Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability

*Femmes Of Color Symposium Keynote Speech, Oakland, CA (8/21/11)

water color painting of an octopus done in greens, yellows, oranges and pinks.Good afternoon, and thank you for having me.  It is lovely to be here with you all.  Thank you to the symposium organizers who have asked me to be here and for your hard work putting this gathering on.  And thank you to ALL the folks who have made it possible for us to be here, including the people who built this building and who clean it and care for it everyday; including the people who are being violently exploited in this country and around the globe for their resources and labor so that we can exist in this air conditioned hotel with access to clean water and food, able to sit in relative safety from military attacks or the police barging in.  And including and honoring native and first nations communities upon whose land we are currently on and whose colonization and genocide have also allowed us to be here. For this too, must be part of our work, for it is intimately connected to being femme.

I would like to call into the room the many other comrades who move with me in this work for community, revolution and liberation.  Especially, other queer disabled women, gender non- conforming and trans people of color.  I do this work with and for them as well as for those yet to come.  I do this work because it is what I wish I had had when I was growing up and coming into political consciousness.

I want to bring them into the room because I want to seriously resist, challenge and shift a culture of celebrityism in our movements.  I do not, and cannot do this work alone.  It is built on the backs of poor people, queers, women of color, disabled folks and so many more who have come before me.  It has taken so much for me to be able to be here today as I am, about to speak to you about being femme as a disabled queer woman of color.  Has taken so much for us to even get to the point where gender and femme would be considered worthy political subjects to speak on.  Taken so many (in particular) women of color who have struggled long and hard to claim a place and be seen as women against the loud static noise of white-womanhood; who have fought to connect gender and race and left a legacy of brilliant work, poetry and story for us to learn from.  Taken so many disabled women of color working to have our lives seen (by other women of color) and our bodies understood as worthy, refusing to let disability be in opposition to “woman.”  Refusing to let able-bodied femmes dictate what femme gets to be and demanding accountability to ableist notions of gender, beauty, sexuality and desire that supposedly represent “all of us.”  Thank you.

It is important to say that I can only speak from my own lived experience, nothing else.  I cannot and do not speak for all disabled people or all adoptees or all queer people.  I cannot and do not speak for all queer disabled women of color or all queer people of color.  I do not speak for the entire disability justice movement—or any other movement.  The disability justice movement, like all movements, is large and diverse and I could never speak or represent it all.

I do this work in service of community.  I tell my story with the knowing that our stories are tools for liberation.  I speak knowing that all of our voices are important.  I speak to leave evidence for the people like me who are searching for reflection and recognition and a “yes, we exist.”  I speak to leave evidence for folks who have been told that disability is not as important as race, or that gender justice will have to wait until after class equality is won.  For folks who have been told that how you feel is less important than what you think; for those who don’t have the luxury of being able to rattle off 10, even 5, writers or books that reflect their identities or experiences.  Those of us who straddle the lines between multiple oppressed communities. For those of us who are working to end violence for all of us, not just some of us. For those of us who truly believe that no one’s safety is more important than anyone else’s, even when we feel unsafe…

I’d like to start our time together with a moment of breath and awareness for this work and what we are holding.  I would like to remind us of our bodies and honor them as we hold the work of those of us who get the lived experience of being femmes of color in liberation and ending violence and oppression so that we all may shine; not just some of us.  It is not easy work and I think it is important to recognize the toll it takes on our bodies, hearts, minds and spirits day in and day out.  I want to acknowledge that many of us here are survivors of one form of violence or another, many of us have been witness to violence; many of us have been violent, caused harm, colluded in violence, willingly or not; and all of us have been impacted by a culture of relentless violence, especially towards women, gender non-conforming and trans people of color, whether they identify as femmes or not.  I would like to acknowledge that we carry legacies of abuse, trauma and violence with us everyday, into our work, into our relationships, into this room.  Our stories about gender and race and class and ability and size and immigration and family are carried in our bodies, breath and spirit …AND we also bring legacies of resistance and survival and love in the face of silence and erasure that carry us through, we bring those into this room as well and they are also with us all the time.   We bring legacies of resiliency that are deep and strong and which we are a part of.  And in all of our work we have a responsibility to grow and cultivate resiliency, just as much as we resist the current systems at work.  We must not only fight against the world we currently have, but also be working to create the kind of world that is inspired by our deepest desires for our selves, our families (whom ever they may be, including chosen family) and our communities.

And it is from this place, where I would like us to always start.  From the world we want, the world we collectively desire.

