Beautiful. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “generally pleasing” or “exciting aesthetic pleasure.” Synonyms include “attractive,” “appealing,” “delightful,” “ravishing,” or “stunning.”
Personal addendum: beauty is also commonly used to enforce hierarchies, perpetuate toxic standards of attractiveness, and sexualize women without their consent.
Growing up in a predominantly white / Asian neighborhood, I acutely felt the weight of not living up to the traditional beauty standard of having light skin. When you hear comments your whole life about how brown your skin is and what you should avoid to keep from becoming darker in order to be prettier, you learn quickly that the shade of your skin is something to be self-conscious about.
At one point, a neighborhood kid—someone I called my friend—told me on our school playground that he didn’t want to play with me because I was too dark. And so I started to learn that having dark skin was an offense that meant you weren’t quite as good as other people. Slowly, it begins to seep in that the color of your skin is something you should apologize for.
I also began to hate anything that pointed out how different I was from the people I saw on TV or in magazines. When a friend pointed out how my smile made my nose flatten and “disappear,” I was mortified and hurt by the teasing that followed. I spent some time futilely trying to make my nose more pointed by pinching it, before eventually giving up. When someone commented on how small my eyes were, I started looking up tips on how to make my eyes seem bigger.
When puberty hit, those things no longer seemed an issue. Instead, I was now being called “beautiful” by all different people. At the same time, my shorts were suddenly too short, my skirts were too revealing, my shirts were too tight. My girl friends refused to introduce me to boys they liked. I had no idea how to reconcile my self-image as a person no one would be romantically interested in with these comments about my body, the sudden distrust of my female friends, and my family insisting I needed to be covered up when it had never mattered before.
When I was sixteen, a family member, not blood-related, touched me inappropriately. We were in the living room, waiting for the rest of my family to come in from the garage, when the conversation took a strange turn. Suddenly we were talking about my body and how nice it was as his fingers brushed the curve of breasts, hips, and ass. I froze, terrified and unsure what I should do, as my senses screamed that this was wrong, he was too close, he shouldn’t be touching me like this. Luckily, someone came through the door a few seconds later and he stepped away from me, so casually, as if nothing had happened.
Later that evening, when I was ordered to walk him to his car, the fear came rushing back, but I was also too scared to refuse. As we neared his car, I turned, faced him, and said if he ever tried to touch me like that again I would punch him in the face. I’m not sure if my voice actually shook as I mustered up my courage or if it was the feeling of my knees shaking, but he apologized and said it would never happen again.
I turned and ran back to the safety of my room. When the deadbolt slammed home, I sank to the ground and called my mom, trying not to cry and terrified she wouldn’t believe me. Luckily, she did. And so did the other people she told. But she didn’t tell the person closest to him, because, as she explained it to me, they were worried she would take his side over mine and blame me. When another family member told me “that’s what you get for wearing tight clothes,” I fought back and told them it didn’t matter what I was wearing, that kind of behavior was inexcusable and shouldn’t be blamed on me, and I stormed back into my room.
No one spoke of it afterward.
But the scars stayed. Even though I had declared so vehemently what I knew to be true, I remember the deep, abiding sense of shame and fear of what had happened and how my body had been “the cause.”
There was another time, when I was traveling with my teammates at an out-of-state tournament, when one of my guy friends blew up at me because I was unsure of my feelings toward him. After I left to keep an appointment with some other friends, I started receiving a barrage of hurtful, hateful texts calling me a flirt, insinuating I was a slut, telling me that other people were right when they called me a tease. When I read them, I broke down and cried for hours because I never thought someone who I thought knew me so well could say such horrible things—could use all of my insecurities, vulnerabilities, and secrets laid bare and weaponized against me because he was angry I had told him “no.”
I had never felt so alienated, alone, and heartbroken as I did that night, trying to find a deserted corner of the hotel where no one I knew would be able to see me cry as more and more texts came in. I called my best friend and told him what happened between gut-wrenching sobs. And I was afraid to go back to my shared hotel room where I would have to face the people who had told him those things in the first place.
