We met in the ladies’ loo, an unplanned meeting that seemed appropriate, given the evening’s agenda. Author and editor stood under the harsh fluorescent lights, applying makeup and (in my case) moaning about having a bad-hair day. All the while appreciating the irony that we were worrying about our appearances while celebrating the launch of her new book on beauty, inside and out.
Chine Mbubaegbu has penned Am I Beautiful? from an achingly vulnerable place. She admitted last night, in our Q&A session, that her first draft originated from her journalist self. When Claire Musters and I, who edited her book (with Claire doing the lion’s share of the editing), received the first draft, we were… disappointed. Chine later admitted that she had hoped for a sort of Christian-Malcolm-Gladwell type of treatment on the subject of beauty – what is beauty, how Christian women deal with the world’s expectations and our own, and so on. But although her treatment was good, Claire and I wondered, where was the book’s heart beat? Where was the story lurking underneath the story?
With some gentle (but painful) prodding, Chine reworked the book. Transformed it – in the hours between getting home from her day job before going out at night (ah to be in one’s 20s!). The result is a narrative that not only contains the voices of other women and theological reflections and social observation, but the gut-wrenching stories of a woman in her journey to come to terms with how her outside packaging, so to speak, affects her emotions, thoughts – and her soul.
Last night, in echoes of the thought-provoking TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, Chine told the story of her five-year-old self in primary school, drawing a self-portrait. She chose a yellow crayon for her hair and blue for her eyes. Only when one of her friends exclaimed, “That doesn’t look anything like you!” did she realize her folly. She, born in Nigeria, had black hair and brown eyes. The only girl with dark skin in her class, she felt an outcast. She didn’t realize her own beauty.
The evening was a smash, filled with bookstore people, friends and family of Chine, movers and shakers and bloggers and tweeters. I loved the Q&A session, and thought the last question was apposite, asked by a man: “I have one daughter and another who is going to be born any minute. How do I let them know that they are beautiful?”
It’s a question I ask myself when raising my daughter. As Chine said, yes of course, tell them that they are beautiful, but praise them too for being clever and kind and for working hard and for being loving and… I know some people make it a practice not to tell little girls that they are cute – because so often that can be our only reaction. I wonder if as long as we praise them for a myriad of things, including that they are beautiful could act as a deposit against the tirade of society’s (and their peers’) assessment that they are found wanting. What do you think?
I end with the final question I asked Chine during our Q&A: “How do you answer the question in the title of the book?”