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4 Extraordinary Literary Women Who Redefined Feminine Perfection

08/13/2014 01:20 pm ET | Updated Oct 13, 2014

Like many young women, I struggle with the constant desire to be "perfect," mentally and physically. It can be so hard to follow advice to find joy in the here and now and so easy to instead be weighed down by imperfection.

Reading, though, is an escape from the pressures of reality, an immersion somewhere else that allows great happiness in the moment. A good book is like good meditation, bringing focus, clarity and mindfulness.

These are four books that opened a window for me into complexities and possibilities present in the experience of being a woman. Each of them helped me begin to imagine, consider and embrace possibilities beyond perfection.

Living By the Word by Alice Walker

Living By the Word features Alice Walker's writings from 1973 to 1987 as Walker visits China, Bali, Jamaica and the inside of a jail cell while a political prisoner. I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore in New Zealand and was immediately enthralled by Walker's strong, truthful and incredibly compassionate voice.

Walker's perspectives on race, gender, environmentalism, capitalism and sexuality are all still shockingly relevant even 40 years after the book's publication. Her love for all living things extends even beyond species. In the essay "Everything Is a Human Being," she writes of her love for even garden snakes and compares humanity's domination of nature to the destruction of colonialism.

Having grown up in a culture that idealizes youth and whiteness, I've spent too little time exploring the perspectives of African American women, as well as older women. Fear of aging sometimes makes me worry that I'll become invisible when I pass 40, hidden behind wrinkles and sudden social irrelevance.

Walker, however, experiences revelations about love and humanity throughout her life in this work. Admiring the beauty of Walker's lush and creative spirit throughout decades pushed me to expand my conventional definitions of ideal womanhood.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's chilling 1987 novel is inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an African-American woman who escaped slavery in the year 1856. When she and her children were recaptured, Margaret murdered her youngest daughter to protect her from a life of slavery. Beloved is a dark, conflicted and spiritual novel that greatly influenced my feelings about my identity as a woman and an American.

Beloved's central character, Sethe, struggles with her guilt at killing one of her own children as well as with the trauma of the abuses she experienced as a slave. Sethe, her mother and her daughter are complex women who shatter the expectations that others place on them.

These women experience violence and love within a horrifying but important time in our history. I was very moved and inspired by the strong spiritual connection between these women across multiple generations.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

Francie Nolan is the protagonist of Betty Smith's sprawling novel about an impoverished family living in early 1900's New York. Smith chronicles the beautiful and tragic stories of the Nolan family in a style similar to that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's familial epics. At the novel's core is Francie's struggle to get the education that she desperately wants.

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at a young age, and it continues to resonate with me years later. The book contains a disturbing scene of attempted sexual assault, the first time I had ever read about rape. Francie and the women in her family seemed realistic and truthful, flawed but also wonderful. They battle with violence, poverty and alcoholism with incredible resilience.

From Charles Dickens' David Copperfield to John Updike's Rabbit series, I've read many novels that narrate decades of male experiences. As a girl reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it was refreshing and affirming to read a novel spanning decades of a young woman's life.

Distant View of A Minaret by Alifa Rifaat

Distant View of A Minaret is a collection of short stories by Alifa Rifaat, a unique and talented Egyptian author who spent much of her life as a wife and mother in rural Egypt. Rifaat, who wrote in Arabic, tells the stories of women like herself and their experiences within traditional Islamic culture.

Rifaat's stories are full of rich sensory beauty and sometimes even magic, but they do not shy away from topics like sexual repression, widowhood and female genital mutilation. Each of her characters is not afraid to offer her own criticisms of patriarchal social structures.

As I've learned more about womanhood and feminism, perhaps the most important lesson that I have worked to achieve is to appreciate the voices, across nations and cultures, of all people. Loving each of the voices of these characters, for all of their imperfections, helps me to love flaws even in myself.