Abstract: Beauty, Elaine Scarry argues, is sacred, life-giving and immortal. The memoir The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive by the African American Marvelyn Brown co-authored with Courtney E. Martin challenges these commonplace notions of beauty in the context of AIDS. This essay examines the alternative and nuanced notions of beauty in the context of AIDS and also considers how Brown as a subject emerges both as ‘HIV Positive’ and ‘beautiful’.
Keywords: beauty, HIV, illness, Pathography, self-love
Beauty, as Elaine Scarry contends, is sacred, life-giving and immortal (17-22). The memoir The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive by the African American Marvelyn Brown co-authored with Courtney E. Martin rewrites these commonplace notions of beauty in the context of AIDS. Published in 2008, Brown’s critically acclaimed memoir concerns with her trials and tribulations of being an HIV positive person. It also portrays her ways of surmounting them through self- love and self-esteem. The emaciated body of an AIDS patient is regarded as ‘ugly’, ‘dirty’ and as ‘negation of beauty’; however, the cautionary tale of Brown challenges these over determined perceptions of beauty and offers a highly nuanced notion of beauty. This re-configuration of the conventional and Western notions of beauty is not only evident in the very title, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive, but also apparent in her attempts to re-signify beauty as self-love and self- respect. This essay by close reading The Naked Truth along with Brown’s micro-blogs seeks to investigate the notions of beauty in the context of AIDS. In addition to the above concerns, the paper also considers how Brown as a subject emerges both as ‘HIV Positive’ and ‘beautiful.’
Notions of Beauty
Traditionally beauty has been celebrated as one among the fundamental values like truth and justice and is understood as a quality that offers sensory pleasures. The enigma of beauty lies in its subjective and objective nature. Beauty, according to the critic Santayana is an “objectification of pleasure” (33). The concept of beauty in the health discourse is equated to the well-being of a person which is predicated on the physical and psychosocial wellness of an individual. Contrary to this notion, beauty in general discourse corresponds to a fair and a healthy body. This abstraction and equating of beauty to health and fairness is inadequate in the context of AIDS for the syndrome emaciates the corporeal. Beauty, particularly in the framework of chronic illness, becomes a highly subjective and a personal experience. As the philosopher Hume in his essay Of the Standard Taste astutely observes, “[b]eauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty” (129). This proposition not only draws attention to the multifarious ways in which we can conceive beauty but also to the problems of subsuming beauty to mere physical appearance.
The memoir The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive explores these issues through the life of Marvelyn Brown, who grew up in a dysfunctional family. Brown was raised by her mother Marilyn whose major concern was to build a “‘successful’ family” (7). Unlike her husband Marvin who was fun loving, Marilyn was “strict and serious” (7) towards her daughters. The absence of parental care and support in her formative years makes Brown crave for love and recognition from others. In order to overcome her resentment in life, Brown imagines herself in the fanciful world of beauty as embodied in the fairy tales such as “Cinderella” and “Dumbelina” (10). As a kid Brown internalises these archetypes and accordingly formulates her notions of beauty and life. She imagines herself to be the damsel in distress who will be saved by her Prince Charming. Furthermore she extends her fantasies by comparing herself to the children of the “Third World countries who have plenty of love and support but no money for food. [Brown] felt like [she] was the total opposite – [she] had all the food [she] needed but was insatiably hungry for love” (10). This romantic notion of beauty and her “insatiabl[e] hunger for love” (10) and recognition makes her vulnerable in her adult life.
