The first thing that I noticed about Xian Horn was her smile. Despite our conversation’s temperamental Skype connection, her smile remained genuine, vibrant and joyful. It’s amazing how something so simple as a sincere smile can brighten your evening, but Xian’s infectious happiness helped me move past a difficult day at work and shifted my perspective on how to approach life’s inevitable challenges. Xian’s natural positivity shapes her approach to activism, as she works to encourage people with disabilities to see their own unique beauty and inherent value. As a woman with Cerebral Palsy, Xian has recognized the need for beauty-positive role models for people—especially women—with disabilities.
Xian first got involved with promoting beauty positivity while working as a grant writer for Visible Theatre, a musical theater program in New York. The cast included members with disabilities, and Xian was asked to write and perform a monologue of her own. Having had no previous performing experience, Xian was initially nervous. However, her piece about realizing that her body was a temple allowed her to see the direction her life should take. “After that first performance, about five or six people came up to me and told me, ‘I really related to your story, I want to hear more!’” she recalled. “It was really eye opening for me to see how people responded to me telling my story, and how so many people could reflect their own experiences through that.”
The writing process involved with Visible Theatre allowed Xian to interact with other people with disabilities, and she came to see the need for actively affirming the value that exists in everyone. “It was really interesting, because I learned through reading our diaries together that people who were so talented and so gifted—some of the most accomplished people that I had ever met—were writing in their diaries [things like], am I a beauty or am I beast?” she explained. “[This] really shocked me because I admired these wonderful people. From that, I realized that there was a need to discuss positive self-image.”
In addition to her work with Visible Theatre, Xian also teaches a six-week course at NYU that she based off of her own experiences as teenage girl. The class includes topics like overcoming self-judgment, authenticity versus perfection, and discussions on what being “cool” is. “I end each class with talking about ways we can serve, such as a community service,” she told me. When we think about what it is to be “beautiful,” we often immediately think of external appearance. For Xian, though, beauty includes so much more than that. “We do the internal work, like affirmations. Beauty is oftentimes about claiming what is already there, and realizing that the things we see in our role models are also in ourselves. But it can be so hard to accept that.” Currently, Xian is working on expanding the work she does in her NYU class into her own nonprofit called Give Beauty Wings. The basis of Give Beauty Wings is putting beauty into action. “When we are whole, we can serve the world better,” Xian said. “[Give Beauty Wings] is about becoming as much of yourself as possible, and getting to know yourself.” In a society that often bases a woman’s worth on her external appearance, Xian works to cultivate beauty from the inside out by helping girls accept themselves for who they are.
Xian’s passion for fostering self-esteem is easy to see when you talk with her. She speaks about her work with the spirit of someone who truly loves what she does. “What I learned is that my life is here to serve a greater purpose, and that really is to reflect other people’s beauty—almost to be a mirror to the beauty that is in other people,” she told me. “The reason that I wake up smiling every day is that I get to carry a message that I think everybody needs to hear. If I could literally sit down with 54 million people with disabilities, then I would. If I could sit down with every person on this planet, then I would! Because I truly believe that we all have value just for existing. So that is really the basis of all the work that I do, it’s about recognizing that universal beauty, that universal purpose and value. That’s why it was so important for me to start this beauty and self-esteem work.”
Although Xian never thought she would be a role model, she now realizes the benefit of sharing her message of positivity with others. “In the beginning, I thought that the best thing I could do was live my life happily and show people that beautiful things can happen when you have a disability, but what I learned is that my life is here to serve a greater purpose,” she explained. She expressed her gratitude for her supportive parents and school, but acknowledged that many people with disabilities might not have these same resources. Through blogging on websites such as Positively Positive and creating an honest, relatable video for the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, Xian has demonstrated how embracing your own unique beauty can lead to positive change. “Authenticity is much more important than perfection,” Xian said. “Perfection in terms of flawlessness doesn’t exist. What matters is expressing ourselves, no matter how imperfect we may be, and recognizing that even if we are imperfect that does not mean we aren’t beautiful.”
By approaching beauty as a holistic concept rather than simply an external feature, Xian uses positivity to help people with disabilities cultivate self-worth and purpose. Using her own story to inspire others, Xian is challenging traditional ideas of what beauty is. “One of the most important things we can do is throw out the idea of perfection and usher in authenticity,” she told me. “I’ve learned that what I can do is tell my story, and hope that that inspires someone else to tell their story or to recognize the beauty that’s in them. Because I think that’s the power of telling our stories…” She trailed off here, pausing for a moment before continuing. “Wow,” she exclaimed, “it’s so powerful to me, the power of our stories to inspire others! We all want to feel valid and important, and we all are! That’s the great news, is that we already are. Oftentimes, it’s about figuring out how to serve in the way we are best equipped for. So for me, being a role model means showing your vulnerabilities and imperfections and being honest about the things that weren’t easy.” In her work, Xian is supporting an inclusive and positive definition of beauty for all women. “It’s been a wild ride,” she told me, “and a really beautiful process.”
Xian is also teaching a class for the New York City Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities called The Power of Positive Language in Self-esteem and the Workplace. Click here for more info!
Women Working to Do Good is a series that Hello Giggles and the White House have been collaborating on. We will bring you stories of women in communities across the United States who we think are stars in their own right. Whether they are young entrepreneurs, active community organizers, or making a difference in a single life or community, we think these women are amazing and want to share their stories with you! Each story will also be featured on the White House blog, and we are working together to bring more strong female role models to the forefront.
If there is a woman in your community who you think should be honored in this series, email us at email@example.com!