I always think it is important to say that I’m here today as a queer, disabled, korean woman, transracial/transnational adoptee, raised in a US territory in the Caribbean.  None of which are more or less important.  For me, these are not just descriptive terms; they are political identities, based out of my own and other people’s lived experiences, and I understand them—all of them—to be powerful ways of moving through and understanding the world…

What I have learned from living in the south has helped me to survive as a queer person; and what I have learned from being adopted has helped me to survive as a disabled person.

To me, femme must include ending ableism, white supremacy, heterosexism, the gender binary, economic exploitation, sexual violence, population control, male supremacy, war and militarization, and ownership of children and land.

Ableism must be included in our analysis of oppression and in our conversations about violence, responses to violence and ending violence.  Ableism cuts across all of our movements because ableism dictates how bodies should function against a mythical norm—an able-bodied standard of white supremacy, heterosexism, sexism, economic exploitation, moral/religious beliefs, age and ability.  Ableism set the stage for queer and trans people to be institutionalized as mentally disabled; for communities of color to be understood as less capable, smart and intelligent, therefore “naturally” fit for slave labor; for women’s bodies to be used to produce children, when, where and how men needed them; for people with disabilities to be seen as “disposable” in a capitalist and exploitative culture because we are not seen as “productive;” for immigrants to be thought of as a “disease” that we must “cure” because it is “weakening” our country; for violence, cycles of poverty, lack of resources and war to be used as systematic tools to construct disability in communities and entire countries.

I would like to share two quotes with you that resonated with me for today:

“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference – those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older – know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.”  — Audre Lorde


“To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.”  —June Jordan


I want to say upfront that I don’t identify as femme.  I have struggled with identifying as Femme.  I don’t politically identify as “Femme,” even though I get the lived experience of being a femme of color in so many ways.  And frankly, much of this is because I have had horrible interactions with self-identified femmes of color, much of which has been because of their ableism and ignorance around how ableism, white supremacy and gender oppression get leveraged everyday in service of each other.  Much of it has been because of the palpable culture of ableism within queer people of color community.  And some of it has been because I have spent most of my life as a physically disabled child, youth and adult adoptee of color trying to find my way into “human,” let alone “woman.”

As a disabled child shuffled through the medical industrial complex and as a baby of color shipped across the world to “new parents,” I have felt more like a different species, a freak, an object to be fixed/saved, a commodity.  Like someone who has been owned and whose body has never felt like it was mine.  Like someone who they were trying to make human (read: able bodied, white), if only the surgeries had worked and the braces had stuck.  Like something that never could even get close to “desirable” or “feminine” or “woman” or “queer.”  Like ugly.  Not human.

Many people assume that I identify as femme and even call me femme, but the truth is that “femme” has not felt like a term where I belonged nor was it a place I wanted to be.   I rarely see femme being done in a way that actually challenges and transforms gender, rather than colluding in an alternative enforcing of gender.  Many of the people in this room are more invested in being beautiful and sexy than being magnificent.  Even something as small as the time I nervously asked a comrade femme of color friend of mine to wear sneakers in solidarity with me, instead of her high heels, because I didn’t want to be the only one and didn’t want to get chided from other femmes of color about my shoes (as so often has happened).  She said “no,” but she (of course) “totally didn’t think there was anything wrong with wearing sneakers.”

It seems so basic in our communities, but I think we need to stop making assumptions about each other’s identities and make distinctions between how someone identifies verses what someone’s lived experience isWe need to make the distinction between descriptively femme and politically femme.

In my disability justice work this comes up a lot.  Especially for disabled women of color.  Over and over I meet disabled women of color who do not identify as disabled, even though they have the lived reality of being disabled.  And this is for many complicated reasons around race, ability, gender, access, etc.  it can be very dangerous to identify as disabled when your survival depends on you denying it.

When I say “descriptively disabled”, I mean someone who has the lived experience of being disabled.  They may not talk about ableism, discrimination or even call them selves “disabled,” but they know what it feels like to use a wheelchair, experience chronic pain, have people stare at you, be institutionalized, walk with a brace, be isolated, etc.  There are many people who are descriptively disabled who never become or identify as “politically disabled.”  When I say “politically disabled,” I mean someone who is descriptively disabled and has a political understanding about that lived experience.  I mean someone who has an analysis about ableism, power, privilege, who feels connected to and is in solidarity with other disabled people (regardless of whatever language you use).  I mean someone who thinks of disability as a political identity/experience, grounded in their descriptive lived experience.  (The same is true for descriptively queer, descriptively woman of color, descriptively adoptee and so on.) 

And just to be clear, I believe that in order to politically identify as queer, disabled, femme, woman of color, one needs to have a descriptive lived experience to ground it in.  my political identities come directly out of my lived experience.  I never used to identify as disabled (period), even though my life was extremely disabled.  It was not until 1998 that I even started to describe myself as disabled—and even then, it was only descriptively.  It wasn’t until 2002 that I started identifying politically as disabled.

