Life, Work and Wellness

Beautiful, sensuous, triumphant & actualizing women: my summer reading list

In Brain Pickings, one of the most precious gems on the internet, Maria Popova prompts her readers to construct their own “intellectual, creative, and ideological lineage.” Ancestry as a choice is a simple yet powerful idea that allows one to possess values and dreams that are unconfined by circumstance.

Simple as the idea is, its execution is difficult and most likely the project of a lifetime. If we never stop growing, if we don’t tame our curiosities and lock in to our interests unwilling and disinterested in wonder and discovery, we will always have ancestors to add to our lineages.

This summer, my project to seek more ancestors for my lineage had me spending time with the following women.

1. Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye challenges one to look into oneself and to identify the messages we have internalized about ourselves, how we are seen, and our position in the world. More importantly, it assigns culpability to those of us whose relatively healthy sense of self stems from knowing that we in part meet beauty standards and other social acceptance criteria, however racist, unjust and irrational those standards and criteria may be.

It is hard to reject privilege, impossible perhaps. There is a satisfaction Claudia and her sister derived from feeling beautiful “astride [Pecola’s] ugliness”. Morrison challenges the Claudias among us to confront the injustice, racism and colorism that is in our privilege, to reject our acceptance of it.

2. Michelle Obama

Becoming has much to say about those supportive relationships whose warm security allows one to overcome odds. For Michelle, such warmth started with a tight knit family in South Chicago. Later, these same filial relationships will remain a sustaining force. But she will seek and nurture similar qualities in her relationships with her female friends, her mentors, even her employees, and this way claim the strength she needs to take huge leaps of faith, from falling in love, to leaving a corporate law career, to acquiescing to her husband’s political career, to becoming a campaigning powerhouse for her husband’s bids.

When we go out of our way to surround ourselves with the right kind of people, when we fall in love with people that challenge us to question ourselves and to become better versions of ourselves, the immutable process of growing into adulthood is no longer just aging, it is becoming.

3. Minna Salami

I will admit, sexuality doesn’t come to mind when I think of African feminism, even if it so rightly should. Many African women I look up to are defined by their roles as mothers and wives and by their striving as farmers, entrepreneurs, teachers, corporate women.

It is a balance I have been more than comfortable with, one drilled down into me by an African context so sanitized by colonialism, religion and neocolonialism, and one that insisted we call women not by their names but by Mrs. Odiek, Ms. Karanja, Mama Muthoni, gina wa Kendi, auntie Karambu, through a lens that centered their identities as wives, daughters, mothers, and aunties. A journalist, as Salami argues in her TED talk, would probably have centered their identity on their survival, their struggle, their empowerment — never just on their womanhood.

Salami’s Sensuous Knowledge will be out in February 2020, but her essay, Reclaiming Eros in Patriarchy is a great start for the more of us who could use an expanded view of African womanhood.

4. Gillian Flynn

Sharp Objects has little to uplift. There are no bigger truths, no comforting resolutions to get to after Camille Preaker has spent years cutting her body, simmering in self loathing.

The worst could happen, the abyss could deepen, and life would still go on. One can choose to live, to survive, to be kind to oneself and to others.

5. Maya Angelou

There is something breathtaking about a black woman who decides that the world is hers, to be seen, to be interrogated, to be situated, especially in a world in which she often is under the non-discerning gaze of others. Singin’ and Swingin and Gettin Merry Like Christmas is about a woman who gets to see and to situate herself in the world, but with the raw self awareness of one who has known pain.

The next time you travel, break from the confines defined by past paths, refuse the boundaries dictated by color, space and time, break bread with old friends and with strangers.

6. Mindy Kaling

Why Not Me is about earning entitlement to occupy spaces that others like you ordinarily do not occupy. It is about pushing back when the answer is “No” and claiming the success due to you. Of course you’re good enough. Of course you have worked hard enough.

It is about being the hardest working person you know, and knowing that in addition to everything else you are, that should be enough.

Life, Work and Wellness

In Toni Morrison’s first novel, eternal lessons on how to feel beautiful

When Toni Morrison was in elementary school more than eight decades ago, a school friend expressed her wish to have blue eyes. It was a shocking conversation that would inspire Morrison’s first novel, in which her main character, Pecola, is also a child praying for blue eyes, the only alteration she believes will make her beautiful. It is a heart-wrenching story, but one that has existed in different versions among girls whose traits are just at the margins of what is implicitly considered beautiful.

