We had the good fortune of connecting with Vanessa Lewis and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Vanessa, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?
In late 2019, a party and concert promotor uploaded a picture of me on facebook to make a very painful point: people who look like me are not attractive enough to hang out in VIP lounges with famous and affluent men. After talking with him about his post, he confessed to finding my photo after google image searching UGLY BLACK WOMEN. He wanted to make sure that Black women who he deemed ugly knew they were unworthy of and unwelcome at the events he hosted. After google searching “ugly Black women”, I did indeed find a photo of myself – and a series of other Black women who were all dark skinned, fat, elders, and/or clearly in the midst of crisis. My photo showed up because another Black man wrote a blog post called, “The Average Black Woman is Unattractive” and the featured photo was my face. When I saw these images, I was not hurt. I was angry. I was angry that my photo was being used to perpetrate such a harmful and violent message of discrimination and exclusion, that my image was being weaponized against the people who already experience the most oppression and harm.

I started Reclaim UGLY – Uplift Glorify Love Yourself & Create A World Where Others Can As Well to imagine something different, to femmifest a world where all people, regardless of how they look, how much they weigh, who they date and love, or what they have been through, get to access safety, love, and inclusion. Our bodies and faces were not created to be weapons, we were designed to love and be loved. Reclaim UGLY asks people to stop fearing being ugly, to stop catering to toxic beauty standards, and to stop uglifying other people’s body. Instead, we want you to reclaim, uplift, glorify, and love the parts of yourself that others have called ugly – while creating a world where others can as well.

This is beyond self love. This is creating culture that actually supports and allows us to love ourselves and each other. This means eradicating idealogies, values, structures, and systems that degrade, uglify, and validate discrimination against people based on looks. It means taking away the power of ugly. It means holding people in positions of power accountable to not perpetuating ideas about which bodies and faces are beautiful and which aren’t. It means addressing lookism, fatphobia, featurism, ableism, ageism, transphobia, misogyny, and other belief systems that teach us who is and isn’t beautiful.

Reclaim UGLY hopes that no one’s face or body will ever be the butt of the joke again. We hope that appearances will no longer be conflated with professionalism, respectability, or trustworthiness. We hope that all people will get to experience love, connection, and inclusion. We hope for a softer, safer, and more kind world.

NO ONE IS UGLY!

Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I consider myself a healing artists who primarily curates, uplifts, and supports other healing artists. Through Reclaim UGLY, I host cabaret style performances that centers the voices and bodies of those who are too often invisiblized in the media and on the stage – dark skinned and indigenous performers, trans and non-binary performers, elder performers, fat and disabled performers, and performers who are willing to confront the ways oppression and violence takes up space in their bodies. Art is so powerful. Art can heal the world, transform culture, and teach us to love ourselves and each other in concrete ways. However, so much art in the media spreads more hate than love, teaches us to not like ourselves, to question our desirability and social value, and to judge and critique others. We deserve spaces that are free from judgement, cruelty, and jokes that come at the expense of our humanity. I create art for humans, unapologetic (he)art work. I am more invested in creating spaces that produce healing joy than I am with talent, beauty, or even exceptionalism. Most of the art that I have created are short plays and vignettes, stories and poems, and occasionally some painting. I create work that brings me joy and nurtures my wounds. I know that my wounds are not unique. I know that what heals me heals others. As an artist, I just want to heal. I don’t want to compete, ever.

I currently have a book coming out called, “Reclaiming UGLY – Uplift Glorify Love Yourself and Create A World Where Others Can AS Well. I am so proud of this book. I have worked hard on it with the support of my incredible editor Shayna Keyles. Shayna approached me about the book after reading my articles on beauty and ugliness. Initially, I was so intimidated. Even though I have an MFA in creative writing, I still struggled to see myself as someone who could actually produced a book. BUT so many people believed in me and that belief really helped me to surrender to the journey, and I am so grateful. I love what we created.

This work was easy and not easy. It was easy because I never felt like I had to fight to do this work, to fight for people to believe in me, to justify myself. This is because I follow my passion, my pleasure, and center the people who support me. If people cant support me or stand in the way of me loving me and believing in myself, I ignore them. I don’t cater to them. I don’t give them a platform in my imagination. That means I don’t struggle and don’t have to spend an exceptional amount of time confronting uglification or naysayers or even insecurity. HOWEVER, it was hard because so much of the work I do is a result of experiencing so much oppression and uglification. This work is a result of pain that I have worked so hard to transform into magic and hope and love. This work is rooted in self-compassion, in compassion for others, and in the fact that I KNOW we can have better, we deserve better, and most of us are willing to do the work towards creating better.

Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I would love to shout out Mia McKenzie, founder of www.blackgirldangerous.com and author of “Skye Falling” and “The Summer We Got Free.” Mia was the first person that financially supported Reclaim UGLY and helped us launch our inaugural UGLY Conference. She let me know that this movement wasn’t only crucial, but that it had the potential to be lifesaving and transformative. Mia’s work with Black Girl Dangerous has transformed culture and saved so many lives. Black Girl Dangerous was the first website that centered the voices, ideas, and writings of Queer & Trans People of Color. Because of Mia’s bravery and commitment to her vision, she was able to pay queer and trans people of color from around the globe, including people who didn’t graduate high school. who experienced incarceration, and who never imagined themselves having such a huge platform. Her work launched careers and empowered brilliant artists to shine. I am so proud of her and encourage everyone to read her hilarious new book, “Skye Falling.”

Website: www.reclaimugly.org

Instagram: the.ugly.black.woman

Facebook: facebook.com/subversivepedagogies

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