Doing disability justice work, we struggle with creating spaces that are based on how one identifies, because often times, the disabled people who identify as “(politically) disabled” are often white disabled people.  As people with multiple oppressed identities doing work with (our) folks on the margins of the margins of the margins, we need to think carefully about how we are inviting people into spaces and how we meet people where they’re at.

I am descriptively femme of color.  I know this.  This has always been my lived experience.  I was femme before I was queer.  I was grappling with how to navigate gender as a tiny Korean transracial and transnational adoptee disabled girl queered by my physically disabled body.  I grew up in a feminist community, around other powerful femmes of color, but none of whom identified that way.  There was no word for it, it was… just their life.  It was how they had to learn to be, to survive.  It was what they had crafted out of the fires of their desires and loving.  It was part of how they had learned to be magnificent.

Their gender was about being a grounded force to end violence. Their gender was about forging dignity out of invisibility that could slice through femininity that would rather be pretty than useful.  Their gender was about answering the question, what is the work you are doing to end violence and poverty, not what shoes are you wearing. Their gender was about feeding family and raising children collectively; organizing for themselves when no one else would. Their gender was a challenge to the world they lived in that was trying to erase them.

As femmes of color—however we identify—we have to push ourselves to go deeper than consumerism, ableism, transphobia and building a politic of desirability.  Especially as femmes of color.  We cannot leave our folks behind, just to join the femmes of color contingent in the giant white femme parade.

As the (generational) effects of global capitalism, genocide, violence, oppression and trauma settle into our bodies, we must build new understandings of bodies and gender that can reflect our histories and our resiliency, not our oppressor or our self-shame and loathing.  We must shift from a politic of desirability and beauty to a politic of ugly and magnificence.  That moves us closer to bodies and movements that disrupt, dismantle, disturb.  Bodies and movements ready to throw down and create a different way for all of us, not just some of us.

[*share North Carolina story]

The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself.  The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use.  A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed.  The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human.  The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour.  Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly.  Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.

Because we all do it.  We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty.  Our communities are obsessed with being beautiful and gorgeous and hot.  What would it mean if we were ugly?  What would it mean if we didn’t run from our own ugliness or each other’s?   How do we take the sting out of “ugly?”  What would it mean to acknowledge our ugliness for all it has given us, how it has shaped our brilliance and taught us about how we never want to make anyone else feel?  What would it take for us to be able to risk being ugly, in whatever that means for us.  What would happen if we stopped apologizing for our ugly, stopped being ashamed of it?  What if we let go of being beautiful, stopped chasing “pretty,” stopped sucking in and shrinking and spending enormous amounts of money and time on things that don’t make us magnificent? 

Where is the Ugly in you? What is it trying to teach you?

And I am not saying it is easy to be ugly without apology.  It is hard as fuck.  It threatens our survival.  I recognize the brilliance in our instinct to move toward beauty and desirability.  And it takes time and for some of us it may be impossible.  I know it is complicated.  …And I also know that though it may be a way to survive, it will not be a way to thrive, to grow the kind of genders and world we need.  And it is not attainable to everyone, even those who want it to be.

What do we do with bodies that can’t change no matter how much we dress them up or down; no matter how much we want them to?


 What about those of us who are freaks, in the most powerful sense of the word?  Freakery is that piece of disability and ableism where bodies that are deformed, disfigured, scarred and non-normatively physically disabled live.  Its roots come out of monsters and goblins and beasts; from the freak shows of the 1800’s where physically disabled folks, trans and gender non-conforming folks, indigenous folks and people of color were displayed side-by-side.  It is where “beauty” and “freak” got constructed day in and day out, where “whiteness” and “other” got burned into our brains.  It is part of the legacy of Ugly and it is part of my legacy as a queer disabled woman of color.  It is a part of all of our history as queer people of color.  It is how I know we must never let ourselves be on the side of the gawking crowd ever again in any way.  It is the part of me that doesn’t show my leg.  It is the part of me that knows that building my gender—my anything—around desirability or beauty is not just an ableist notion of what’s important, but will always keep me chasing what doesn’t want me.  Will always keep me hurling swords at the very core of me.

There is only the illusion of solace in beauty. If age and disability teach us anything, it is that investing in beauty will never set us free.  Beauty has always been hurled as a weapon.  It has always taken the form of an exclusive club; and supposed protection against violence, isolation and pain, but this is a myth.  It is not true, even for those accepted in to the club.  I don’t think we can reclaim beauty.