In her childhood, Brown was engaged in modelling and acting; yet the commodification of beauty did not influence her. Being a tomboy she was invariably interested in “get[ting] out of those [modelling costumes] and back to the streets to find [her] boys in the neighborhood” (11).Until her middle school, even when everyone around her, including her mother, constantly reminded her that she needs to be a “‘pretty’ girl”(11), Brown “didn’t do ‘cute’” (12) for her primary concern was to become an athlete. Brown becomes conscious of her physical appearance only when she enters her high school which she humorously calls as “fashion show” (20). In her adolescence she gradually internalises the common place notions of beauty, and as a result, begins to work extra- time to purchase “clothes, shoes, lip gloss and everything else which her mom considered frivolous” (23). After graduating from her senior year, Brown becomes more conscious of her physical appearance. The sudden freedom from her mother and the failure to receive an athletic scholarship leads her to experiment with her looks. In this phase of her life, “[she] start[s] to wish for a little of that ‘Damn girl, you look good’ attention that other girls received, in no small part because of the way they dressed, their hair [and] their nail” (40-41). For this reason Brown spends her time partying with her friends Cortney, Kendria and Sha in Middle Tennessean State University. It is in one such party when everyone hollers at her she realises “how powerful it felt to be pretty” (60). This event not only instills a sense of pride and confidence in her but also boosts her ego. As Brown attests: “beauty became [her] calling card in this new phase of [her] life” (60) and she firmly believed that physical beauty was her only means of empowerment.
Hence, when she meets Prince Charming in the park, she gets enamored by his looks and falls in love with him. In an online testimonial, she recalls his appearance thus: “He was cute. Oh really he was handsome” (Marvelyn’s Story). Smitten by his appearance and fuelled by her childhood fantasies, Brown envisions a secure future with him. In reality when she learns that it is Prince Charming who infects her with HIV she is unable to accept the truth. Sharing her disbelief to Warren Tong in an interview Brown states thus: “I still didn’t think I got it from him. He looked too good. He smelled too good. This was my Prince Charming; this was my everything. So I did not want to believe that he and HIV could even be in the same sentence.” In her quest for ideal beauty, Brown loses her health which according to Crispin, may be termed as the “object of longing” (Sartwell para. 48) in which the subject is in an irremediable state of longing due to unfulfilled desires.
“An Object of Curiosity”: Abjection and AIDS
After her diagnosis as HIV positive, “the life that [Brown]’d envisioned for [her]self – one that included romance, health and family was plagued with uncertainty, loneliness and stigma” (The Beginning of New Life) for she was treated as an abject being. Abject as Kristeva defines in, Power of Horror: An Essay on Abjection is “neither the subject nor the object” (10) but something which is excluded from the social order as improper and unclean. PLWH/PLWA (people living with HIV/ people living with AIDS) become a jettisoned objects in the society and the abjection towards them is both visual and psychic. While the visual abjection is due to disfigurement and emaciation of the body, the psychic abjection is caused by the stigma and taboo that surrounds the syndrome. The existence of the PLWH/PLWA is seen as pollution to society; hence they are ostracised through the process of abjection, which involves three stages – identification, mechanism of separation and production of a realm of abject (Zivi 35).
Brown encounters this process as soon as she returns from the hospital. Living in a small town, Nashville, the news of her illness spreads rapidly and very soon she is ‘identified’ as the “girl with HIV” (92). Labelled as a HIV positive person, Brown is subjected to ‘the mechanism of separation’ as Kristeva puts it. Thus, while she hopes that church would offer her solace and safety, the gaze of the congregants reduces her to an “object of curiosity” (104). No different was her experience at school where she had to confront “a new kind of hell” (106). Treated as an outcast by the sideway glances and the dirty looks of her classmates, Brown is isolated from her surroundings. Her only companion at school was a girl with herpes and their presence was seen as an infection at school. Speaking about her experience of being shunned from the society to Savvy Miss, Brown laments that, “[She] felt like a dying child.”The capacity of the society to exclude the individuals as the ugly, dirty and filthy validates its power and produce a realm of abject. By so doing the community triggers the process of self–abjection in an ill-person, which according to Kristeva “would be the culminating form of that experience of the subject to which it is revealed that all its objects are based merely on the inaugural loss that laid the foundations of its own being” (5).
