Shonda Rhimes is a storyteller. You know the characters she’s created on TV, from orthopedic surgeon Callie Torres on “Grey’s Anatomy” to gladiator Olivia Pope on “Scandal.” Now, Rhimes is teaming up with Dove on Real Beauty Productions, a project launched to expand the definition of beauty.
After announcing the project in March, Dove and Rhimes created a call-out for women to submit their stories. They looked at more than 4,500 submissions before deciding on the women featured in their first two films: Cathleen Meredith, founder of Fat Girls Dance, and Kylee Howell, a woman who opened her own barbershop in Salt Lake City. Real Beauty Productions uses a 100 percent female crew to produce the films because, as Rhimes told The Lily, “If you can, why not?”
Rhimes, who is the creative director of Real Beauty Productions, said that when she looked at Meredith and Howell’s submissions, she felt inspired and wanted to know more about their stories.
“Frankly, I thought I had something to learn from both women,” Rhimes said. “When I get curious and feel like I have something to learn, I know that there’s something great.”
Cathleen Meredith grew up believing in her beauty, and she started Fat Girls Dance as a “radical act of fearlessness that, in my opinion, shouldn’t have to be that radical,” she says in the film. Every week alongside everyday women, Meredith learns new choreography, films it and shares it online.
Rhimes was drawn to the fact that Meredith never needed anyone’s permission to be “fabulous, fierce and beautiful.”
“Nobody’s judgment was bringing her down,” Rhimes said. “She’s probably the most confident woman I’ve ever met.”
“For a lot of women, they’re sort of told: ‘You can be overweight. And isn’t it sort of nice that she’s overweight — and a miracle that she thinks she’s pretty too?’” Rhimes added. “It’s almost as if they’re being bestowed this permission. That’s often the focus of stories like that: ‘She’s fat, but she likes herself. Wow!’ It really drives you nuts.”
Kylee Howell’s story is different. Growing up in Utah, she wasn’t sure where she fit in. Her mom owned a beauty shop, and she regularly saw what “girls were supposed to look like,” Howell says in the film.
When Howell cut her hair short, she felt happy. She no longer “equated beauty with femininity.”
“Kylee was all about learning how to give herself permission to just stick with what she knew and what felt true to her,” Rhimes said. The fact that Howell now gives other people that feeling when cutting hair at Friar Tuck’s Barbershop is “beautiful,” Rhimes said. “We all know the transformative style of hair.”
After learning more about the process behind choosing Meredith and Howell, The Lily talked to Rhimes about how she defines “real beauty.” Here is the conversation, edited for clarity.
The Lily: What’s your definition of real beauty?
Shonda Rhimes: I think my definition of beauty is me at my most. Feeling my best, as confident as I can be, doing my best work. Being at my happiest. I also think it’s the moments where I’ve decided to just be me, despite what anybody else thinks, despite what anybody else might judge, despite what anyone else has been thinking about. It’s just me being me without even noticing anybody else or their judgment.
TL: How did your parents treat the concept of beauty?
SR: It’s interesting. I don’t ever remember that the concept of “being beautiful” was a thing. It wasn’t an admirable quality. It wasn’t a quality. They were very neutral on the topic, which made [me] feel more fearsome to the outside world because everybody else thought it was such a thing, and I couldn’t judge myself on it. I’m now a mother who … when people say [to my children], “Oh, they’re so cute,” I say, “They’re smart.”
They’re incredibly intelligent, and I realize that’s my parents in there. I have a daughter who looks like a model, and that standard of beauty is a certain kind of standard of beauty. I’m happy for her that she has it, because I think she’s beautiful no matter how she looks.
But I still find myself going, “They’re smart,” mainly because I don’t want them to think that they have to look a certain way, and if their looks change, that won’t be a problem. I want them to think that however they look, they’re always beautiful.
TL: When you got into the television industry, did you make it a point to show that there are different types of beauty?
SR: I don’t think I made a point of it. As a woman of color, that’s the world that I see. I made the characters be, in my mind, their reflection of the world. There is no world that I see where everybody looks like one thing or any one color or any one size or orientation. Everybody looks like everybody, so that is how I approached it. I did not think it was revolutionary. I just thought, beauty is beauty.
TL: What’s something you’re excited about with Real Beauty Productions?
SR: What’s been so great about this experience is that these stories are inspiring and relatable. It doesn’t matter who we’ve been talking to or what they’ve been through. The idea that you have to see somebody who looks just like you or has been through exactly what you’ve been through in order to relate [to them is] not true.