Being Velveteen

The British-American author Margery Williams was born on this day in 1881. Williams’s first children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), was an immediate bestseller and is now a modern classic, beloved for its toy-that-became-real story:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.… It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

Toni Raiten-D’Antonio says that this passage from The Velveteen Rabbit was the “aha!” moment for her recent self-help bestseller, The Velveteen Principles: A Guide to Becoming Real. In her more recent Ugly as Sin: The Truth About How We Look and Finding Freedom from Self-Hatred, Raiten-D’Antonio confesses that, even as The Velveteen Principleswas due out, she got such a severe case of “ugliphobia” that she fell for the “beauty-equals-success paradigm,” and failed to live up to the advice in her own book:

Like everyone else, my decision to undergo plastic surgery—eyes, forehead and neck—was driven by the realization that there was nothing more I could do myself to look a little younger and that a surgeon could give me an advantage I might need. I was looking forward to the publication of my first book and worrying about making public appearances.… The more I thought about my age (I was pushing fifty) and the value our society places on beauty, the more worried I became about whether people would buy a book written by someone who looked like me. 

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.