Magnificence has always been with us.  Always been there in the freak shows—staring back at the gawking crowd, in the back rooms of the brothels, in the fields fresh with cotton, on the street corners in the middle of the night, as the bombs drop, in our breaths after surviving the doctor’s office, crossing the border, in the first quiet moments of a bloody face after the attack is done.  Magnificence was there.

Magnificence was with me in the car rides home after long days being dehumanized, abused and steeled in the medical industrial complex.  It was there with me when I took my first breaths in my mother’s arms in Korea, and a week later those first days alone without her realizing I wasn’t going home.

Magnificence has always been with us.

If we are ever unsure about what femme should be or how to be femme, we must move toward the ugly.  Not just the ugly in ourselves, but the people and communities that are ugly, undesirable, unwanted, disposable, hidden, displaced.  This is the only way that we will ever create a femme-ness that can hold physically disabled folks, dark skinned people, trans and gender non-conforming folks, poor and working class folks, HIV positive folks, people living in the global south and so many more of us who are the freaks, monsters, criminals, villains of our fairytales, movies, news stories, neighborhoods and world.  This is our work as femmes of color: to take the notion of beauty (and most importantly the value placed upon it) and dismantle it (challenge it), not just in gender, but wherever it is being used to harm people, to exclude people, to shame people; as a justification for violence, colonization and genocide.

If you leave with anything today, leave with this: you are magnificent.  There is magnificence in our ugliness. There is power in it, far greater than beauty can ever wield. Work to not be afraid of the Ugly—in each other or ourselves.  Work to learn from it, to value it.  Know that every time we turn away from ugliness, we turn away from ourselves.  And always remember this: I would rather you be magnificent, than beautiful, any day of the week. I would rather you be ugly—magnificently ugly.

Thank you.


Filed under Writing

126 responses to “Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability

  1. MB



  2. That was absolutely beautiful Mia!!

  3. DiosaNegra

    I clicked on over here via Quirky Black Girls….
    This EXCELLENT….
    I needed to hear (read) this today….

    Thank you.

  4. Kiki

    wow, stunning. thank you.

  5. LJ

    I don’t like my people celebrating victim mentality all the time. It’s might be therapeutic to some, but not helping the cause, not making it better for others.

  6. Mia Mingus

    thanks for your comment, but i’m not really sure how it’s connected. please tell me more.

  7. thank you. i really needed to read this and i am so grateful to you for sharing it.

  8. Please publish a piece about Magnificent Ugly. (Do you already have one?) I need to share this with my undergraduate students!!! So powerful.

  9. LJ

    Not sure where to start. You consider people subject to “capitalism, genocide, violence, oppression and trauma” because of being a colored femme, and that’s victim’s mentality. How is telling femmes to celebrate “ugly, undesirable, unwanted, disposable, hidden, displaced” going to help their self esteem? I think you are making them feel worse by repeating these again and again making them believe this is true. That’s not helping. I’m sick of these destructive self talk of my people. It’s not making anyone stronger.

    Now, I understand that many femmes tend to keep screaming they are strong and powerful and never believing a word of it. In that case, it’s the hidden message that says, “i keep repeating that I’m powerful because I don’t feel that way” that’s hurting.

    You are separatist about white femmes and femmes of color, etc, etc. I don’t know of many femmes, regardless of race, who truly feels good about the way they look. It’s a universal problem among femmes because if they don’t, they’d be butches who don’t give a damn about how they look.

    I looked at your picture, you’re cute. I wish you can just say, “I’m cute. I’m pretty good.” leave it at that, and go out kick some ass to show people how. I think you’re saying these things because you want to vent your frustration, and that’d be therapeutic to you, but that’s not helping the community at large.

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  11. Joel

    This was really awesome. Kind of what this reminded me of is a way to love people in the same way that we seem to be capable of loving art and music. There are truly great works of music and art that people wouldn’t call ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’. I don’t know if that’s a good comparison, but it’s what it made me think of…