There have been so many other instances, moments that repeat until they build a lifetime of experiences: all the times when I felt threatened by men who approached me with “You’re so beautiful,” or “Hey gorgeous,” with that proprietary tone in their voice, when my “no’s” have gone unheard, ignored, and dismissed, when I have been touched without permission or consent. I learned that my body was something to be ashamed of: a source of harassment and hurt and unwanted sexualization. But I didn’t even know I’d learned it until a friend casually mentioned how he and another mutual friend had noticed how I tried to play down my curves, but that it didn’t work. I was stunned. I hadn’t realized how deeply the idea that I shouldn’t draw attention to my body had seeped into my mind. I disliked wearing anything that emphasized my breasts. I had felt uncomfortable buying my first pair of skinny jeans because I thought they drew too much attention to my hips.
As a woman of color, as a Filipina-American, there are so many conflicting narratives about beauty and what it means that, often, the nuances get lost in the telling. We strive to be beautiful because society has taught us we should be, but our beauty does not belong to us. It has taken me years to realize how deeply ingrained it is in our society for women to hate their bodies. We are told over and over again we are not beautiful the way we are: from the color of our skin to the shape of our nose to the curves of our hips. We are simultaneously too much and too little, not quite the right shape or size. Or else our beauty is fetishized, found “foreign” and “exotic.” Our looks are subsumed into narratives of colonization, race, and sexualization. We cannot own our bodies because other people own them first.
I was taught that the color of my skin somehow made me “less” because darker skin was not considered beautiful. I was taught that my body was not my own because other people’s perceptions, criticisms, and attention came first. When I got sexually harassed, it was my fault because I drew their attention by being “beautiful” or “sexy” or simply having curves. I have learned that usually when a man calls me beautiful, it is because he wants something from me. I have learned that somehow I am showing off by complaining. I have been told so many times, even by other women, that I should feel gratified by this attention, as if I am ungrateful for feeling threatened when a man approaches me and sexualizes me against my will.
But realizing those things has also given me the ammunition to replace them with other, more radical ideas of self-love, acceptance, and rebellion against these pervasive beliefs. It took years of effort, trying to find aspects I liked, before I could honestly look at myself and think, “I look pretty the way I am.” I remember texting one of my friends what had happened and her response was a blasé, “Of course you are. I could have told you that.” But that day marked a huge milestone for me: the beginning of claiming my reflection as being good enough, not for others’ attention or opinions, but for myself. I had begun the revolutionary process of reclaiming my body as my own and no one else’s.
Now, I have reached the point where I can look at the mirror and smile at my own reflection. And I am proud of the way I look, but even prouder of how I can practice a kind of radical self-love that fights against everything society has told me is unlovable or negative about my body.
For all the years I spent learning to hate myself, there are still so many more in which I want to grow in love and self-love for all the people who were taught that their bodies were not meant for them to nurture, take care of, and feel comfortable in. See, the thing is, I don’t need external validation to be content in the way I look. I don’t need strangers or acquaintances to tell me I’m beautiful, as if somehow telling me is a boon. I don’t care if other people call me beautiful because I don’t need their opinion of my physical appearance. I’d rather be complimented for how I live than how I look.
I am tired of being told that I cannot be comfortable in my own body. I am tired of dealing with what society tells me is “sexy” or “exotic.” And I am tired of men using the word “beautiful” as leverage in their quest for sexual gratification. I do not owe anyone any aspects of my body, from my smile to my skin to my sexuality. I refuse to engage in and perpetuate the colonial rhetoric that tells me my body is not good enough unless someone else wants it sexually. I refuse to let my personhood be dependent on misogynistic narratives of race and sexuality. And I refuse to let my life be one where other people’s recognition of and opinions about my body dictate how I live, work, and love.
