‘Dare to Be Fabulous’ Essay Collection: 30 Remarkable Women on Embracing Our True Selves

From comedy writers to community activists, the message all the essays in Dare to Be Fabulous is the same: Do not waste time worrying about what others think of you.

Each of the 30 essays in Dare to be Fabulous, by writer and editor Johanna McCloy, recounts a life-changing instance when women dared to be their true selves. The inciting moments are as unique as the women themselves—deciding to join a roller derby team, canceling a wedding at the last minute, or walking 3,000 miles to raise hell and make a point.

Dare to Be Fabulous: Follow the Journeys of Daring Women on the Path to Finding Their True North by Johanna McCloy.

The essays are short (most span just a few pages) and are both hilarious and moving. There is no pretension here: Becoming fabulous is within reach of us all. The collection even includes an essay about not trying to be fabulous.

Each essay is preceded by an inspirational quote and followed by a simple writing or action prompt, making the collection uplifting and accessible. There is also a notebook journal with inspirational phrases interspersed.

No one in this collection says it was easy, and many describe the importance of embracing their vulnerability as part of their journey. But from comedy writers to community activists, the message is the same: Do not waste time worrying about what others think of you.

It turns out this isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially if you are a Japanese American girl growing up in the shadow of World War II, when people lost their homes and belongings and were rounded up and put into internment camps. Wendy Tokuda, a 30-year veteran Bay Area TV news anchor, says she grew up knowing that she and her family could lose everything because of their race. “Staying under the radar was something the whole Japanese American community did.”

Tokuda admits she was naturally shy. “I was a living stereotype of the nice little Japanese girl: quiet, polite, obedient.” Until she had her moment.

“I was about 10 years old, and quietly (as usual) sitting at the kitchen table with my mom and her friend. My mom was talking about how worried she was about my siblings, when suddenly, as she tells it, I hit my fist on the table and announced, ‘I’m not going to be like that.’”

Takuda pushed herself to step out of her familiar shyness from that point on. “It felt almost out-of-body strange—like acting—very inorganic.”

Things clicked in high school when she shadowed a Japanese American woman reporter in the newsroom. She knew this was what she was meant to do and went on to work for over 30 years reporting from the field and becoming a TV anchor. She says she is still shy but accepts this as part of who she is—a strength, not a liability.

Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem at a press conference about the magazine, circa 1980s. (Robert R. McElroy / Getty Images)

Another story comes from Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, who describes a moment from the late ’60s, days she describes as “pre-feminist” for her, when she worked as a journalist covering celebrity profiles in New York City. Steinem recounts arranging a meeting with an actor at the Plaza Hotel. The actor was late and when an assistant manager told her that “unescorted” women were not allowed, she was shown the door. She missed the interview but when one was arranged with another actor a month later, she returned to the Plaza and this time was successful.

Between these two visits to the plaza, a group of feminists picketed the male-only bastion and held a press conference. Steinem had been invited to the protest but refused. The Plaza’s gender exclusion policy was not unique, but Steinem also felt that although there was a need to protest this policy, she thought a better tactic was to take the matter to the city council.

There was also the issue of feminism being miscast as white and middle class. But Steinem later reflects on this moment and realizes that she was not able to fully value her own liberation.

“By the time of that demonstration at the plaza, I already had picketed for civil rights, against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and with migrant farm workers, often in demonstrations that were far from tactically perfect; so why was I suddenly demanding perfection of women?”

Steinem came to understand that her liberation was synonymous with the liberation of all people. “The truth was that I had internalized society’s unserious estimate of all that was female—including myself. This was low self-esteem, not logic.”

Similarly, McCloy, the collection’s editor, describes finding the confidence to cancel her wedding at the last minute. She met her first boyfriend in college, and after graduating, they moved to California where her partner pursued a career in law and McCloy got involved in local theater productions and acting. In time, they decided to get married. Then their lives began to move further along different trajectories.

