Nabela Noor might be in your Instagram feed for her vibrant photos and enviable eyebrows. Or you might follow her for her boundary-breaking attitude, for her refreshing take on life, and for delivering captions that aren't your typical Instagram fluff. At E.L.F. Cosmetics' Beautyscape Influencer Program in New Orleans last month, Nabela was the keynote speaker, inspiring a room of 20 attendees from across the world. Her message? "Require change."
As a Bangladeshi-American, 27-year-old Nabela is a breath of fresh air, breaking any preconceived notion of "typical beauty" that you might be hung up on. (It's 2018, by the way.) Growing up, the "right" path for her was becoming a lawyer or doctor; she instead started creating content online, marrying fun tips and tricks with heavier topics, like discussing social issues that are important to her. She just launched Noor House, a nonprofit that provides free housing, educational resources, and food and water access — currently for 10 Bangladeshi families. (This initiative is in the very early stages, with Nabela funding it herself, using family-owned land.)
Change for Nabela meant asking more of the beauty industry, making sure photographers learned how to enhance and empower curve women, and making sure people of all races and sizes can see themselves in the news, on magazines, and in the media. During our conversation, Nabela discussed what she hopes to change within the beauty community, "purchased beauty" and the standard it creates, and her own privilege.
POPSUGAR: I want to start off with your undergrad focus. You have talked about your parents and how you were destined to be either a doctor or a lawyer. And you have this social justice part of you that is really important. When you were going to undergrad, what was your focus?
Nabela Noor: I studied sociology and thought that that was the way I would really be able to champion the change that I wanted. Sociology really gave a wider understanding of what I actually ended up being an advocate for, which is diversity, representation, and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities. Without my degree and my understanding of social issues and social conflicts, I don't think I'd be able to be as aware as I am in this moment.
I also studied abroad in Mexico. I was not in a touristy place. I was in Morelos. It's rooted in so much history. It made me even more aware of immigrant stories beyond just mine. My family are South Asian immigrants, but learning immigrant stories from the perspective of Mexican immigrants and understanding a whole range of different perspectives shaped who I am today. It allows me, when I'm speaking about immigration, not to just speak on the perspective of my South Asian immigrant parents, but also on a wider frame and just how much people are sacrificing when they leave the comfort of wherever they are to come here.
PS: It seems like you like to help people. You're very empathetic. Do you remember a time growing up where you kind of realized that you had this calling?
NN: I used to stay up at night thinking, "What am I here for? Why am I here?" And my mom would be kind of worried because she's had six kids, and I would be the one staying up at night crying because I just didn't understand why people were hurting. It didn't make sense that I was just here to just live in my bubble and my problems. I was never able to look at anything on a micro level.
"My family are South Asian immigrants, but learning immigrant stories from the perspective of Mexican immigrants and understanding a whole range of different perspectives shaped who I am today."
When I would travel to Bangladesh, I learned that life is not what I think it is here in the United States of America, living in my privilege and the blanket of comfort that I've been able to have. Even though my family struggled a lot here, it's nothing compared to if I was born from a different family in Bangladesh. When I went to Bangladesh and saw the class division and the extreme poverty and the extreme wealth, I was like, "Nabela, you have been given this opportunity to be coming here in America, your family coming here, you being born here and having these opportunities. It can't all be for nothing."
So what can I do? Launching Noor House this year was really important for me because I wanted to help break that cycle where there's a sense of helplessness or hopelessness being in a class that you can't get out of. That was really important for me this year, to just constantly give back. It all kind of rooted from early on in my life.
PS: Can you go a little bit more into Noor House?
NN: It's still very much in its early stages. My mom already had a plot of land where she had built little homes for people to live in in Bangladesh, so she had already started this. I said, "I want to take over." I don't want them to pay any rent. I don't want them to pay anything. I don't want them to have to worry about anything. It's several families. It's going to help those future generations not have to worry about, "How are we going to live? How are we going to survive?" because I wanted to eradicate that concern.
These families now have hope and hopefully a zeal for a different pace of life. And I'm hoping that we can continue and really kind of embark on this awesome journey of providing them with shelter, resources, water, and education. I mean, I can have a closet filled with Gucci belts, but is that going to change the world? No. I'm going to enjoy some of the luxuries that I can enjoy, but I'm going to then use all of my power to help people as much as I can.
