Friday, February 13, 2009

Beauty and Justina Chen Headley

A few weeks ago, I agreed to be a part of a blog tour for the latest book by Justina Chen Headley called North of Beautiful. I was going to post my review first, then a little essay by the author. Now, I've decided the essay deserves a post all it's own. So....I'll review tomorrow. There are so many things I want to say about this book. In a world where "beauty" is defined by others, I think it's an important topic. I have 2 little girls of my own, and the thought of them feeling the pressure society has placed on beauty is enough to keep me up at night. I don't want either of them to feel like they just aren't pretty enough or thin enough. This book looks at beauty from the perspective of a young girl that was born with a birthmark on her face....and how she has/is coping with something that she feels makes her less than perfect.

But we'll get to that tomorrow. For now, here is the essay that Justina wrote:

An Open Letter to Phenomenal Girls Everywhere from Justina Chen Headley (author, North of Beautiful)

A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine called me up in tears. An acquaintance had commented on a photo my friend had uploaded on Facebook: "You must have turned heads in your heyday".

"What does she mean, in my heyday? Is she saying that I'm ugly now?" my 44-year-old friend wailed. "Am I ugly?"

"Sweetie," I said. "You're gorgeous! Forget about it."

Right. How can we forget dings to our beauty -- intentional or not -- when we've been taught to care how people view us? "Does my butt look big in this?" -- a demand for reassurance disguised as a question. "Do I look old?" -- we ask the mirror, studying every cavernous pore and buying creams to combat wrinkles and age spots. We count calories, we cut fat grams. We wear our fat jeans on bloated days only to curse our fat genes because every day is a bloated day.

I remember the first time I was called ugly. I was eight and arguing with my father who sneered that I was like a stepmother -- you know, the ugly, mean ones who populate fairy tales. The second time I was called ugly, I was spat upon by a racist in my high school. And the third time? I had just moved to Australia and was in a bush pub when a drunkard eyed me over his cavalry line of empty beer steins and slurred, "God, you're really ugly."

Luckily, three times isn't' the charm. I'm not dragging myself through life, the poster child for All Things Ugly. What saved me from seeing myself as ugly wasn't being shortlisted as the cover model for a magazine or being named princess at many a high school ball. It was Maya Angelou's poem, PHENOMENAL WOMAN. Her words opened my eyes to transcendent and incandescent Beauty:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cut or built to suit a fashion models size...
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal Woman,
That's me.

I held the poem in my hands -- the words a map to Me. To my inner and outer Beauty. And as I whispered those words - phenomenal woman, that's me -- I realized I've been glorifying an unattainable fashion-model beauty as mythic as Aphrodite. That fashion-model beauty isn't even real in today's plasticized, photoshopped world.

Once I stopped buying into fashion-model beauty, I realized that our society's worst insult leveled at a girl -- God, you're really ugly -- is actually....laughable.

I'd rather be The Most Phenomenal Me I can be than The Most Beautiful Girl in the room. One will sustain me forever, the other will fade and leave me yearning for my glory days. I don't want to live in memories of my past prime when I have the beauty of now.

One of the reasons why I wrote NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL was (in my humble way!) to attempt to put Maya's glorious words into prose for today's girls, especially since I think the media's insistence that we be forever thin and young and beautiful is even more prevalent than ever. I wanted to challenge women and girls not to define beauty for themselves, but to find beauty in themselves.

What is truly beautiful? For me, I find beauty in a person's spirit, generosity, confidence. It's being honest and brave and doing the right thing. It's being at our own personal best physical and spiritual shape. It's about making a difference, leaving the world itself more beautiful.

What can be more truly beautiful than living so fully and generously that every day is our heyday? So let's write our own Beauty Vow: make every day our heyday. Find your beauty. Be phenomenal. Start now.

To true beauty,

The Find Beauty Challenge:

So phenomenal girls around the world, here is my challenge to you: Define beauty. True beauty.

Load a 90-second video here on what you find truly beautiful and you might win an iTouch. I'll also donate $10 per video (up to $1,000) to Global Medical Surgeries, which helps kids with cleft lips in third world countries.

For all the rules, check out

Now...THAT's Beautiful!!


Debi said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing the essay, Stephanie.

Ana S. said...

Debi took the "wow" right out of my mouth. This essay alone makes me want to read the book. I bet I'll want to even more after your review tomorrow.

avisannschild said...

I second and third what Debi and Nymeth said. I really want to read this book now. Off to read your review next. Thanks for this fabulous essay.