“Choos[ing] to Live”: Negative Epiphany
Although Brown’s family was sympathetic towards her, she found it difficult to cope with her HIV positive status. Brown’s illness, as she bluntly puts it was “like a slap in the face” (119). “Despite the fact that [she] had lifesaving medicines available to [her], [she] was torn between accepting treatment and wallowing in [her] own denial and shame” (The Beginning of a New Life). The knowledge about the syndrome threatens her perception of beauty. Her fear is evident in two instances— the first instance is when she decides to take an obituary picture of herself and the second instance is her daily ritual of looking at the mirror to check whether any lesions have appeared on her face. With her illness emaciating her athletic body, Brown panics that her body will be disfigured. Hence she decides to have an obituary picture. She poses lying on a mirror and is pleased to see the image resembling her inner self- “simple, classy and beautiful” (110). Her confession that “I may have been dying, but at least now I knew that my obituary picture would be beautiful” (111) lays bare her desire to stay beautiful forever.
However, Brown’s notions of beauty and life transforms when “[she] almost died” (122) in a road accident. At times for the want of a personal space Brown moves into her car which she parks at the “twenty–four–hour Wal-Mart parking lot” (118) and spends her night in it. While returning home, she narrowly escapes a head on collusion with “[a] tractor trailer” (121). This incident becomes her moment of epiphany after which she begins to critically examine her life. She interrogates herself thus: “What if I wasn’t especially cursed with bad luck or doom but actually destined to do something important with my time left on earth? What if God saved me for a reason?”(122). This event apart from altering her outlook toward illness becomes the locus of her spiritual awakening. The knowledge about the contingencies of life gradually eliminates her victimhood and instills in her a sense of responsibility. Brown views this episode as a second chance offered to her by the Almighty to redeem herself. The event apart from transforming her into a spiritual person initiates in her a quest for life. This quest, as Arthur Frank observes in his work, The Wounded Story Teller brings out the “most distinctive voice” (115) of the subject. Drawing courage and inspiration from the cliché “God wouldn’t give you this unless he thought you could handle it” (122) Brown decides to confront her illness head on.
Reconfiguration of Beauty through Self -Love and Self- Respect
After her epiphany, Brown visits Nashville CARES, an organisation which helps the locals with HIV and AIDS. There she receives counselling from Marcia Williams who arranges a waitressing job and motivates Brown to start afresh by moving to the neighboring town. With a job and an apartment for herself, Brown feels independent. Recounting the event, Brown writes in her blog The Accidental Activist that “Being alone helped [her] come to terms with [her] true self”. She begins to understand that “the only person Marvelyn could count on was Marvelyn” (117). As a mark of a new beginning, Brown addresses herself by her middle name Shari. This signifies that as much as she wanted to start anew she wanted to do so by forgetting her agonising past. When Brown was offered a chance to share her story of HIV positivity with the students of Middle Tennessean State University by a local AIDS service organisation, Street Works, she readily accepts the offer.”The act of telling” as Frank observes “is a dual reaffirmation. The relationship with others are reaffirmed and the self is reaffirmed” (56). Eventually by verbalising her experience in a public forum, Brown attempts to accept and acknowledge herself, which is the first step toward self-love.
Even after her disclosure of HIV positivity at Middle Tennessean State University, Brown is unable to accept the truth that she is HIV positive. Living in denial she cogitates that she has been misdiagnosed until Dr. Lisa Laya confirms that she is only “thirty- five T-cells away from getting full blown AIDS”(131). Brown’s first and real ‘outing’ happens with the publication of the article titled “Courage” (142) in The Tennessean newspaper. The article shares her experience as a HIV positive person. Commenting on this event, Brown in her blog titled Accidental Activist contends that “once the article came out, [her] purpose became clear and [she] discover[s] that [she is] a born leader. [She] began to grow more confident.” Later Brown sheds her identity as Shari and becomes “a new Marvelyn” who is “not ashamed of herself or her status” (146). Although the article helps her to accept the naked truth about herself, it is only through Patrick Luther, the prevention and education supervisor at Nashville that she learn to love herself. The trust which Patrick had on her abilities made her realise that “Self-love is a seed often planted by another, though you have to grow it yourself” (151).Working in Nashville CARES provides her with an opportunity to explore her potential and extend her horizons. Finally, Brown transcends her fear and self-abjection when she receives the Tarsha Durand Youth Award for Positive Leadership for sharing her story. Subsequently she defines herself by looking at the mirror and states thus, “My name is Marvelyn Brown and I am somebody with HIV” (152). After all the humiliation, pain and distress she discovers that real beauty lies in self-confidence and self-love.
