy eyebrows. I was always self-conscience and would obsessively pluck them, but they would never get any thinner. Then a few years ago, there was this cultural switch and all of a sudden everyone was like, ‘Oh. I love your eyebrows.’ I used to get them threaded, but now I just pluck them myself when I see a stray hair.
Do you have any non-beauty rituals that help you feel great?
I try to stretch every morning; and I sit and clear my mind for about five minutes. I’ll think about what I want the focus of my day to be. I will hold a crystal in my hand and use it to help set my intention. My friend Jamila introduced me to crystals, and I’ve now collected a bunch from different shops that all have different purposes. If I’m writing, I’ll pick one that focuses on creativity; if I feel scattered, I’ll pick one that’ll ground me; if I have been miscommunicating, I’ll pick one for clarity.
You did a campaign on Instagram called Let Me Love Me. What was the idea behind it?
It was all about people’s journeys with their bodies and self-love. I would sit and talk with someone about his or her relationship with their body, how they take care of themselves, and what they’re insecure about or struggling with. We wrote the things down and burned them. Afterward, we did a nude photoshoot — or however nude they felt comfortable being. It was about a year ago, and a lot of stuff was going on in the world that felt like an attack on many different people. My friends and my community were protesting all the time. It was hard — people weren’t taking care of themselves and getting burnt out. The photos were a gift for people I loved during an intense period of turmoil; I wanted to create a project that gave the gift of time and reflection.
That’s amazing. How do you feel these days?
Overall, I feel really good about myself, my body and my beauty. I still struggle with things, but I have come into myself in a way that I couldn’t when I was younger. It was an intense journey from feeling really low about myself in high school to now, being 27, and feeling good. It’s so easy to nitpick yourself, but I’ve realized how dumb that is. Life is short; I don’t want to spend it battling myself. I have so many things to be proud of.
Thank you so much, Fatimah!