The way a person’s hair grows from their head is purely genetic. It’s not a curious wonder. It’s not an oddity. It’s just hair. We can wear our hair in any style and it’s perfectly fine—it’s an exciting and purely personal choice.
My hair journey goes a little something like this: Growing up a tomboy with little patience for sitting still meant I either wore the same style for days or I sat on the kitchen floor for hours while my hair was washed, dried, and pressed for the week. Neither scenario made me happy. I grew up, but I didn’t really change my process, except that I went from getting my hair pressed every week to getting a perm. Still wearing it straight.
The decision to wear my hair natural was actually pretty easy. I made it because I was tired of sitting in a salon chair every two weeks to get my hair permed and cut into the style that I wore, and I was preparing to train for a marathon. I needed the least amount of maintenance and the best style to accommodate my new healthy lifestyle choice. Up to that point I had been perming my hair and wearing it straight for over twenty years, and I had no idea what it would look like unprocessed. But I couldn’t afford to sit in a salon for hours only to have my hair fall apart after a long run, so my decision was inevitable. I did the “big chop”—a process of cutting off my permed hair and leaving behind “virgin,” or unprocessed, hair—and I’ve never looked back.
Quite frankly, this was the best choice I’ve ever made regarding my hair. I love the idea that I can go from curls to straight to braids to afro. But this was a choice I made without thinking about what it would look like in an office environment, a choice I didn’t always see as revolutionary. Why should it matter?
Navigating the workplace with natural hair was an interesting experience. My white coworkers showered me with “oohs” and “ahhs” when I came into the office the Monday after I did the big chop. The tiny bit of insecurity I might have felt was met with acceptance by all but one older black coworker. She pulled me to the side in the bathroom and said, “Why did you cut your hair? No one is going to take you seriously anymore.” Words that cut. I tried to reason that she was from another generation, but she was the resistance I had anticipated—I just hadn’t expected someone who looked like me to deliver it.
I understood why she felt the way she did. Despite her comments, I felt secure in my choice to represent myself as my best self until the day I was touched.
As my hair grew, I began wearing it in various styles. Depending on those styles, I would often add extensions to make the braids fuller or the buns bigger. One of my colleagues stopped me in the hallway one day to comment on how much she loved my hair, and then she leaned in and touched me.
She didn’t ask to touch me, she just did it.
As she was petting me—because that’s what it felt like—she said, “How do you get those braids? Are they extensions?” My smile turned to a frown, and I backed all the way up. I looked at her with confusion, anger, and violation. I knew she was just curious and had no malicious intent, but it was also a teachable moment. I stepped back and said: “Yes, they are extensions. Thank you for the compliment, but please do not touch me.”
Now she looked confused, too. She hadn’t meant to offend me, she explained. She was just wondering how my hair felt. “Yes,” I said, “but it’s attached to me, and you didn’t ask.” She apologized and walked away.
There was a lot more I could have said to her about why it’s offensive to touch someone without permission, and especially offensive in the corporate environment. What I ended up saying to her was that it’s just hair. In the same way that her hair grows from her own head and she’s able to style it as she sees fit, my hair does the same.
Both the older colleague and the one who petted me placed me in a situation where I had to defend my personal choice. There was a bigger message in this. I learned that resisting the temptation to conform is an expression of revolution, and one I walk away from in confidence because I don’t address the “why” so much as I ask the question: “Why not?” Why I wear my hair in braids, for example, is not up for discussion, so much as, why does it matter? Owning my choice is how I stand in my confidence.
Each colleague took my personal expression as an invitation to violate boundaries, to overstep, and to have an opinion about something that truly has nothing to do with them, but my ability to look beyond that and continue expressing myself as I saw fit was a way to take that power back, because at the end of the day, it’s just hair, and aesthetics has nothing to do with genetics. It’s personal.
As a poet and lover of music, fiction, and other creative media, I’ve always considered art to be magical.