  12. Amazing speech, Mia.

  13. Pingback: Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability (via Leaving Evidence) « Chronic Imperfection

  14. Corinna

    Hi LJ, I don’t see a way to reply to your comment below so I’ll just reply to it here. I think one of the things I get from Mia’s piece is that she’s calling out our cultural compulsion to turn away from things deemed ugly or undesirable, specifically the ways oppressive beauty standards fail to manifest on people’s bodies. She’s asking us to stop recoiling from what has historically been dubbed monstrous and scary. What are we afraid of? Is our survival dependent upon being desired? Beautiful? Do we fear that ugly will drag us down into the depths of undesirability? I read her piece as asking us to jump right in there and be in solidarity with the folks who, no matter how hard they try, will never measure up because beauty standards were never designed for everyone to be able to meet them. And when we reject this beauty rat race, we will have to build something completely new that has room for everyone. Because just as middle and upper classes were never designed to allow everyone in, “beautiful” in the most superficial sense of the word relies on some people not being allowed in. It’s like an elite, private club and we all have to tear up our membership cards or our applications to join. What she’s suggesting isn’t self-destructive. I read her as asking us to stop being self-destructive in our quest to belong to something elitist and instead to be with each other – collaboration vs. competition. She’s saying self-esteem based on outward appearance is a load of shit that we are sold from the time we are old enough to hear “oh she’s so cute!” (like you just said directly to Mia in your comment). And for the record, she IS kicking some ass… but from what I know of her when she speaks truth to power, she unleashes an avalanche of love, while acknowledging all the ways we can and do hurt each other every day. I believe Mia’s compass is firmly rooted in both self- and community-wide love.

    Mia, please correct me if I’ve misunderstood your message. Thanks for this piece. <3

  15. Camille

    this is absolutely brilliant… mia mingus brought the noise… all of this. I am blown away by this and… it has given me a framework to re-think my femme*ness all over again… which trust… just doesn’t happen often cuz I am so busy tryin to defend that shit.. but mia just made it necessary to re-work my ish… wow. thank you for creating alla that safety in your words leaving me breathless.

  16. lou

    Thank you from a plain white disabled person who’s probably a girl. Love your words, ideas. Best wishes.

  17. thanks for another wonderful post, mia. this gives me lots to think about as i launch my hair and skin care company. i’m very focused on not just being accepting but affirming and celebratory of all bodies. i personally practice adornment, fashion and the like as part of my expression and i really enjoy it. femme-ness is something i like to play with but i don’t take it very seriously. it’s interesting to learn about the ways folks are exploring gendered expression.
    i don’t often let on that i am conscious of the ways my body is outside of mainstream concepts of beauty. my fat, my hair, my surgery scars, my pockmarks, the rashes and bruises that appear all over my body at will. something i enjoy is finding ways to use adornment to emphasize these things. for example, i often wear dramatic eye makeup that makes me look more sick. i related in this way to your idea of “moving toward the ugly” in myselfs.
    we are all magnificent miracles. all of us.

  18. Cheers, what a star she is! So wonderfully written. I think a modern day ‘audrey’. A lot to shift through. Although I have ,not dissimilar thought processes, I am still ‘anti idealist’ in some of its argument. To play devils advocate: Towards ugly assumes we all share a warped  view of beauty as it is defined by ugly. If anything I feel more like a peacock, it’s theatrical, it’s carnal. I know I’m only a wren but my animal nature aspires to brilliance, to colour, to wings! But when I’m alone, tired and aching I transform into a hedgehog, spike up, for protection, both are beautiful. I do get what she’s saying from her experience and I know peeps will say ‘but you would say that, you’re beautiful’ … I’m a beautiful illusion. I don’t see it as adopting a white privilege stance although that is what I did when I performed as ‘Dyke Marilyn’. Again there is a difference performing as the other to empower – or to run away from being black as ‘the ugly.’ it’s the assumption on what is ugly that is troubling which clearly troubles this writer too as she quite clearly feels stained by it. I don’t deny my black father or white mother or that I have a number of illnesses. The illnesses are ugly, I cannot escape that fact.  I own all of it as ‘my life’ but i don’t need to marry it. The viewer can look away I don’t want to be a Cheers, what a star she is! So wonderfully written. I think a modern day ‘audrey’. A lot to shift through. Although I have ,not dissimilar thought processes, I am still ‘anti idealist’ in some of its argument. To play devils advocate: Towards ugly assumes we all share a warped  view of beauty as it is defined by ugly. If anything I feel more like a peacock, it’s theatrical, it’s carnal. I know I’m only a wren but my animal nature aspires to brilliance, to colour, to wings! But when I’m alone, tired and aching I transform into a hedgehog, spike up, for protection, both are beautiful. I do get what she’s saying from her experience and I know peeps will say ‘but you would say that, you’re beautiful’ … I’m a beautiful illusion. I don’t see it as adopting a white privilege stance although that is what I did when I performed as ‘Dyke Marilyn’. Again there is a difference performing as the other to empower – or to run away from being black as ‘the ugly.’ it’s the assumption on what is ugly that is troubling which clearly troubles this writer too as she quite clearly feels stained by it. I don’t deny my black father or white mother or that I have a number of illnesses. The illnesses are ugly, I cannot escape that fact.  I own all of it as ‘my life’ but i don’t need to marry it. The viewer can look away I don’t want to be a spectacle when I’m a hedgehog, The lines are easily blurred in this subject, to which we need to tread carefully. Yes a lot to process and I ain’t grasped it all. Thanx for an enlightening lunch!