McCloy’s misgivings were painful and she kept them to herself as long as she could—until she had to break her silence. In a tear-filled moment, she shared her hesitations with her fiancé. Their journey—listening to one another and ultimately deciding not to get married—is one of the most moving moments in the collection.

“Canceling a wedding so close to the date is nothing I will ever care to congratulate myself for doing, but I did learn a very difficult lesson: To thine own self be true; even if it’s excruciatingly painful.”

The late Doris “Granny D” Haddock (1910-2010) was an American political activist from New Hampshire. She achieved national fame when she walked over 3,200 miles across the United States to advocate for campaign finance reform. (Tom Williams / Roll Call / Getty Images)

No essay better echoes that phrase than the one described by activist “Granny D” Haddock, who walked across the country, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., in her 90th year to rally support for national campaign finance reform. After trekking over 3,000 miles through deserts and blizzards to make a point, which she did, Haddock thought she was done.

Then she received a call from the Alliance for Democracy, a group of campaign finance reformers who planned to present their own petition in Washington, D.C. They asked her to join them and she agreed. Haddock returned to the Capitol, a copy of the Declaration of Independence in hand, and immediately saw her choice—either submit to what others expected from an elderly woman—or do what she was meant to do.

“In the few steps across the room, I reminded myself that my whole life had been spent worrying too much about what others thought about me. Go ahead, old girl, have a seat.” 

She proceeded to read the Declaration of Independence aloud.

After her arrest, instead of sentencing her to six months in jail, the judge congratulated her on her resolve to fight for what she believed in. “His staff members were tearful and I was tearful. America felt like my own country again.”

Some moments carry national importance, while others lean personal.

In an inspiring essay, Pippy Longstalker describes her life-changing decision to join a roller derby team—something her sister inspired her to do. When Longstalker found herself moving from her hometown of Portland, Ore., across the country to Virginia, she felt a void in her life. She kept to her running regime and found a gym to work out in but something was missing. After an internet search, she found The Dominion Derby Girls, a nearby roller derby team.

“I shot a quick introductory email to the ‘Fresh Meat Committee’ and got their practice schedule. When I went to watch a practice, I immediately fell in love. Women of every variation—size, age, career, ethnicity, and sexual orientation—were on the rink and skating their hearts out!” 

Longstalker’s first moments in the rink were tough but she reveled in them: She had found her team.

One of the funniest essays is by comedy writer Jenna Jolovitz.

“Fabulous women have long, carefully tousled hair, or extremely short micro-bangs. They wear billowy caftans with ‘élan.’ Fabulous women throw casually chic dinners with large artisan bowls of artfully torn bread. They wield their feminine power confidently. They belt their coats.”

Jolovitz goes on to describe a moment in Cannes, France, on a vacation break from college, when she decided to go topless. Moments later, standing in the Mediterranean Sea, she was approached by a preppy guy, the roommate of a college friend. The moment quickly turned awkward, erasing any hopes she had for being carefree and fashionable.

“Nature, or a higher power had sent me a crystal-clear message. Stop trying to be fabulous.”

In her final thoughts on that day, she writes, “Age has allowed me to appreciate that I am not the norm. I laugh loudly and insanely enough to make heads turn in annoyance. I make instant pudding with half the milk required because I like the mortar-like consistency. My hand gestures don’t illuminate what I say. And I get way too way too much joy from the $1 IKEA breakfast to be truly mainstream. I am authentic. Isn’t that fabulous?”

Yes, indeed. Claiming authenticity is what unites each of the essays in this wonderful collection. Their message is urgent—be you. Nothing is more important.

Up next:

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Leslie Absher is a journalist, essayist and author. Her memoir Spy Daughter, Queer Girl was published by Latah Books and was a finalist for the Judy Grahn Lesbian Nonfiction Triangle Publishing Award. She is a regular contributor to Ms. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Salon, Independent., Greek Reporter and San Francisco Magazine. She was awarded an honorable mention for non-fiction by Bellevue Literary Review and lives in Oakland, Calif., with her lawyer and comic book writer wife. Visit her at leslieabsher.com.Visit her at leslieabsher.com.