There is something fantastic about how a poem or a song goes from the creator to another person and makes them connect to things. In Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy Shadowshaper, Sierra Santiago uses art to reclaim her magical heritage and strengthen her community.
Set in Brooklyn, New York, Sierra Santiago is an Afro-Latina teenager who just wants to enjoy her summer vacation with her friends. When she notices a neighborhood mural fading and the expression of the subject growing sad and angry, she is urged to finish her own mural by Manny, a friend of her grandfather Lazáro. Then, a walking corpse of a neighborhood man crashes a summer party and Sierra is thrust into the magical world of the shadowshapers. In order to protect her loved ones, Sierra must uncover the shadowshapers’ connection to her family and become a shadowshaper herself.
As an urban fantasy book, the real world manages to feel just as wonderful as the magical world. This is mainly due to the wonderful cast of characters that make up the people in Sierra’s life and the personal backgrounds that they come from. Two of my personal favorite characters were Tee and Izzy, lesbian girlfriends that were funny and loyal. Other favorites included Sierra’s Uncle Neville and Sierra’s intelligent, fashion opposite friend Bennie.
Besides their personalities, each character has a way of speaking that feels magical. One bit of dialogue that caught my attention features a back-and-forth between a group of domino-playing older gentlemen that were friends of Sierra’s grandpa Lazáro. In chapter six, Sierra pays them a visit and hears the following:
“Trouble at school, Sierra?” asked Mr. Jean-Louise. “Public school is a cesspool of poisonous bile.”
Manny threw his hands up, “¡Cállate, viejo!The child needs her education. Don’t ruin it for her just because you dropped out of kindergarten.”
Since the characters have strong ties to each other and their neighborhood, having the magical world of shadowshaping just underneath it makes them even more memorable. Shadowshaping involves giving spirits of departed loved ones and ancestors a physical form by fusing them with art. For Sierra and the other shadowshapers she encounters, the art is mainly visual, but shadowshaping can also be done through other creative means such as storytelling. The purpose of shadowshaping is to remember those who have come before and recently passed, preserving the past and present for the future generations.
In the real world, we already use art to remember and pass on the memories, traditions, and cultures of departed loved ones. Murals painted around cities become memorials and certain songs are sung, listened to, and written in tribute. However, Shadowshaper takes these things a step further by using the magic of shadowshaping to fight back against forces that try to eradicate an entire heritage. Protagonist Sierra Santiago must learn not only about shadowshaping, but also to stand up for the neighborhood and the culture that makes her who she is.
At the same time that the shadowshapers are being eradicated, Sierra’s multi-cultural neighborhood is experiencing gentrification. Places that Sierra and her friends used to go to are being transformed into establishments for white, middle class consumers. When the book opens, Sierra is in the middle of painting a mural on a building known as The Tower, a large-scale incomplete building that looms over the junklot where Manny and his friends play dominos. It is later revealed that Manny has a connection to the shadowshapers and that Sierra painting the mural was his way of trying to protect the neighborhood and the remaining shadowshapers.
Not only is Sierra fighting a battle within her own neighborhood, but she is also fighting an internal battle as well. Although she is confident in herself, there are times that she doesn’t feel she is enough of an Afro-Latina girl. Tía Rosa, her aunt, makes comments that contain anti-blackness and colorism (i.e. discrimination based on how light or dark one’s skin tone is). She says that Sierra’s friend Robbie is too dark and that Sierra’s hair is too nappy. In addition, Sierra also deals with sexual harassment while walking around her neighborhood, being shamed by her mom for her interest in shadowshaping, and sexism as a female shadowshaper.
Given all that Sierra experiences in her daily life, her heroic journey is deeply compelling. Sierra uses her artistic talent and shadowshaping to protect her neighborhood and reclaim a magical heritage she learns to appreciate through her family and friends. As a poet, I can’t help but admire Sierra Santiago and see part of myself in her. With paintbrush and chalk, Sierra Santiago shows that an artist can be a hero, a creative making something from shadows in order to express herself and preserve and protect what is important.