After becoming a spokesperson of AIDS awareness programs and participating in numerous television shows like America’s Next Top Model (168),The Tyra Banks Show (171) and The Oprah Winfrey Show (200), to name a few, Brown’s fears of her HIV positive condition vanishes. This is evident in her approach towards dating. For instance, when a guy states that “[y]ou should be happy that somebody wants to talk to you. Remember, you do have HIV” (180) she retorts instantaneously thus: “I do remember… If it wasn’t for HIV, you wouldn’t even be here right now. You should be saluting it.”(180). Such self-affirmation is the result of the twin virtues, self-love and self-respect. It is not easy for a person to love herself during illness especially when the world around her constantly judges and associates her illness with immoral behavior. Self- love is an ongoing process, where an ill person’s ability to stand up for oneself is constantly tested.
As mentioned in her blog titled The Beginning of a New Life, Brown “works hard to empower young women who naively believe that Prince Charming will protect them and keep his word—women who generation after generation put themselves at risk only to end up raising children alone, struggling to pay bills, and facing life’s challenges without the skills needed to compete.” By so doing, Brown demystifies the commonplace notions of beauty. Furthermore by reflecting on her past she states thus: “I’d been surrounded by people who wanted to be in my circle of friends, people who loved me. How could I not love me? If I had loved me I wouldn’t have given someone else the power to determine my future by having unprotected sex” (188). Here Brown contends that her lack of self–love and self–respect were the cause for all the mishaps in her life. While touring across the globe to create HIV/ AIDS awareness, Brown states that, unlike her, most of the women in the third world countries did not have a choice to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS. Their economic condition, she observes, deprives the third world women from lifesaving drugs. Commenting on the lack of alternatives in the lives of the third world women, Brown advises thus: “[o]ur choices are not the same. But one choice we all have is the choice to love ourselves. We have to accept ourselves in whatever situation we are in, and know that we are living, beautiful people” (215). Brown’s view resonates with the idea of the phenomenologist Havi Carel when she suggests that a person can be happy despite his illness provided he learns to creatively adapt himself. Adaptability she argues is not mere adjustment or acceptance of reality but a positive personal response to the changes that occur in one’s body and mind (105).
To conclude, the memoir The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and (HIV) Positive reconfigures the conventional notions of beauty particularly in context of AIDS. Marvelyn Brown’s odyssey from an ignorant and diffident girl in Nashville to a “financially, physically and spiritually” (215) independent woman affirms that beauty is beyond the somatic. Brown redefines beauty as self-love which can be attained only through self-acceptance and self-respect. Brown’s life is a testimony of how “self-love, self-respect and self-responsibility” (4) can surmount the stigma and abomination that surrounds HIV. Essentially, through her pronouncement “I am all things marvelous” (Brown) and “My name is Marvelyn and I’m greater than AIDS” (Deciding) Brown reinforces the notion that self-love and self-respect are vital in redeeming the lives of PLWH/PLWAs.
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RAGHVAI RAVI KASHTURI. Is a graduate Ph.D. student at the Department of Humanities, National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirapalli. Her research concentrates on Illness Narratives and graphic pathographies.
SATHYARAJ VENKATESAN. Is Assisant Professor of English in the Department of Humanities at National Institute of Techonology, Tiruchirapalli. He is an International Field Bibliographer with Publications of Modern Language Association of America (PMLA). His research concentrates on African American Literature, Cultural Studies, AIDS literary Narratives and Toni Morrison.