But beauty, argues Morrison, was not something “to behold.” It was rather “something one could do.”

How was one to do beauty? A reading of Morrison’s first novel might have some clues.

1. Engage critically with all messages within and without

Everyone looking at the Breedloves, at Pecola and her family, thought them ugly, narrates Morrison’s narrator, but even on a closer look one couldn’t identify the source of ugliness. It was merely a conviction that was further reinforced by billboards, movies and their experience interacting with others.

Central at doing beauty so that one can become it and experience it, is questioning the numerous messages that attempt to build such a destructive conviction, and seeking messages that attempt to build the opposite self-affirming conviction. Become aware of your insecurities, hair that is too kinky, a nose that is too large, skin that is too dark, thighs that are too thick, identify the sources of these insecurities and the logical problems in their constructions, and proactively seek self-affirming messages that deconstruct them.

This is how Lupita Nyong’o became beautiful. Her prayers for a fairer skin never did get answered. But even as the preference for lighter skin prevailed around her, she grew into her own definition of beauty by seeing herself in Alek Wek and consuming media messages that celebrated Alek Wek as beautiful.

2. Love deeply. Care for deeply.

A stable home and a mother who loved unconditionally gave Claudia and her sibling the confidence to stand apart, to see, and to question. With sympathy, Claudia narrates the struggles of the black women that have learnt to be a little less than themselves, who “hold their behind in for fear of a sway too free”, who do not cover their entire mouth with lipstick for “fear of lips too thick”, and who “worry, worry, worry about the edges of their hair.”

Where Claudia is young but perceptive, the violence in Pecola’s home has taught her to retreat into herself when she experiences indifference and hostility. But how does one who wishes to disappear confront and question that which one must disappear from?

To love ourselves deeply, to love others deeply, to maintain and nurture unconditional sustaining relationships, is how we get the confidence and courage to reject messages that attempt to diminish us.

3. Get beyond the shame of internalized self-loathing

Claudia knows that the Thing that made her and her sister lesser than Maureen Peal who was not as nice, or even as bright, that was the Thing that was to be feared.

But internalized racism and self loathing wasn’t just to be feared. One had to intellectually fight to root it out. One had to look for the source of ugliness and find it absent, to reconstruct a narrative that revealed the truth. As Lupita found out in due course, a day had to come when one decided that one just had to be beautiful.

And this intellectual journey towards the truth that dismantles racist beauty standards need not be a personal project. It can be a compassionate project for others in our lives. It can be an impact-driven project for entire communities as it was for Kwame Brathawaithe when he and his brother helped found a collective, African Jazz Art Society and Studios, that would celebrate black power and black beauty.

Life, Work and Wellness

On Self Love: Lessons from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

There are many takeaways from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and there is a lot to feel. Anger that she gets turned away from the doors of an Oxbridge library because she is a woman unaccompanied by a fellow or a letter of introduction, hopelessness that her imagination that in 100 years the equality of sexes would have been achieved has not come true — and it many not come true for another two centuries at least, sadness that the financial inclusion that eluded aspiring women writers centuries ago still continues to elude a majority of women in the rural developing world who till lands whose title deeds they do not own. The list is endless.

Despite all of these feelings, and others that must surely result from a barrage of sad news that we encounter daily about the state of a world that is becoming increasingly divided, unequal and less kind, seek a personal space that allows your work, your being, your living, to be ridden of bitterness and anger that might destroy its very essence.

Asked to speak about women and fiction, Woolf finds that the lyricism of many women’s writing disintegrates into indignation. Women like Charlotte Brönte might have had great writing genius, but encumbered by anger at their circumstance that restricted women’s freedoms and relegated them to household work, they could never write to their potential as Shakespeare could.

All desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed. Therefore his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare. If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded, I thought, turning again to the bookcase, it was Shakespeare’s mind.

Jane Austen did manage to write beyond her circumstance.

And, I wondered, would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel if Jane Austen had not thought it necessary to hide her manuscript from visitors? I read a page or two to see; but I could not find any signs that her circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest. That, perhaps, was the chief miracle about it. Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.