The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.
Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.
The best I continue to have, to enjoy, and to love is Toni Morrison. But I don’t read her: she reads to me.
The power in her narrative, the pain she digs out of your insides, the metaphorical genius that cuts through the literal mind and forces you to search for her meaning, the unmatched concision of her speech—with not one misplaced thought or misdirected angle, not a single sentence overrun or a phrase understated.
She is the reason I write. She is the reason I embrace my own pain and attempt to transcribe it into words.
My relationship with Morrison began in my freshman year of high school, over a decade ago, when I was required to read The Bluest Eye. I had never read anything so figuratively convincing before. I had never read something that addressed the most intensely personal situations and deep-rooted conflict from the eyes and mind of an eleven-year-old girl.
Upon reaching the conclusion of Bluest Eye, I remember having a tiff with a classmate about whether the color of Pecola’s eyes changed. My argument was that the color of Pecola’s eyes changed because she believed it, and no further explanation was required. A “what is real to me versus what is actually real” debate commenced ,and it was fantastic. Morrison’s style is so poetic, symbolic, and majestic that she eliminates the distinction between the two, and as a result, what is real to me is actually real.
Morrison transformed my way of looking at the world. She changed the lens with which I viewed my surroundings, and this transformation felt incredibly emancipating.
I began to delve past the façade of pasted-on facial expressions and rehearsed laughter for that deeper meaning behind closed eyes and mute tongues. I am that person who wants to hear your story from beginning to end: I gasp, ooh and aah, I tear up, I become angry when you become angry, I smile when you pour your heart out, I feel the love you declare.
I always enjoyed listening to people’s stories, especially those of the elderly and the traveled. Morrison taught me to find the pain and struggle in the untold parts of their stories, to piece together the meaning of their incredible journeys, and, finally, to tie it all back to the unbelievable strength of the individual.
I am a bit of a history buff. Even now, my DVR is overrun with History Channel pieces. This interest in history led to my discovery of sociohistorical fiction. When learning about the sequence of events that led up to major conflict across borders, involving key political figures and nations, I wanted to travel back in time to ask the people of that time and place how they felt. I wasn’t solely interested in the decision-making process: I wanted to have a lengthy conversation with a layperson and his or her family. Sociohistorical fiction allows an inside view of the social impact history had on families, kids, lovers, and leaders. Although some literature and personal reflections have been preserved, we don’t have social media, blogs, and limitless creative expression from people of other time periods. Without these sources, it is nearly impossible to fathom the feelings and sensations of a people through uprising, turmoil, political upheaval, famine, disease, and loss. These unknowns spark such an interest in me. I want to do the research and be the historian. I want to be able to feel, somehow, or get even the slightest glimpse into those minds.
Although I read some historical fiction prior to Morrison, her style was unlike any HF I had encountered to that point. What is magnificent about her way of writing is her ability to tell a story within a story. This is where metaphor meets sociohistory. The exploitation and dehumanization of blacks throughout history, and still to this day, is the backdrop of her novels. She presents perfected characters with their socially labeled “imperfections,” an underlying civil issue sets the tone, and she brings in perspectives from the old and young, the brave and the forgotten, the now and the then. It is literary brilliance the way she agilely impels the reader to come face to face with the grueling catastrophes of black history, from slavery to torture to rape to liberation, seclusion, domination, and debasement.
For me, the literary agony in Beloved was unbearable. I’ve cried many times during a good read, but this was the first time I actually had to close the book about halfway through and put it away. I was solemn for days and could not get myself to pick it up again and finish. Never before had words stabbed at my soul so deep. I tried finishing it later that year, yes, I tried many times that year. Peeking at the next page, skimming it over to see if the bad was gone and some good was on its way. I read a few lines but felt the wounds reopening. I had to close it yet again and reshelve it until I was at a different, more mature stage in my life, about eight years later—at a point when I had seen and experienced a little too much, but enough to solidify my spine.