PS: I want to switch gears to the beauty community. In the beauty world, there is some cattiness, there are the cliques, there are all these different types of people. You think we should be lifting each other up, right? You're very much a woman's woman, you want to lift up everybody.
NN: Yeah, absolutely.
PS: If you could change anything in just a snap of your finger about the beauty community, what would you change?
"I think that I resonate and connect the most with people that are trying to do something that changes the world."
NN: I feel sometimes when I'm looking at the community that people only start to interact with someone else when there's a utility: this person has a large audience, this person has a large audience, all of the sudden they're friends. It's very transparent, right? One thing I wish I could change is people just liking people for the content that they create. Uplifting people because you believe in their content, not because there's some sort of gain out of it.
I think it should just be "I love your presence, I love being around you, you make me happy." I'm so lucky because I've been able to meet inspirational, influential people in this space: One of my closest friends is Kandee Johnson. Another great friend of mine is Jackie Aina, and Andrea's Choice, and these girls, they are killing the game. I think it's because there's a commonality in searching for authenticity, searching for people that are trying to do something bigger. I think that there's a place for luxury and content. But I think that I resonate and connect the most with people that are trying to do something that changes the world.
PS: Amen, thank you for saying that. What do you think brands can be doing to be more inclusive?
NN: Oh, oh, girl.
PS: I was really happy to see the model selection for the E.L.F. Beautyscape groups, because a diversity of skin tones were represented, and that's honestly rare still.
NN: I think brands can continue to uplift and amplify diverse creators, not for the sake of diversity, because that's silly. It should be because we make great content. Open your eyes to it. How about we stop doing what we're used to seeing? I think that brands should be willing to have different complexions, having different ages. I would love to see older women in campaigns. Do they all of the sudden not wear makeup anymore? No! So where are we seeing them?
"I think brands can continue to uplift and amplify diverse creators. How about we stop doing what we're used to seeing?"
It's also seeing diversity in size. The average size of a woman in America today is 14/16, and it's a point that I continue to make every chance I get because where are we seeing the size 14/16 girls? We're not. We're seeing a specific version of beauty. Brands can just snap out of it and be like, "You know what? I'm going to show something that is more of an indication of what people look like now."
PS: What's real.
NN: Yeah. And what is common. Because common right now is, for some reason, the "IG model" look. But what's actually common in people around us is not what we're seeing on these campaigns and advertisements.
PS: I'm so glad you said that because, sometimes on IG, I'm like, "I have to delete this app because I feel like I just see the same person over and over."
NN: Yeah. And the sad reality that we're not accepting is that this is purchased beauty. I don't mean that to shame because some of the accounts that I follow are just — they're all just so beautiful. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do those types of things. But we also have to think about what social responsibility we have in understanding that the girl that's living day-to-day, working super hard, can't go and buy the perfect face. So how can I let her know that she's beautiful? How can I remind her that she's gorgeous? It's not to shame anybody in that regard. It's to uplift those that do not fit that.
PS: I love your theme of requiring change. Do you remember a time where you required change and you didn't get it? Or has everybody pretty much been like, "We have to make this happen"?
NN: There's been times where a brand wants to work with me and they don't necessarily want all of my messaging and advocacy. They just want their points. And I've had to walk away. Because there's nothing that is more valuable than your integrity. Honoring my integrity has been something that's so important. I'm going to do it the way that I know it to be true. And if it does not work out, then we can part ways. It's fine.
PS: You have so many things that you advocate for. If you could break one stigma, what would that be?
NN: I want to break this idea that people of color can't bring in the money. Black Panther proved that wrong. I love seeing people of color win and bring in the viewership and show people, "Hey, people do want this!" There is this idea that's so deeply rooted in Hollywood and in beauty and that if we feature someone that's Muslim, we're going to lose people. No. You're going to gain so many people. Breaking this idea that we're really going to see the best profit if we have a white girl that's slim. Expand and see that there's millions of people who do not feel seen and heard. There's a reason why Fenty Beauty sold out, you know what I mean? And I really cannot wait to see South Asian communities just be uplifted and given the chance. If not given, paving it. And that's what I want to do. If you don't want to give me the chance, fine. I'll make it for myself and I want you to watch and see and see how we come through and we show up and we show out.