TJ Powar Has Something to Prove is, unequivocally, a book with a message. But it’s not the kind of book that gets lost in the message. Instead, it’s the kind of book that frames a lesson on how we should view the world in an interesting, engaging way. We are far removed from the kind of books that would just spell out the moral for you, instead TJ Powar Has Something to Prove works hard to make you feel with the characters. That’s why the message lands.
We had a chance to talk to Jesmeen Kaur Deo about the book, the very clear critique of beauty standards and making TJ a fun, relatable character, and though once again, we started with the message, for us, and for her, TJ Powar Has Something to Prove is about so much more than that.
However, intent goes along way, and Deo was honest about the fact that the book more or less formed around the intention to critique the way beauty standards are set by society, and how they shape not just who we are, but who we aspire to be.
“A good friend of mine and I had been talking a lot about performative beauty standards, and then I had the idea to write a book addressing body hair stigma, and those two things came together,” she told us, and the beginnings of the book actually feel very familiar to us. We’ve all had these discussions, it’s just that not all of us end up actually writing the book! Deo went on to explain. “I was frustrated with empty body positivity messaging. I wanted to write something that didn’t flinch away from the “ugliness” of our own bodies or the idea that this could co-exist with romance.”
You can’t see me nodding right now, but I very much am. And though the story and the characters to go with the idea came later, they aren’t any less important to the way the message is transmitted. Every book is a journey, and Deo shared that she also learned many things as she was writing and researching, which helped her not just refine the themes, but the characters as well.
She also was very clear about the reasons why these Westernized beauty standards need to be put into perspective. “For one, a lot of those beauty standards are not just skin deep. They are shaped by historical social prejudices such as racism and transphobia,” she explained, and then took it a step further. “If we don’t consciously recognize that and work towards correcting it, we perpetuate those prejudices.”
And, even on a smaller, individual level, Deo also told us that she believes “we’d have a much healthier relationship with our body image (and our wallets) if we freed ourselves from traditional beauty conventions and learned to cultivate our own.”
This all comes to head in the book, and it does so in a way that will feel recognizable. Being young is complicated, a being a woman makes the whole thing even more complex. That’s why, for Deo, one of her favorite scenes was “the last one TJ has with her esthetician, Lulu.” She didn’t want to spoil it, but she did tell us that in that scene “Lulu tells her a lot of things she needs to hear about her relationship to her body hair, and to beauty in general. I think it’s something we could all stand to hear from time to time. I certainly wish someone had told it to me as a teen.”
But TJ’s journey isn’t just about what others can teach her, or about what she can teach us. Instead, she’s just a young woman whose experience reflect what many brown women have to live through. And Deo knew, from the get-go, she needed “a protagonist who could put up with my worst body-hair-related nightmares from high school.”
“She had to be stubborn and fixated on proving herself right, because in the story she needs that to motivate her when she gets so much discouragement and so many negative reactions.”
Beyond that, though, Deo wanted to “show how drastically beauty can change peoples’ perceptions of you,” which is why it made sense for TJ to start the story “as a pretty popular girl, to show how her social status changes when she allows her hair to grow.”
Ironically, despite the message of the book, that part was hard for Deo to write – and especially, to describe. “I had never seen it portrayed before and getting past that ingrained stigma was like pulling teeth,” she told us. But got through it she did, just as TJ, and thanks to that we have a story that not only challenges our expectations, but that reminds us that it’s okay to challenge those of everyone else around us. We make our own decisions as to what looks good, and what makes us comfortable. No one else.
TJ Powar Has Something to Prove is available now, wherever books are sold. You can find the synopsis below:
A charming rom-com about high school debater TJ Powar who—after becoming the subject of an ugly meme—makes a resolution to stop shaving, plucking, and waxing, and prove that she can be her hairy self and still be beautiful…but soon finds this may be her most difficult debate yet. Perfect for fans of Netflix’s Never Have I Ever.
When TJ Powar—a pretty, popular debater—and her cousin Simran become the subject of a meme: with TJ being the “expectation” of dating an Indian girl and her Sikh cousin who does not remove her body hair being the “reality”—TJ decides to take a stand.
She ditches her razors, cancels her waxing appointments, and sets a debate resolution for herself: “This House Believes That TJ Powar can be her hairy self, and still be beautiful.” Only, as she sets about proving her point, she starts to seriously doubt anyone could care about her just the way she is—even when the infuriating boy from a rival debate team seems determined to prove otherwise.
As her carefully crafted sense of self begins to crumble, TJ realizes that winning this debate may cost her far more than the space between her eyebrows. And that the hardest judge to convince of her arguments might just be herself.