Tanya Leigh Ta is a writer and illustrator passionate about changing the relationship girls and women have with their bodies. Her first children’s picture book, What Makes Me Beautiful, illuminates this mission with whimsical illustrations and a powerful poem. We chatted with the author to find out more about her inspiration and goals.
Livingly: What Makes Me Beautiful is a such a sweet book! It’s a short read that packs a punch. What inspired you to write and illustrate it?
Tanya: Thank you! Like many women, I have struggled with the concept of beauty. What is beautiful? Why does it matter so much to me? And when I had my daughter it became clear that I needed to foster a different mindset. I remember thinking the greatest gift I can give her is to teach her not to worry about how she looks. This sounds like the ultimate freedom, doesn’t it? Life isn’t all butterflies, but merely existing in our bodies as they are shouldn’t be one of the hard parts.
I wanted to redefine and reclaim beauty as something deeper than a reflection in the mirror or a photo on Instagram. There didn’t seem to be a book for children with this particular message yet. Considering how early girls are harmed by appearance-focused messages, I wanted to nip negative narratives in the bud. My book's illustrations are meant to convey the sense of wonder and abandon that childhood — and life — should have.
LV: They say authors write the books they needed to read. Was this true for you?
Tanya: Very true! This really is the book I needed as a little girl. And, to be honest, the message I still need to hear on repeat. I have suffered a lot from the media’s message that being physically beautiful is the most important thing a woman can be. It keeps us striving for an unattainable goal while feeling perpetually inadequate. It may seem like a superficial issue but I don’t know a single woman who isn’t affected by it. Just think of the opportunity cost! The goals we could be achieving or simply the days we could be enjoying if we stepped off that hamster wheel.
LV: I noticed in your book description you mentioned body neutrality, what does that mean to you?
Tanya: I came across the concept of body neutrality a few years ago and loved it as an alternative to body positivity. While it has good intentions, the body positive movement still underlines the importance of physical appearance and is still used by the beauty industry to hawk products that change or control how we look. Some may have other ways of looking at it, but to me body neutrality is a combination of body acceptance and refocusing our attention and self-love on what our bodies can do and experience rather than how they look.
LV: Are there other books or pieces of media that have helped you break free from toxic media messaging?
Tanya: I think Beauty Sick by Renee Engeln is a must-read for every woman and parent. It communicates the true dangers of society’s beauty obsession and offers concrete ways of addressing it. I also love Glennon Doyle’s podcast, We Can Do Hard Things — the Our Bodies and Beauty episodes are equal parts comforting and empowering. And lastly, everything written by Jessica DeFino. She is a beauty editor who used to work for the Kardashians and now is on a mission to enlighten us all about toxic beauty culture. Her site, The Unpublishable, and its accompanying newsletter are truly refreshing and guaranteed to make you question everything you've been told about physical beauty.
LV: What do you hope girls take away from your book?
Tanya: I hope it’s a message they can cement in their psyches. I hope it serves as a reminder of what really matters, that they’re on this earth to embrace and enjoy life. Their body is a vessel for experiencing the world and they don’t need to strive to change themselves. I hope it encourages girls to fully inhabit their bodies — and their mothers to do the same.
LV: Here at Livingly, our motto is “Live life beautifully” — which aligns perfectly with your book. What does living beautifully mean to you?
Tanya: To me it means filling my life with beauty, like art and friendship and music. It means savoring the little things — the ocean breeze on my face, holding my daughters hand on a walk, laughing with my husband, calling my mom, petting my dog, eating chocolate. Life is most beautiful when I breathe in these reminders to be grateful.