Incandescent. Unimpeded. That’s the nature we are willing our brains, our abilities, our potential. There is privilege, sometimes unaffordable, in creativity and intelligence that does not protest given all the inequalities and wrongs of our times. But may we find moments of peace and grace in which we can think, create, and be, as if we weren’t wronged.

Life, Work and Wellness

Some not-so-bold quarter year commitments that are less stressful and more affirming than new year resolutions.

4 months in and you may have or may not have made progress on the resolutions you set at the beginning of the year. Last year, only 6% of Americans reported following through on their new year resolutions. We hope that you are among those conscientious among us, but if you are not, join us this year as we choose to be kinder to ourselves.
We believe there might be more growth, more optimism, in an outlook that faults us less and therefore encourages us to salvage what we have left. Adapting a harsher outlook, one that is less forgiving and less kind only enlarges the feeling of failure and demotivates us from keeping at the same goals that once seemed so achievable. It’s all about perspective, right?
Anyway, we like to think of April as the month of boldness at Yakutti — the month when we reconnect with our personal goals, motivations and resolutions, and make even bolder commitments. We are not alone in choosing a word to represent our goals. Melinda Gate’s 2019 word is grace, the space where she finds reprieve to hope and to keep going despite the heartbreaks of encountering overwhelming sadness and great suffering.
Whether you choose a new empowering word every month or every year, in lieu of or in addition to your resolutions, we believe in consistent self-reflection that does not place a deadline on internal work and on self-improvement. That is self-kindness. So this April, even as we challenge ourselves to some bold commitments, we think the following not-so-bold commitments are just as affirming and significant, and have exactly the right kind of balance for mid-year rejuvenation

Think futuristically

Thinking broadly about the future is admittedly less bold than acting in ways that influence it, but it is a start. You obviously, we hope, are already thinking about your future in terms of spending and investing, and careers and life-long learning. But you might not have thought about your future in terms of the world you will inhabit.
Will robots take your job? Will climate change affect you or your loved one? Should you invest in a unicorn IPO? Get curious, read related news, be engaged in related dialogue, position yourself to understand the future in ways that will inspire decisions that propel your career, direct your investments, and inspire your global citizenship.

Add to your investment portfolio (or start one if you haven’t already).

Don’t get stuck eating cat food, Sallie Krawcheck, founder of Ellevest warns women who have not started investing. You investment doesn’t have to be bold and risky, but an addition will give you a sense of satisfaction and control.
If you have not invested before, this is a not-so-bold move as well given how many resources you have access to in order to learn and get started — including a minimum account balance of $0 for a new account, low barrier options that build a future from spare change, and investment options whose values you can get behind.

Learn a skill

Learn a cultured skill that connects you to history, to other parts of the world — from Japanese yoga, to Dominican merengue, to African folk dance. In the interests of futuristic thinking, learn a 21st century skill too that expands your scope of life-long learning even if, but especially if, it is not related to your current job — a new language that makes your an engaged traveler, a new artistic skills that compels you to slow down and exercise more mindfulness, etc.
The benefits, if you are wondering, will be some blend of monetary returns, professional success, health and wellbeing and personal motivation and satisfaction. Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

Start something new.

Could be a company or a non-profit, but it doesn’t have to be! Not so bold remember? So, doable! Begin a new project at work, work with a colleague you’ve never worked with before, host a team-building event to revamp team dynamics, initiate a new mentorship relationship, develop a new hobby.
Start a new important and personally meaningful thing to reinvigorate your curiosity and your sense of possibility and competence this year. To get started, we like the idea of talking to strangers and distinguishing between thought and opinion. Sound off ideas, question assumptions and clarify thoughts, then get to it!

Reconnect with an old friend

We have been learning to exercise more proactivity in our relationships. To not get away with loose phrasing of “see you soon”  and “let’s get coffee sometime.” Find enrichment in genuine conversations with family, friends and acquaintances, and find peace in forgiveness, in letting go of past grievances.
And if Seneca’s idea of friendship should be inspiring, once decided that one makes a great friend, build your relationship with them on the basis of a non-judgmental camaraderie that fosters true loyalty — if you should get so lucky.

For what purpose, then, do I make a man my friend? In order to have someone for whom I may die, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, and pay the pledge, too.

We hope you find meaning in the not-so-bold!

