Nourish has always been a longtime fan of Jodie Patterson. We read her first book ‘The Bold World’ and watched her become a force to be reckoned with, fighting for her trans son and helping to pave the way for a safer world for trans kids. It would therefore be fitting, in these uncertain times, that when we asked Jodie to write a story for us, she would reach out to the phenomenal trans activist - Raquel Willis, to talk beauty and what that means growing up in America. We are very honored to be able to show such an honest conversation between two beauties.
By: Jodie Patterson
Ask a woman about her hair, and she’ll tell you the history of her family. Ask a woman about her makeup, and she’ll talk for hours about the people who raised her. That is because beauty is history, power, ritual, armor, transformation, and most importantly, it is very personal.
I caught up with activist and journalist Raquel Willis to understand how she was raised, her take on beauty, and the winding road she’s traveled to become one of our country’s most outspoken and respected activists.
When I dialed Raquel, she was in her mom’s car in Nashville, visiting for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was in my 8-seater truck in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, watching my youngest pick up a game at the local courts. To say the least, our hands were full. But that’s not unusual for either of us.
In 2017, Raquel was a speaker at the National Women’s March in Washington, DC. That same year she was named one of Essence’s ‘Woke 100 Women’, honoring trailblazers for equal rights. (She earned that accomplishment twice more in 2019 and this year.) In 2018, she held the title of National Organizer for the Transgender Law Center. Then, in 2019, she was appointed Executive Editor of Out Magazine. In 2020, Raquel leads a crowd of 15,000 peaceful protestors in support of Black Trans Lives Matter. Today, at 29 years old, Raquel was asked to become Director of Communications for the ‘Ms. Foundation for Women’, a leading non-profit organization focused on building the collective power of women.
“First and foremost, I consider myself an activist and writer. Whatever lane I’m in, I will always be organizing. The throughline will always be about elevating marginalized people,” Raquel says in her own words.
With just a few questions scribbled on my piece of paper, we chatted and laughed, and mostly I listened – about her world, her Southern roots, and her knowledge of self and purpose. Here are some of the highlights.
BEAUTY IS HISTORY
Beauty, for me, is a crucial part of how I express myself, how I pay homage to my ancestors - to the feminine and gender-expansive people who make me who I am. As a Black trans woman, sometimes beauty has been a place of solace, dealing with a world that tells me, “beauty is not something I can access.”
My beauty is rooted in the South. The clouds of perfume that linger in the room when Southern women leave it. The deep vibrant shades of rouge. There’s also a part of the beauty that’s linked to gender nonconformity. I think about drag performers and trans people throughout time - the Marsha P. Johnsons and Crystal Labeijas, who used beauty as armor to make it through the world. All that is wrapped up in beauty for me.
BEAUTY IS POWER
I think we can use beauty for good. Black people have always found ways to do that. I think about movements like ‘Black Is Beautiful,’ which was tied to self-determination and autonomy. I think about the natural hair movement and how it has thrown darts at “respectability,” white supremacy, and capitalist culture. For Black people, our history is tied to beauty and even to politics. There has historically been legislation against Black women wearing their hair the way we want and still, we face discrimination in the workforce if we embrace more natural hairstyles. Up until a half-century ago, wearing feminine clothing was criminalized for some - and so trans people, gender non-conforming people, they literally could be arrested just for presenting themselves in a certain way. Black and brown gender nonconforming folk often rallied the loudest against these laws and norms. So yes, I’m very aware of how our people have used beauty for resistance and power.
If I had to put my mother’s beauty into a single word, it would be “powerful.” I remember moments of being mesmerized by her process. However, society throws stereotypes onto femininity like “weakness” or “appealing to the patriarchy” I don’t see makeup as a frivolous thing. My mom’s process was about getting ready to go to work, and let’s be clear; she was somebody’s teacher and boss. Her beauty process was for a purpose - to go out into the world. Even the click-clack of her high heels was a demonstration of her power.
For me, simply considering my beauty is an act of defiance. My existence is an act of defiance. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
BEAUTY IS RITUAL
The funny thing is, at the time, I didn’t see them as rituals, and I’m not sure the women in my family saw beauty as such either. It was just them preparing themselves to walk outside into the world. There’s an unspoken language of beauty that occurs… and then the ritual emerges.
BEAUTY IS TRANSFORMATION
In some ways, liberation is defining and reclaiming your beauty on your terms. And then, once you’ve established your beauty, it evolves. (Chuckles) My beauty mantra might be something like: your beauty is unique, and it’s ever-evolving.
My thoughts on beauty ten years ago were very different. The canvas of my body was different in many ways. However, there’s something now, after a traditional medical transition, that feels more natural and organic to how I see myself. I’ve come to trust myself more. For me, it’s about carrying humility and a sense of receptiveness to more information, and other people’s stories, and new experiences. I will always have “growing edges,” and those growing edges are not a vulnerability. The acknowledgment of those growing edges is a strength.
BEAUTY IS PERSONAL
There’s a lot we have to wade through to get to what is our beauty. Almost everyone is boxed in - because of societal and cultural norms - and the media. And we know media continues not to recognize Blackness and brownness, and queerness and transness. As someone with some influence, I feel an obligation to highlight the diversity of beauty in our world. The beauty of Black, of brown, queer, trans, fat, or disabled people - that’s crucial to my work.
Not everyone gets to experience beauty on their terms, so we all have a duty to change that.
“Let’s be clear, Mom had her own bathroom. And she had the whole run of her counter and her drawers - which I completely understand today. You’ve got to have options (chuckles). But I try to keep my beauty routine simple. Sometimes I try to be extra, like the other week, I tried to use a different toner, and it was a definite no-go. I started to feel my eczema coming back, but luckily I caught it early, and the thing that helped to rehabilitate my skin was using the Calming Gel Cleanser from Kat Burki.”