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Letters About Literature National Winners 2011

National Honor Winner, Level 3: Ashli Bynum, MI

Dear Mrs. Piercy,

The checkout lanes at grocery stores are always colorfully decorated with a magazine laced border. They have all different titles but the same girl; slender, tall, shiny hair, and a glossy smile. She is the ideal woman in the eyes of most people today. Those who are slightly below this bar of beauty are treated like damaged goods at a supermarket; shunned. They are tossed aside with the other imperfect outcasts and hidden away at the back of the store, while the perfect cylinder cans are kept on display. Somewhere down the twisted line of social standards, I became one of the damaged goods.

While shopping at the grocery store with my mother and sister, a woman asked my mother if my sister was her daughter. My mom told her that both I and my sister belonged to her. The woman’s eyes bulged out as she stared from me to my mom a few times over. Then she stuck her old, wrinkly finger in my face and finally asked, “What’s wrong with her? Is she retarded or something?”

Her acerbic words hit me hard; it was like I had crossed the street and had been sideswiped by a car that I hadn’t seen coming. I stood there, mouth agape, hearing the words play over in my head. It never occurred to me that having albinism made me one of the damaged goods of society. My mom patiently explained my “condition” as I stood there, looking like the idiot the old woman thought I was. My mind was jumbled, and I was no longer aware of my surroundings. Everything became hazy. All my life I’ve had people politely ask me about my skin condition. I was never bothered by their questions. But this one lady made me realize how I must really appear to the outside world. After the woman had left, my mom looked over at my vacant expression and wrapped her arm around me. She pulled me tight to her side, acting as a shield against the cruelty of the world but it was too late; the stinging sword of malice had seeped in through the cracks and left me wounded.

The young girl in your poem, “Barbie Doll” was a healthy, normal girl. Her body was not a danger to her physical well-being, only her self confidence. Why was it a problem to her self confidence? Because society told her she was ugly, just as the old woman had told me that something was wrong with me. The girls on television, magazines, toys – they all fit the Barbie profile. I don’t want to live my life ashamed of my appearance as the girl in your poem did. I don’t want society only to accept me when I try to change my outward appearance to comply with societal standards. I decided that I wanted to be happy with who I am before my ending comes.

That night my mom came into my room and asked me if I was alright. I smiled at her and said: “Mom, not many people are used to seeing a black girl with blonde hair and white skin. Trust me, I’m fine. I won’t let her get to me. I’m just something new for her to adjust to.”

I became motivated to join more student organizations and spend more time volunteering, hoping that one day others will be more acceptant of people like me. I don’t want anyone to feel how I did that day in the grocery store. Instead of letting social standards keep me down, I wanted others to see me and become familiar with what “different” looks like. I try to educate people about differences and show them how to be more open to “something new.” I want to thank you for educating the world about the effects social standards truly have on young girls today. Maybe one day, the girl on the cover of the magazines will be replaced by someone who has Down syndrome, uses a wheelchair, is full figured, or even has albinism. Every person has something to offer this world, no matter who they are or what they look like. After all, even though a can is damaged, it still holds the same contents as an undamaged can.

Ashli Bynum