My familiar tears resumed, my heart stiffened and clenched through to the very last word. It almost felt like I was holding my breath through the remainder of the book. Upon concluding this masterpiece, when I could breathe again, I was ready to write.
It’s extremely difficult to put into words exactly what Morrison did for me. She awoke a silent, creative part of me. She encouraged me to unscramble a not-quite-perfect sentence to make it right. She pushed me, in a complex, tenderly firm manner—she pushed me outside my comfortable boundaries and stood me up to face, internalize, and express. She navigated me to the darkest corners of my inner self and helped me find peace with everything hiding there.
Most importantly, she has taught me to embrace all that is good and all that is me.
In 2010, I was zealously playing an action-adventure Wild West video game called Red Dead Redemption by Rockstar Games.
The game follows ex-outlaw John Marston, on a quest to atone for his past and save his family from a shady government agency during the early twentieth century. It is deep, moving, engrossing, and a helluva lotta fun…everything I wanted my own stories to be.
I’d just published my debut contemporary romance under my other pen name, Vicki Essex, when the thought came to me: Why weren’t there more fantasies set in the Wild West? Why were so many magical worlds set in feudal fairytale kingdoms with castles and kings and wizards?
And so The Devil’s Revolver was born. I’d always been a reader of YA fantasy and aspired to publish in the genre. Fueled by hours of playing through bloody gunfights and long horseback rides across a seemingly endless, beautifully rendered landscape, I set out to write my story about a cursed cowgirl and a magic gun.
The question was, would anyone want to read a Western, even if there was magic in it? Despite the number of successful cross-genre stories like the Joss Whedon show Firefly (another inspiration) and Cowboys vs. Aliens (who doesn’t love Daniel Craig?), I realized that getting an audience hinged on two things: characters and world building.
I knew from the start that Hettie Alabama would have a long journey ahead of her. She was hardworking, family-centered, hard-headed—a product of her sometimes harsh surroundings with both boots planted firmly on the ground. She was “mundane,” bearing no magic gift of her own, and her only concerns for the future were ensuring the safety and security of her parents and little sister, Abby. She was also coming of age in a world where women’s roles were still limited, where brutal violence was commonplace, and where justice didn’t always mean fairness or satisfaction.
And then I handed her a legendary long-lost cursed weapon everyone was after.
Building the magical world around Hettie was more challenging than I’d anticipated. The world of The Devil’s Revolver started as one that was basically turn-of-the-century American, “but with magic.” History happened as it had, “but with magic.” Science and technology kept pace with real-life timelines for the most part, “but with magic.” It wasn’t a tough stretch—when you can imagine a spell to make something happen, you can imagine a counterspell to stop it from happening.
I kept the use of magic sparse and practical. When I started, I knew that magic had a price, that it was as precious as gold, nearly as scarce, and dwindling in intensity and supply. Sorcerers didn’t waste magic on frivolities—spells had to be as pragmatic as Hettie herself was, but also life-altering in the same way indoor plumbing might be in a rural household.
What I hadn’t really considered until well into the first draft was just how complex the system of magic would be in this world, and what it would mean to various characters and cultural groups. I couldn’t just appropriate rituals, beliefs, and ceremonies to fit into my story. To some groups of people, these magical traditions were real.
So began my own journey to decolonize my writing. As a result, “magic” in Hettie’s world, as I conceived it, couldn’t be a single overriding tradition, nor could it necessarily all come from one single source as more rigorous standards for world building might require. Every culture has its own forms of magic, whether it’s fortune-telling, prayer, conversing with otherworldly beings, healing, manipulating others…the list goes on and on. In short, “magic” allows us to trust in what is and what can be achieved through various customs or rituals without qualifying its value. Some people call this faith.
The journey’s a long one, for myself and for Hettie. I hope you’ll enjoy The Devil’s Revolver and come back for the rest of the series, coming soon from Brain Mill Press.