    (hi, a friend posted your pagelink on facebook so just sharing my thoughts. A stunning brilliant piece of heart, soul and genius in your writing mia) x

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  20. lynnhb

    Thank you Mia for opening up these conversations ! I love that this keynote challenges so many assumptions re: where ‘femme’ is now, and hope this inspires many convos & re-thinkings around the intersectional and _truly_ feminist redefining of what power there is in our Magnificence – way beyond beauty… (and what it could mean to really use that power to work “for the world we want, the world we collectively desire.”)

  21. maryam

    Thanks Mia, this is really empowering and definitely needed in the queer community at large in addition to the femme community. The assumptions folks make about what constitutes “butchness” can also be problematic – I’m sick of being told that I “can’t be butch” because butch means something else – something bigger, stronger, more physically capable.

    Thanks for saying what needs to be said!

  22. august 23, 2011
    Awe inspiring. tender. loving. heartache. connection intimacy. transformation. political. meta. gratitude. thank you for being. I am glad u exist
    clarissa chandler

  23. Mia!!!!! Standing ovation. Thank you for this. This is the true Lorde legacy work of calling every community into its uncomfortable greatness. The whole second part of reading this I was thinking about Paule Marshall and how she draws out the term beautiful-ugly used as a primary descriptive term by the Barbadian women in New York who spoke around her mother’s kitchen table. According to Marshall (you and the community gathered on your blog can see her beautiful essay in many anthologies and at the front of her book Reena if you haven’t already seen it) everything was beautiful-ugly, the dress, the car, the daughter, the day. Beautiful-ugly, the myth of describability that makes a thing, a thing

    Beautiful-ugly to me…seems to have nothing to do with magnificence…it seems to be about the mundane, where the mundane doesn’t become normal, it just becomes context. But what you describe in the speech as beauty that turns away…or what I would think of as a separatist beauty, whiteness defined by other, high femme distinguished from those of us in low shoes etc is not allowed here. Beauty can’t seperate, it is right there with ugly, just like it is in your description…manifesting in the fear of ugly, hiding shaming lying abandoning but still attached.

    So thank you for calling the folks, all of us, in all of our grounding and flying and floating genders to acknowledge the beautiful-ugly conflict as a very mundane all-the-time thing that is going on. And then magnificence as a recentering rejection of binary terms for life. The task of poetic breath to honor our indescribable being here. Which I still call survival.

    But that’s another conversation.
    Love you and miss you.


  24. dex1lsp

    As a person with a disability, some parts of this touched me so deeply that I was almost moved to tears. WOW Amazing piece!

  25. Brianna Greaves

    Is there an audio version of this on the internet? If not, does anyone know how to make it accessible?

  26. This was an AMAZING speech! As a woman identified butch of color, I felt this message should have been brought to the butch conference. I am an ally to the femme as she has been such an ally to me. You are doing the work that needs to be done and I appreciate you.

  27. Austin

    Amazing. Thank you.

    What’s the North Carolina story (cited in brackets)?

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  29. This. Is. Fucking. Amazing. I quoted it in an illustration post thingy on my illustrated post thingy place:

  30. Creatrix Tiara

    There is a video on youtube…

  31. i don’t have anything to add other than BRAVO. this is an amazing piece of writing, one that has nestled its way into my mind and provoked a whole lot of thoughts, and i’ve shared it with more people than i can count. this is amazing.

  32. Fa

    Thank you so much for sharing. As a straight, able-bodied, womon of color this really is calling for a major paradigm shift – for owning privileges & for understanding oppressions. So much to think about.

  33. naa

    A friend just forwarded me this keynote address.

    I have to say that it’s shaking deeply. What a brilliant keynote but also a terrifying one! It’s uncomfortable for me to realize how invested I am in beauty and in chasing the ideals of a culture that will never truly want me or the people I love.

    It’s hard to admit out loud (or on a blog), but striving to be femme/pretty has always been my safety blanket. As superficial as it sounds, it’s been one of the ways I’ve survived violence, racism, sexism, xenophobia, colonialism, and homophobia. Being pretty/wanted/attractive was a way to cope in the world as an unwanted young queer woman of color. So, I learned from a tiny age to wield the privilege of beauty as a weapon or a shield, without realizing how it can oppress others and myself.

