In recent times, we have seen a few inspiring women who have altered the way we understand femininity, beauty and courage. I speak of three noteworthy women—political activist Ang Suu Kyi, Oscar-winning actress Lu–pita Nyong’o, and the inimitable writer J.K. Rowling. To me, what is amazing about these women has been a life that had moved from adversity to personal triumph.
Suu Kyi, Burma’s foremost political figure, typically seen with fresh flowers on her hair and pastel-colored dresses, embodies the stark contrast between a woman’s frailty and softness against iron-clad convictions about freedom and democracy.
Then, there’s Rowling, who would have lived a quiet life as a mother, had it not been for her remarkable imagination in creating Harry Potter’s magical world—a world that has completely transformed children’s literature.
Finally, the young actress, Nyong’o, considered a breakthrough in Hollywood, has left many in awe of her eloquence and grace. There are a few times when I am completely moved by words so perfectly spoken; thus, such an injustice to even paraphrase these. And sharing words from these women hopefully leave you equally heartened.
On the true meaning of beauty, Nyong’o so wonderfully captured it in her speech: “I too remember a time when I would turn on the TV and only see pale skin. I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself before I was in front of a mirror, because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced just the same disappointment at being just as dark as I had been the day before . . .
“My mother used to say to me, ‘You can’t eat beauty, it doesn’t feed you.’ And these words played and bothered me, I didn’t really understand them until finally I realized that beauty was not a thing that I could acquire or consume. It was something that I just had to be. And what my mother meant by saying that you can’t eat beauty is that you can’t rely on beauty to sustain you . . .
“And so I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey. That you will feel the validation for your beauty, but also get to the deeper business of feeling beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”
On failure and adversity, Rowling’s words delivered during Harvard’s graduation rites in 2008 are just as compelling: “So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life . . .
“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”
On conquering one’s fear and success, Suu Kyi has been known for these lines: “The four basic ingredients for success are: you must have the will to want something; you must have the right kind of attitude; you must have perseverance; and then you must have wisdom. Then you combine these four and then you get to where you want to get to.”
We often feel that there are no heroes in our midst, when in fact we do, as long as we simply take time to listen. And in the words of these sublimely intelligent women, we do find quite heroism and true inspiration.