Leah Vernon started her blog, “Beauty and the Muse,” in 2013 because every time she looked at a beauty magazine all she saw were tall and thin white women.
“I wanted to be that so bad,” Vernon told The Herald. “I (had) eating disorders and I hated my Muslimness and my blackness and my plus-size body because I couldn’t ever attain that look, … (that) societal way of seeing beauty.”
Vernon spoke Monday evening at the Providence Public Library about the power of positively expressing her identity as a woman of color who wears a hijab.
The conversation, moderated by the PPL’s Programs and Exhibitions Director Christina Bevilacqua, accompanied the library’s “HairBrained” series, a four-month-long exhibit that began in March. The exhibit and lineup of speakers feature items related to hairstyle from the library’s collections. According to Kate Wells, a PPL curator, the library hopes to explore the way that hair is treated politically to both oppress and empower individuals.
“The goal is to create a conversation of acceptance with how people choose to wear their hair, whether visibly or covered,” Wells said. “Hopefully, people gain awareness for why people might cover (their hair) and allow them to express themselves in different ways.”
In her talk, Vernon spoke about consciously attempting to subvert the superficial and false aura of perfection that many beauty bloggers project on social media. When she first began to blog in 2013, Vernon said she tried to mimic these more conventional bloggers, though she occasionally opened up about her life — her insecurities, frustrations and struggles with mental health.
Every time she did, she said her inbox quickly filled with messages fromwomen across the world who shared their stories and told her how inspiring it was to see these sensitive topics discussed publicly. At first reluctant to publish details about her private life online, Vernon said she eventually decided to embrace openness wholeheartedly because she felt people needed to hear her voice and see her for who she is. She became, in her own words, “the rawest of the raw” on the internet.
“I’m fat and I’m fabulous and I’m a sister and I’m educated and I want to put out that and not this perfect Instagram thing,” Vernon said.
While Vernon has been writing constantly since the age of six, she worried that no one on the New York Times bestseller list looked like her. Though she feared there would never be space for her in the writing world, she continued writing and went on to complete an MFA program at Wilkes University.
“Six years ago when we started working together she was definitely Leah, who she is, but was in a different place in her life,” said Taylor Polites, her former professor at Wilkes who now serves as a practitioner in residence at the Swearer Center. “Today, to think of all the building she’s done on her career and her platform, the audience that she has created for herself, it’s incredible for me to see her create that out of her own passion and determination.”
Vernon’s unapologetic rawness and fashion sense have earned her tens of thousands of followers across social media and widespread visibility. Recently, Lululemon Athletica offered her the chance to speak on a sponsored panel for International Women’s Day. Vernon told the library audience that she wavered at the thought of working with a company that seemed to cater to fit and light-skinned women.
“Lululemon doesn’t make clothes that fit me,” Vernon said. “But I wanted people to see my face there. Hopefully my presence being there and collaborating with them would help them to start using models who are larger and browner.”
Vernon closed out the evening answering questions from the audience about her tastes (she loves NPR) and the financial challenges she faces as a blogger, all the while continuing to emphasize her desire to transform beauty standards.
“I want to show people that beauty comes in all forms and to inspire people to be the best version of themselves,” Vernon told The Herald. “You don’t have to be what society tells you you have to be to feel valued or important or beautiful — I want people to feel like their voice and their body are worthy.”