Reading Women on Books That Reckon with Beauty Privilege
Kendra Winchester and Sumaiyya Naseem Introduce October's Theme
This week on Reading Women, Kendra and Sumaiyya introduce October’s reading theme—beauty privilege—and why it felt important to dive in to this topic.
From the episode:
Kendra: So now it’s time to jump into our theme for October, and that is beauty privilege. Sumaiyya, I remember when you brought this up, and I thought it was a fabulous idea. What inspired you to pick this theme for October?
Sumaiyya: Well, beauty is something that I’ve always been interested in—not beauty in itself but the way people respond to it. Growing up, I’ve always been quite conscious of the way we talk about other people’s appearance. And seeing my nieces and nephew grow up and seeing the kind of comments they have to hear as children, that is definitely something that has made me more aware of the social conditioning that happens around beauty.
Obviously, books have also given me an interest in this because we don’t often see characters who are ordinary looking. Especially in young adult fiction, characters are always so beautiful. When I was a teenager reading YA fantasy, all of those books, I already did not relate to the characters because it did not represent the kind of background or life that I was living, not just in fantasy but YA in general. I come from a very different cultural context. But there’s also the fact that they were always really beautiful. Beauty was something that the author paid a lot of attention to. So that’s always been at the back of my mind.
I feel like we have these beauty ideals in our society and in our cultures that also hint at the colorism and the racial prejudice that exists in our contexts. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been really interested in this in my own personal life and also in literature. Another thing is, being on Instagram as a Bookstagrammer has definitely made me more conscious of the way people like to present themselves as flawless. We have a lot of exposure to that ideal beauty, which marginalizes difference.
Kendra: That’s interesting you mentioning the Bookstagram context, because I think that is very applicable for the bookish realms we wander in on the internet. And that self-consciousness that comes if you portray yourself as you are every day. Like right now, I’m sitting in polar bear king pajamas. I don’t look glamorous every day. I look glamorous when I go maybe to a wedding and actually put makeup on.
Why do we do that, though? This conversation and talking about this theme really made me think about that. The books we chose made me think about beauty in other cultural contexts as well, and what that looks like. We have a great group of books here today. And then Joce, in the second part of the show, has two more picks, which will be fabulous. And she says they are some of her favorite books of the year, so it’s quite the recommendation.
Sumaiyya: Wow, that’s incredible. I just want to add that—so last night, the Instagram Live that I did with Megha [Majumdar], I did do my makeup and I felt really glamorous. I was feeling really happy. And this morning, with all of the makeup gone and being in my pajamas, I’m like, was it really me? Was I the same person? I feel like there’s this sense of disconnect that it causes in ourselves. And I was really happy to read these books that are addressing that. These books are looking at proximities to beauty and how we limit our definition of people or our value of people based on just their external beauty, and how we don’t acknowledge people for who they are and rather focus on what they look like, which is maybe toxic.
October’s Six Picks:
My Past Is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani
Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
Say Hello by Carly Findlay
Miss Meteor by Tehlor Kay Mejia and Anna-Marie McLemore
One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London