    Two years ago I began to learn the painful way how much the fear of being ugly controls my life. I started losing pigment in my skin and I was no longer able to pass as “pretty” without a lot of expensive makeup and diligent daily artifice. My internalized ableism (aided by the ableism of the people around me) swung into high gear and I lived (still do live) in fear that I would be found lacking.

    On some deep, fucked-up level, I felt like I couldn’t afford to be ugly. Being femme didn’t really help matters. I was surrounded by a community of femmes of color, reclaiming and celebrating beauty as a thing of liberation, and yet there wasn’t space to ask what happens when we can’t live up to our own ideals? Or who we’re leaving out?

    Moving towards the ugly feels like a real risk: a risk to be real, a risk to lose the privilege/power of beauty, and a risk to be valued for ONLY what we are- glorious and many-layered freaks.

    In my heart of hearts I believe you’re right – we are magnificent because of what makes us ugly. And there’s so much resilience and strength in reclaiming that ugliness. Though to be honest, I’m not sure how to even begin…

    Thanks for writing this. I feel really contemplative, sad and hopeful because of it. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

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  38. sibyl

    I am disabled and I frankly disagree with a lot of this rhetoric. I do not feel ‘magnificent’ because my body has trouble running, jumping, performing daily tasks. My body has not been ‘coded’ as ‘undesirable’; my body IS undesirable. I would not push my disability on anybody else.

    I have always supported the disabled community for pushing the belief that disabled people, especially disabled women, are not worth less as human beings and deserve the same love and respect as anyone else. But society did not create our pain; we suffer regardless of how you define us and there is nothing bold or majestic or magnificent about my suffering.

  39. bq

    thank you for highlighting the ableism in this. this kicked up a lot of thoughts for me, so here’s my two cents, hope i’m not derailing your intended points.

    i think this resonated w some of the conversations ive been having w a friend who has a lot of exposure to high femme types who claim to “reclaim” fashion and consumerism. whereas i’m exposed to a different kind of hipster aesthetic where i am. both involve marking insiders and outsiders based on clothing (and race/class). I think it all goes along perfectly well with neoliberal advertisement/popular culture, which i think you are calling “celebrityism”. i mean, i enjoy dressing up on occasion, but i’m not going aroudn saying that it’s an expression of my fundamental identity outside of social pressures and it’s some kidn of liberationist move.
    and the idea of “femme” also is contrived and irritating to me. good for anyone who identifies that way, but it’s also quite often superficial and depends on looks. i have an older cis lesbian friend who is called “butch” now bc she gained weight and is currently sporting a short hair cut. and someone told her she is at the last stop before transitioning. um, not according to her. it’s such appearance-based crap.
    like if i cut my hair off tomorrow and wear my boy pants, then i am apparently a whole different type of person. and then when it grows back, i will be back to being femme. or something. who knows.

  40. lynnhb

    Dear sibyl & bq – my hope is that what Mia was moving towards – and what the next steps in this community conversation could be – is Magnificence as an inner quality.
    An inner quality that is an interweaving of both the ugly/pretty aka dark/light aka creator/destroyer – an innate embracing of the power that I believe is innate in all of us who identify ourselves as femmes. (Not femme as defined by the redness of our lipstick, or not. Not femme as defined by socialized ideas of femininity either.) I hope that Mia was inviting a more complex and nuanced broadening of embracing otherness – all that we are socialized to think of as other, or ugly – in ourselves.
    Perhaps I’m reading into this keynote speech what I hope to hear or read. But that’s my take on it. And frankly that’s what I hope we can all discuss – how by focusing on an external dress/makeup/high heels performance of femme, we are ignoring that femme is an inner quality first and foremost.
    I love that Mia challenges so many assumptions re: where ‘femme’ is now, and hope this inspires many convos & re-thinkings around the intersectional and _truly_ feminist redefining of what power there is in Magnificence – way beyond ‘beauty’… and what it could mean to use that power to work “for the world we want, the world we collectively desire.”

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  42. This was wonderful. I love uncharted territories and you seem to have just created a path into exploring one. Very powerful (and magnificent ;)). Thank you.

  43. Pingback: Syd’s Shout Out: Femmes Of Color Symposium Keynote Speech 2011 | Crash Pad Series Blog

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  50. Pingback: Ugly cute. |

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  52. a.w.

    just so you know, many butches (including me) dearly want to be beautiful. we just want to be a different kind of beautiful, a differently gendered form of beautiful.

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  54. Reblogged this on blkcowrie and commented:
    as someone who loves natural and artistic beauty but struggles with finding it in herself, this speech is something i need to come back to time and again to release the shackles of desirability, to love myself fiercely, and to find beauty unfettered from social constraints — beauty in the ugly.

