Letter to the Editor: Appearance-ism a social feature we must work to eliminate

Anya Cordell

Many(!) summers ago, I attended Northwestern.  Non-academic highlights were serving food to the Medill ‘Cherubs’ to offset my board, marking a milestone of a personal nature, and having a sort of emotional breakdown at the end of the term.

I had not quite evolved from the beauty-obsessed teen who wore false eyelashes (a la the supermodel ‘Twiggy’) to attend high school.  If I had time-travelled to the future, I would have been utterly astonished at how I became my current self.

As a teen I’d read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” taking from it, above all, that she was obsessed with appearance (and ‘film stars’); and that the non-Jewish friends who supported her family in hiding sustained incomprehensible personal risks.  How would I become a recipient of the Spirit of Anne Frank Award, in some way that related to beauty obsession and stereotyping?

Brief answer: I eventually realized that my appearance was not the essence of my value, and I didn’t want to be judged or judge others solely on this basis.  I used the word, “Appearance-ism,” for the issue I knew so well. I began to ‘peel my personal onion’ and to heal, (also cry quite a bit), through this process.  Eventually, I began to teach what I most needed to learn, and what I wanted for our world; to transform our inner critical voices AND vanquish stereotyping, appearance-ism, age-ism, homophobia, religious and ethnic bias, etc. 

The chilling interplay of appearance-ism, snap judgments, stereotyping, and racism crystalized when my neighbor, Ricky Byrdsong, an NU basketball coach was murdered by a white supremacist in 1999.  I felt compelled to craft a community response.  My journey kept unfolding, leading me to South Africa; to write “RACE: An OPEN & SHUT Case”; to befriend families of innocent men who were murdered in attacks directed at Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and South Asians in the backlash aftermath of 9/11; and to fight — hard — as a Jewish ally against Islamophobia and xenophobia, ever since, and continue to work for a culture in which we all live safely and fully.

Anya Cordell is an Evanston resident and anti-bias activist. Her website is Appearance-ism.com.  She will present a program titled “Critical Inner Voices and Stereotyping — BEGONE!” at Parkes Hall at 3 p.m., Oct. 6.