Life, Work and Wellness

Gift Yourself: 5 Self Love Gifts That Are A Little Indulgent

We can sure-footedly peg some of her aura of radiant confidence to a genuine love of herself and a work ethic of self care. “And I think as women and young girls, we have to invest that time in getting to understand who we are and liking who we are. Because I like me. I’ve liked me for a very long time. So for a long time, I’ve had a very good relationship with myself, ” Michelle Obama tells Oprah.

March, Women’s History Month has a lot of us celebrating women for the value they bring to the world, and we are going a step deeper and evaluating how deliberately we have been investing in self awareness, self love and self care, a practice that inadvertently positions us to take care of ourselves, others, and our ambitions, and if Michelle Obama’s advice is anything to go by, one that works.

Admittedly, self care does take work that can feel less a treat and more a to-do, work that takes building positive dispositions. We have in mind however, self care that lavishes you. Whether it’s your birthday, payday, end-of-diet day or, quite frankly, any day… you deserve a treat, even when you feel as if you don’t.

Gift yourself with a little self love. For a little inspiration, we’ve compiled a few self-gifting ideas that combine comfort with self-care and, of course, a dash of style.

1. Face Forward

Beauty subscription boxes can be a great treat to look forward to come month-end. They’re normally filled with sample sizes of much more expensive products, like perfumes, face creams, lip colors and the like. The best part is that you get to try out new products as they’re released without shelling out on the full-sized tub.

2. Workout Winners

Studies show that exercise fosters the release of neurotransmitters that relieve stress and pain and the creation of new neurons that restore our mental capacities. Supercharge your feel-good brain-power hormones by looking the part too. Spoil yourself with functional, high-quality workout gear. See it as an investment in your outer and inner wellbeing.

3. Tea Time

The Japanese tea ceremony, Chanoyu, takes place in spaces defined by tranquility, tradition and etiquette allowing for intimate interactions away from the mundane. You probably have developed a tea culture of your own. Learn new recipes, invest in new teas and herbs, and create time to sit down mindfully to a steaming cup.

Beyond mindfulness, polyphenols, the chemicals present in tea, and especially in green tea, have been found to have alleviating effects on cancers and heart disease.

4. Decadent Sleepwear

Indulge in gorgeous sleepwear and frilly underthings. We’re talking silk, satin and lots of lace – whatever makes you feel like the sexiest and most fabulous version of yourself. Oh, and don’t forget a luxurious Sherpa-lined fleecy nightgown to cover up in when your food delivery arrives!

5. Bedtime Treats

Speaking about spoil-worthy sleepwear, follow suit and invest in high quality bed sheets and linens too. It will be the most comfortable investment you can make in yourself, along with a few soothing lavender-scented candles for good measure. A good night’s sleep – priceless. Read about the far-reaching negative effects of sleep deprivation here.

Here’s to empowering “I love me”s!

Image by Haley Powers

Life, Work and Wellness

Girls Night In Ideas: Date Night Alternatives For The Newly Single And Happy

If you find yourself on the single end of the scale this year, we say you make your evenings fabulous regardless. Use the fabulous ladies of Sex and the City as your inspiration. Can you imagine Samantha Jones sitting at home alone throwing a pity party? Neither can we. These are our top picks for how the newly single and happy can spend their free evenings that would have been date nights with their one true loves: their girlfriends!

1. Go on a Fancy Girl Date with your Besties

We love a reason to dress up, don’t you? Just because you don’t have a romantic date this V-day doesn’t mean you have to stay home in your pajamas. Why not round up all of your single lady friends and enjoy a splashy dinner at a fancy restaurant? Most eateries are bound to have special 2-for-1 combo deals – score! Just be sure to phone ahead and make a reservation.

2. Throw a Girlie Sleepover

Then again, if you have a frilly new set of sleepwear you’re just dying to show off, make an occasion of it. Invite over your best girl mates Grease-style and host a sleepover to remind you all of your teenage years. Channel Sandy and the girls by giving each other pampering treatments: face masks, foot rubs, neck massages and of course, wine. Lots of wine.

3. Host a Singles Party

In the spirit of love, dust off those hosting skills and throw a party for all of your single friends. The evening works best if every single person invites one other single person that they know – it could be a co-worker, gym buddy or even a family member. That way everyone gets to meet new people in an intimate, safe and comfortable setting. If you’re hosting it at your home however, just be sure to keep track of the number of invited guests before it turns into a block party!