  55. Pingback: The Weekend Revue! |

  56. Mark Greenberg

    She really makes Foucault’s disciplining the body into a Kindergarten primer. I most like her use of resiliency and magnificence as productive and creative tools to operate against oppressive forces. How to act upon and affect culture has always been a problem in identity poitics. She’s certainly right in stating that a good percentage of these problems come from within a movement. That can hold more weight that the oppressor; and, it’s stunted many attemps at effectiveness. She links dominant beauty concepts to a variey of hell’s on Earth. She’s right. I also like that she brought history into the light as a positive form. It’s a powerful idea that ugly is the root for magniificence, that it pulls away the mask that both the oppressor and the oppressed carried and continue to carry. I’ve always felt, regarding human potentia,l that everybody’s beautiful, everybody’s smart, and everybody’s an artist. Inspiring speech, thanks!

  57. Anna

    This is beautifully written and I love the embrace of what is “ugly” or uncomfortable within us. I think it’s important to honor those painful parts of ourselves. Embracing that ugliness makes us fully human, and is necessary for wholly loving each other.
    In other ways, though, I feel silenced here. As a femme I’m often pegged as frivolous or superficial for spending money or time on aesthetics or beauty, while I don’t see the same criticism of activities not so neatly associated with femininity.
    If we can’t reclaim beauty, then how is there room for varied and beautiful expressions of gender? Can’t I claim power and resiliency in my expressions of beauty and gender while also affirming people who express gender and beauty differently than I do? I can see how the policing of beauty is used as a weapon. But opening up beauty to many meanings and expressions can be empowering, and playful, and serious, and energizing.

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  59. Sarah

    I’m somewhat confused about what femme means. A femme on tumblr said that being femme was about being fatter and prettier than everyone, for her, which I think was tongue-in-the-cheek, but ‘feminine’ and prettiness/beauty are so tied together.

  60. delilahdear

    Reblogged this on lovelylittlecraftblog.

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  85. Thanks Joel. Yes I think your comment makes sense. If we can appreciate, and yes desire, all kinds of tones and textures in the arts, cannot we also appreciate them in people, and by people I mean women as well as men. This is the challenge and the aspiration. How many photographers capture men of all statures and dials clad and unclad whilst only promoting a fairer, kinder, gentler, evenly complexioned female? who capture a woman because of her fairness yet a man because of his character, power, achievements, likeability…. if women are going to launch out into visible spatial spheres in full view regardless of figure, age, fairness, traditional concepts of beauty and niceness… here i digress a tad but niceness is just another way of being a pretty female. Let women be not pretty, not nice, and yet simply stated ‘a woman’. Just as a man who is neither nice or pretty is simply stated ‘a man’. In other words not an ugly man, or a mean man, just a man. Not an ugly woman, a bitch, or a butch, but simply a woman.

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  91. jetude

    Reblogged this on jetude.

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  94. Fakhra

    Reblogged this on Fakhra's Musings.

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  97. Cecilia

    Hi! I just wanted to say this was fantastic. I’ve had conversations along these paths with my mom a lot, about how, having grown up with these ideals and perceptions, I’ve come to internalize them and enjoy them as a part of my life (putting on makeup in the morning, constantly trying to lose weight, moving toward that cultural idea of “pretty”); but at the same time how much I don’t want my daughters to grow up within the same cultural context. At this point, I think I’ve lived with this context for so long and invested so deeply in it that I couldn’t imagine my life beyond it, but some days I wish I could. Even if I would choose this again – I wish I had been given a choice.

    That aside, this reminds me a lot of what it means to be a Christian – something that is occasionally hard to remember because of church, how the life of Christ is an example in rejecting what society upholds as desirable and realizing the strength in what is marginalized and detested.

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    Reblogged this on Another Angry Syrian.

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  112. Too paranoid to leave name

    I see that I’m coming to the discussion about five years late. Oh well. I’m still glad a friend pointed me toward this blog. I know a disabled (deaf) person of color who, as a result of injuries related to sexual assault, is also incontinent. She leaks urine constantly, and when stressed, loses control of her bowels. Being a 15 year old girl who smells of urine and soils herself is not easy. She has darker skin than anyone she knows, and when she is depressed (which is often), she associates her skin color with feces. A misogynistic environment that denies the biological realities of women’s bodies is toxic for her. Yes, everyone really does poop.

    It’s been a revelation for her to understand that people with spinal cord injuries have some of the same problems. Are we going to throw away someone who has had an ATV accident, or a botched epidural? If Amy Van Dyken-Rouen can live a public life, why can’t she?

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  114. Reblogged this on Salome' s Platter and commented:
    This is a magnificent post by The Femmes of Color Symposium from August 2011.

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