Rebecca Walker on Redefining Beauty

Fearless, resolute and outspoken, the American feminist, activist and writer Rebecca Walker talks to us about her mission to upend beauty stereotypes

Writer and activist Rebecca Walker is a provocative thinker and is now turning her incisive mind to beauty. Picture / Supplied

In January 1992, at the age of just 22, Rebecca Walker cemented her place in feminist history with an essay for Ms. magazine in which she urged women to channel their rage against the patriarchy into direct action. Writing in the wake of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, where lawyer Anita Hill’s testimony that Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her was considered, and then disregarded, Rebecca called for women to join her in the “third wave” of feminism.

‘Let this dismissal of a woman’s experience move you to anger’, she wrote. ‘Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for [men] unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don’t prioritise our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.’

More than 25 years later, a fresh wave of feminist fervour is breaking loose across the world. Millions of women have given voice to long-silenced stories of sexual harassment and assault via the #metoo and #timesup movements at a volume that can no longer be ignored by companies, governments and the media.

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And yet Rebecca — a lifetime activist, author and feminist leader — who is a keynote speaker at the All About Women event in Sydney this weekend for this year’s International Women’s Day, isn't going to talk about being angry. She's planning to speak about searching for beauty. Specifically: Beauty as Resistance, the title of her seminar.

“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” she says.

“I’ve done so many different kinds of activism — direct action, political voter registration, writing, speaking, so many different things — and of late I’ve really been thinking about what sustains me and what gives me the energy I need to survive in such a challenging landscape. I keep coming back to this idea that beauty heals; that when I am in the presence of beauty — whether it’s the ocean, or an incredible painting, or a sweet, beautiful face or body, I feel a kind of deep healing and happiness that I think is underrated as a means of empowerment.”

It’s an unconventional choice of topic, but Rebecca has always been an unconventional feminist. Growing up in a biracial family during the height of the American civil rights movement, she had direct experience of struggling to find a place in the world.

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Her mother, renowned African-American novelist and second-wave feminist Alice Walker, both loved and resented her daughter for the impositions that motherhood placed on her career. After Alice divorced Rebecca’s father, Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal, Rebecca bounced between the artistic poverty of her mother’s home in San Francisco, and a “whiter”, more middle-class upbringing at her father’s suburban home in New York.

Her 2001 memoir, Black, White and Jewish explored her search for identity through a difficult coming-of-age that included early sexual experimentation, an abortion at 14 and drug-taking at school. Her second memoir, Baby Love, recounted her experience of raising a step-son with her former lesbian partner Me’shell Ndegéocello, and then coming to late motherhood with the birth of her son Tenzin at age 37.

After its publication, Rebecca became publicly estranged from her mother, who disapproved of her having a baby, and then raised some feminist hackles by cautioning young women against leaving motherhood too late.

It’s this stubborn refusal to subscribe to anyone else’s ideas of how to be, or what to care about that informs Rebecca’s ideas on how to transform beauty from a tool of oppression to one of empowerment. “Beauty as a concept has been so corrupted by this culture,” she says.

“Our standards of beauty have been shaped and defined by people who are also brutally assaulting and oppressing us as women and people of colour and queer people. Everyone who doesn’t fit into this standard of ‘beauty’ suffers as a result.”

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One of the biggest challenges is for people who come from a culture where traditional markers of beauty fall outside the narrow modern beauty conventions.

“Before we spoke, I was thinking about New Zealand and the beauty of Maori tattooing and what it means,” she says. “I can’t speak for a culture that’s not my own, but I can imagine [what it’s like] being told that that kind of marking of the body is somehow a problem and being convinced that you should let that go. But in fact, when those kind of markings have strengthened and inspired and connected your community for as long as anyone can remember, you’re running the risk of losing something that’s ineffable but also absolutely necessary for survival.”

Reclaiming the definition of beauty and taking steps to re-educate our ingrained patterns of thinking about what is beautiful is a deep act of resistance, she says.

“When we say, ‘No, your definition is not one we accept or espouse — we will define beauty for ourselves,’ that’s a position of power. So the journey is to figure out how to do that in one’s daily life.”

For herself, Rebecca says that comes in the form of being aware of what she’s consuming visually and intellectually, and making nourishing choices, in the same way that getting enough sleep and eating well benefits physical health. She believes that Instagram feeds full of “physically altered” celebrities like the Kardashians create a toxic culture where young women would rather choose to alter themselves through surgery and beauty treatments in order to be accepted than stand up and reject such a narrow definition of beauty.

“To me that’s so tragic because there are so many things in life that we cannot control, but deleting an app and unfollowing a feed — those are things we can control. If you are looking at something and it’s making you feel bad about yourself, stop looking at it! It’s not beneficial for you. Find something that is.”

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It’s something she makes sure to talk about with her son, who is just on the edge of young adulthood.

“It’s a very important conversation for us as mothers to be having with our sons — like all the conversations about sex and sexuality and pleasure and consent — because we’re raising the next generation of men. My beautiful son hears me talking about these things all the time. Everything we look at, I’m saying, ‘Notice what’s considered beautiful in this film, this TV show. Notice that these are the images you’re being shown over and over again. You’re being taught that this is beauty, and it’s a very discriminatory and limited view of what beauty is.’

I talk about how it’s like being sold candy all the time, or sugary cereals. You’re being sold images like this, that are so unhealthy, and your sexuality is being shaped and changed by it. Even images in our home are very diverse. It’s very important to me that he sees images of women and men that are outside of those ridiculously narrow standards, and lives with them every day, so they become his normal.”

Picture / Supplied

Rebecca’s own journey to self-acceptance was aided by her conversion to Buddhism, she says. “I’ve been studying Buddhism for 20 years and I would say that was a big part of realising that real beauty has to do with the mind, and a kind of equanimity and a way of being that is generous and kind and fierce.”

The Buddhist acceptance of impermanence helped her to realise that her body “is going to go through a lot of changes and then it’s going to die”, she says with a light laugh. “So beauty is much more about what you bring to the conversation.”

The equanimity and peaceful self-acceptance that Rebecca talks about is deeply evident in her way of being. Even when she’s talking about things that upset and challenge her, her voice is as soothing as a lullaby, softening the blow of her words. She has clearly internalised the idea that human nature is complex and contradictory and frustrating, but no less valuable for it.

“People always make fun of me, because I always feel like all human beings are beautiful,” she says, sounding amused at her own contrariness.

“I’m… I am having a hard time with our current president, but generally, I can see the humanity in people, and I find that very beautiful — their stories, what they have overcome, who they are trying to be in the world, their aspirations, their suffering, their tenderness, their pain. All of that to me is very moving. So even though I can be deeply critical or upset, at the end of the day, I recognise the human struggle, the human drive to make meaning and be happy. That’s something very, very beautiful.”

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