Women We Laud: Challenging the Status Quo: Lizzie Velasquez, Aung San Suu Kyi and Wangari Maathai


Lizzie Velasquez

Author and Motivational Speaker
Twenty-three-year-old Lizzie Velasquez (http://www.aboutlizzie.com) is used to being stared at. Just recently, she and her family went to the movies and a man walked past her twice, staring at her, before coming right up and looking her up and down. “Can I help you?” her father asked. The man became flustered and muttered something about looking for napkins, before rushing off toward the concession stand. “People look me up and down, and stare at me. Some take out a camera and take pictures of me,” says Velasquez.

Velasquez’s appearance is striking, though she certainly does not fit conventional standards of beauty. The 23-year-old has a rare medical condition that currently affects only three people in the world, and is yet to be formally diagnosed. The primary symptom is an inability to gain weight. While this might seem like a blessing for some women, Velasquez knows otherwise. Her body cannot develop adipose tissue (fat) and her stomach is small, so her weight hovers around 60 pounds. Often mistaken for an anorexic, Velasquez eats small meals and snacks every 15 to 20 minutes, going for calorie-rich foods like pizza, potato chips, and ice cream. Her condition affects her appearance in other ways as well. She is blind in one eye, which has clouded over, and her face has an unusual bone structure.

While strangers’ stares can make Velasquez uncomfortable, she now sees that they present an opportunity to educate people and challenge standard perceptions of beauty. Surprisingly, Velasquez has an easier time connecting with younger people. “Lately I’ve been having to deal with a lot of adults treating me different in public. Teens make me feel less awkward,” she says, which makes her optimistic about greater acceptance among future generations.

It was speaking to a group of high school students that helped Velasquez chart a course for a career in writing and speaking. When she was a high school student, an 8-second video calling her “the world’s ugliest woman” was uploaded onto YouTube. Instead of caving to the cruelty of cyber-jerks, Velasquez decided that she would rise above them and live her life on her terms. Impressed by her grace and dignity during the ordeal, the vice principal asked her to talk to the incoming freshman class about self-esteem and respect. Her first reaction was “No way!” but she mustered her courage and took the stage. “I have struggled with learning to accept who I saw in the mirror,” she said, “and after speaking to [the freshmen] I felt proud in my skin.” She was surprised by how many students related to her feelings of insecurity, and how many said that listening to her gave them a more positive outlook about themselves and others.

Now a seasoned public speaker, Velasquez’s second book, Be Beautiful, Be You, was published last month, and she hopes it will spread her message. She says, “Beauty doesn’t have to have a definition. If you create your own definition, you can never go wrong.”

Aung San Suu Kyi

Nobel Peace Laureate and Political Activist
In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to her birthplace, Yangon, Myanmar (formerly Rangoon, Burma) to take care of her mother, who was ill. Suu Kyi, herself a mother of two, bade farewell to her husband and family in Oxford, England, intending to return home when her mother no longer needed care. Little did Suu Kyi know that she would spend the next 22 years in Myanmar as a freedom fighter and prisoner, in and out of house arrest.

Suu Kyi comes from a politically active family. Her father, General Aung San, was a hero of the Burmese independence movement, but he was assassinated before Burma was granted full independence from British rule. Her mother, Khin Kyi, was an ambassador in India and Nepal in the country’s earliest post-colonial years. Shortly after Suu Kyi arrived in Yangon to care for her mother, the country’s ruling military leader resigned and pro-democracy protests broke out across the country. The demonstrations were squelched by the military, which killed thousands of people in the infamous 8888 Uprising, a string of protests and strikes around August 8, 1988.

Feeling the pull of her family’s history, Suu Kyi, a pacifist and Buddhist, spoke out against the military’s actions at a rally of 500,000 people, where she is reported as saying that she “could not, as [her] father’s daughter remain indifferent to all that [was] going on.” She co-founded a political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and at her mother’s funeral in early 1989, she pledged her life to work for democracy in Burma. Despite widespread support for a democratic process, the military regained power, recognized Suu Kyi as a threat, and placed her under house arrest.

In 1990, the military, perhaps to appease discontented citizens, decided to hold national elections, but they banned Suu Kyi’s candidacy. Despite this, 82% of votes were in support of Suu Kyi and her NLD party. The military declared the elections rigged, and took a tighter grip, cracking down on NLD supporters, putting them in prison. The following year, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “one of the most extraordinary examples of civil courage in Asia in recent decades.” The military saw this as an opportunity to get rid of her, and told Suu Kyi that she could be released from house arrest to claim the prize if she promised to never return. Her commitment to democracy in Myanmar was strong, and she declined their offer—one of several that the government would make in the coming years.

In 2010, Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest, and in 2012 she and the NLD party were permitted to run for election. Her victory has secured her a seat in parliament and has given her party more visibility and power to shape Myanmar’s future. In September 2012, she made a diplomatic visit to the United States, where she was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, as well as the key to the city of San Francisco, which has one of the largest Burmese populations in the country. The international community is optimistic that Suu Kyi and the NLD opposition party will be able to build the democratic Myanmar that Suu Kyi and her parents dedicated their lives to.

Classic Heroine
Wangari Maathai (1940–2011)

Scholar and Environmentalist
In 1940 when Wangari Maathai was born, few women went to college, especially in Africa. While her parents could not have known what an impact Maathai would make with her education, they insisted it be a priority for her, and sent their daughter to Catholic boarding school when she was 11. A top student, Maathai was chosen to pursue a college degree in the United States under John F. Kennedy’s Airlift Africa program, which provided Kenyan students with full scholarships to American universities. In 1960, Maathai began her first semester at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, where she studied biology. Eventually returning to Kenya, she became the first woman in Kenya (and in all of East and Central Africa) to earn her PhD.

During her years as a student and graduate lecturer, Maathai became concerned with civic and human rights. As a faculty member at the University of Nairobi, she campaigned for equal pay and benefits for the women working there. From there, she scaled up, working for the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) and as a board member for the Environment Liaison Centre, which worked to join civic-focused nonprofits with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Her background in the life sciences made her keenly aware of the connection between the health of the environment and the health of society.

In 1977, she founded an organization to knit her causes together. The Green Belt Movement has planted millions trees across Kenya, and millions more across Africa. In much of Africa deforestation contributes to famine and drought if new trees aren’t replanted to maintain soil quality. Planting trees prevents soil erosion, supplies firewood, and supports sustainable agriculture. The Green Belt Movement relied on women to plant its trees, and also provided them with training in other skills, including beekeeping, and food cultivation. The organization provided workshops about female empowerment and created a support structure to facilitate women’s entry into the local economy. It also highlighted the benefits of sustainable forestry through eco-tourism.

After being denied a fair chance for candidacy several times in 2002, Maathai was elected to parliament in a 98% landslide election. The new president also appointed her as Deputy Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. She soon after received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize to add to her long list of awards, which includes among others The Sophie Prize, the Woman of the Year, the Better World Society Award, and UNEP’s 100 Heroines of the World and Global 500 Hall of Fame. Almost exactly one year ago, Maathai died of ovarian cancer, but her work and her insight into the fragile ecosystems where humans must choose between long-term sustainability and short-term exploitation.

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