Beauty Beyond the Physical: A Chat With Jamila Reddy

When we started Beauty Dummy our vision was to create a place not just to share knowledge, but to share wisdom and experiences. Every month, we'll feature a human in our community that inspires us. This week, that human is Jamila Reddy: writer, activist, and all-around motivator. She talked with us about the connection between self-image and self-care, and how unapologetic confidence can be an act of resistance. 

What does it matter that I’m beautiful, if I’m suffering?

Beauty Dummy: You’re a writer and an activist. Your creative background includes theater, poetry, journalism, beauty blogging and more. Currently you inspire people about self-care and strength through social media. How would you describe your passion and define what you do?

Jamila Reddy: My passion is helping people live beautiful, joyful, peaceful, extraordinary lives.  I am passionate about not taking this human experience for granted, and doing whatever I can to become absolutely happy. I’m using the Nichiren Buddhist understanding of "absolute happiness" — it’s opposite is relative happiness — and it’s a state of being in which you possess indestructible happiness (also called enlightenment, or Buddhahood).   What I do, with various modes and methods, is try to get there, and then help others try to get there, too. To this end, I do lots of things. I write. I encourage people. I throw parties. I intentionally pursue joy, play, and pleasure. I speak candidly about things that stand in the way of me and my happiness. I start conversations. I challenge myself to get out of my own way.

BD: One of our favorite hashtags you use on Instagram is #selfienotsorry. People are often derided for posting too many selfies – not to mention “imperfect” ones. But you post selfies with pride, and they often come from a more vulnerable place that the typical gram. What made you decide to reclaim your body and emotions through social media, and what has that process been like?

JR: Social media, for me, is a space in which I have ownership over my image and my narrative. As a queer Black woman, I have spent my entire life consuming distorted representations of myself, and worse, not being represented at all. I like selfies because they require me to look at myself. There is no third party — no intermediary — between me and my image, between me and my story. This feels empowered. James Baldwin wrote, “When you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, […] you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” I like to think that’s what I’m doing by taking selfies without apology — I’m standing up like I have a right to be here.

JR: In the spirit of transparency, the process of reclaiming my body and emotions through social media has been a long and difficult one. It’s ongoing. I don’t know that it ever ends. The process has required being honest with myself about the ways that I have been complicit in my own suffering. I recently watched a trailer for Stacey Patton’s upcoming book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, in which she says, “What we have to stop doing as Black people is becoming co-conspirators and participants in the dehumanization process.” When I speak up, when I share my voice, when I allow myself to be seen, when I take up space in places where, before, I didn't exist — I’m resisting my own silence, my own erasure, my own distorted image. I’m trying not to become a co-conspirator in my own oppression.

BD: There’s an undeniable connection between self-care, physical wellness and mental health. How has caring for your mind as well as your body impacted your perception of your own beauty?

JR: Caring for my mind and my body has allowed me to understand that my beauty extends far beyond my physical appearance. What does it matter that I’m beautiful, if I’m suffering? What does it matter that people find me pretty if my physical wellness is deteriorating? If my mind is stuck in the dark? What matters most to me is that my life is beautiful. Caring for myself is the simplest and most generous thing I do to make sure that it is so.

BD: There’s so much to be said for standing up for your visibility, especially in this social climate, as a queer woman of color. How do you maintain strength and confidence during the hard times?

JR: Philosophically, I maintain strength and confidence by reminding myself that I, and only I, am responsible for my happiness. This allows me to navigate life’s sufferings — grief, violence, fear, trauma— knowing that not only are they temporary, but that they don’t have power over me unless I give them power. They can’t destroy me unless I allow myself to be destroyed. This, again, is Nichiren Buddhist philosophy: The only way to be defeated is to give up.

Practically, I maintain strength and confidence by giving myself permission to have a full range of human experiences. The harder the times, the harder I pursue indulgent self-care, full-belly laughter, collective joy, safe space with loved ones — things that feel good. Things that remind me how delicious and delightful it is to be alive.

BD: Is there a piece of advice about self image you want to share with folks who may be struggling with theirs?

JR: Yes, but I won't pretend to take full credit for it. A few years ago, I had the fortune of hearing Sonya Renee Taylor, the founder of The Body is Not An Apology, speak on a panel, and she said something that changed my life. She asked the audience to consider, “Who profits from your self-loathing?” This question stopped me in my tracks. It allowed me to see my distorted self-image for what it really was: A trick of the enemy.  So my advice is this: When you’re struggling with self image — which is to say, when you’re struggling to see yourself clearly — it helps to remember that there are systems set up to ensure that you do not. There are systems of power in place to prevent you from loving yourself. When you think about this, I mean really think about it, it’s a lot easier to let some of that self-doubt and self-loathing go. It’s not yours. And it doesn’t serve you. So you can let it go.

Follow Jamila on Instagram @blackauntiesupreme and Medium @jamilareddy. If you like what you read, get access to exclusive creative works by donating to her Patreon