Life, Work and Wellness

Valentine’s Day Gifts For Your Best Friend: 5 Perfect Gifts For Your Person

It’s one of our favorite women’s friendship on TV, and this Valentine’s Day, we think the Meredith or Christina in your life deserves some love, or a lot of love. We have some ideas for Valentine’s Day gifts for your best friend, and we think they are perfect!

1. Beautiful jewelry pairs

They don’t have to be identical, but they can have similar meaningful stories.

Speaking of, we do have a gift guide for jewelry pairs. Have a look!

2. A vintage wine opener

This is in honor of all the evenings you show up at her doorstep with a bottle of wine. Feel free to throw in some Olivia-Pope-style wine glasses!

3. A scented candle

She can light it in her bathroom on those days when a luscious bath feels like the ultimate solution.

4. A cozy knit blanket for her couch

You’ll probably share it with her on those nights you stay in to watch tv, talk careers, talk boys, or just drink. We’d explore Etsy.

5. A collage frame

Fill it with your shared silly selfies and milestone photos. You will be tempted to fill in all the slots, but leave one or two just to be unselfish.

Fashion, Feminism and Politics Life, Work and Wellness

Unlock Your Girlboss. Stop Improperly Criticizing The Girlbosses In Your Life

She is telling it all, and we can’t wait to read it. Because even if she arguably failed, hers is an admirable tale of girlboss resilience and determination. A lot of us felt the unfairness. The intense scrutiny on her pantsuits, her marriage and her emails, even as he wore floppy suits, declined to release his tax returns and defied to extreme degrees the standards of propriety and righteousness we’d come to demand of her. We cringed that her eloquence was taken for dishonesty, and that her competence and preparedness earned her a likability penalty.

As far as the feminist movement goes however, there is little consensus about what a Hillary Clinton presidency truly represented. More accurately, the movement towards female empowerment and broken glass ceilings is fraught with fragmented efforts and incongruous opinions. Clinton’s failed bid can be mined for insights.

There are those that were convinced that her pantsuit-feminism was outdated and needed to embrace Michelle-Obama-bare-arms-dressy feminism. A greater number thought her center-leftism too corporate-friendly, and there even existed Bernie socialists that would have readily exchanged a Clinton presidency for hell. They probably got their hell. We will never know for sure. What we do know is that 53% of white women voted in her opponent, leaving in their wake bewildered women of color.

Is Girlboss Feminism Inadequate?

Feminism may be en vogue, celebrities and fashion houses may be peddling “I am feminist” shirts and music videos, women marches may be rousing crowds onto streets, but that is as far as it goes. The movement failed at making a woman the leader of the free world. The movement shall witness steps backwards in strides it had taken.

And this fashionable feminism, that proudly wears a label with little sacrifice and/or action, is a stark reminder that more conversations need to occur around the conventional neoliberal self-satisfaction that plagues mainstream feminism as it is. One author aptly describes mainstream feminism – it is “a deeply heteronormative, white-and middle-class-centric movement that’s become hopelessly stuck up its own ass.”

I agree. The Sheryl Sandberg brand of choice feminism is not accessible to many women, companies with structural failings such as C-Suites devoid of women should stay away from feminist brand messaging, and feminist consumerism is not enough, not even close.

Criticizing the Girl Boss

Scathing attacks on women working towards a women-friendly world are ill-advised, though. And society’s voyeuristic pleasure at women’s failure, happily helmed by other women in retrogressive catfights, is only a sad reflection of ways in which women continually contribute to their own disempowerment.

We can hail THINX for provoking conversations around the sanitization of women’s reproductive health and making menstruation fun even as we demand the self awareness of its founder, and the female-friendly cultivation of its workplace. We have to like neither Sophia Amaruso nor Marissa Mayer, and we don’t need to like Hillary Clinton, or her pantsuits. Bitches do get stuff done, and it’s ok if they dust off and move on when they don’t work it out.

We can recognize the failure of identity feminism to change structures, even as we admire the agency that makes identity feminism possible. Further, even as we criticize women whose privilege affords agency and choice, we have the responsibility to challenge them to pioneer real change. Over-preaching structure at the expense of agency will not give disadvantaged minorities ownership or participation in overhauling systems that are unfair, and a privileged savior approach to helping with such overhauls will be even worse.

Photo: Brooke Lark