Friday, March 18, 2011
Who is really Endangered?
So where do I begin? I spent my evening at the Endangered Species Summit, which describes itself as "An international summit to challenge the toxic culture that teaches girls and women to hate their bodies." Sounds like something I can definitely get behind, right? It wasn't that simple.
Courtney Martin and the women at the Women's Therapy Centre Institute have created a terrific space. They really have. But the first panel didn't sit well with me, at all. It was titled "Real Talk: Body Image Advocacy Across Sectors." It featured the one and only Susie Orbach, author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, Emme, supermodel turned host of exploitive reality tv series More to Love, Wendy Naugel, executive editor of Glamour Magazine, Katrin Eismann, digital imaging expert and Chareah Jackson, associate editor at Heart & Soul. The moderator was Jessica Weiner, author of Life Doesn't Begin Five Pounds From Now and Dove's Gobal Ambassador for Self-Esteem.
The conversation mainly focused on how us women, as consumers, could shift the paradigm. Now, I'll be honest--I was critical from the start. I personally believe the root of our problem is in consumerism as a culture, but that's a whole 'nother conversation. I let it go (kinda sorta), and I listened to what they had to say. And what did I hear? A whole lot of the same ol' shit.
And I say that with caring behind it. I really do. I don't think these women were coming from a bad place. However, the concept of "consumer power" only applies to a very minute number of women. Weiner began the panel by putting forth the idea that we need to use our power in numbers to effect change and shifted from that concept to the idea of utilizing our consumer power. What that idea forgets is the fact that while we make up the majority of the population, we have access to a disproportionate amount of wealth. Who has the money? White men. And the few women who have money? They are by and large white. And regardless of what Oprah's theme music would tell you, she is not every woman.
After frantically writing notes back and forth with my partner-in-crime Katie, I decided to go up during the Q&A and address the issue. Before I spoke, however, a kick ass woman decided to call out the Glamour executive editor on her hypocracy. She pointed out the fact that the latest issue of Glamour (which she had in her hands! classic) only had a few women of color, featured a large number of pages dedicated to body shaming and diet talk, and how most of the models are a size four and under. SERIOUSLY. Ms. Naugle pretty much denied all responsibility. She said it was up to the consumers to write to advertisers, and how she doesn't even look at advertisements before they go out. The audience member demanded a date, and she refused to give one. I know she means well, but as far as I am concerned, until she starts walking the walk, she is part of the problem.
And then it was my turn. I was nervous as hell. I started by thanking the brave woman who went before me, and I pointed out the fact that not every woman has this consumer power. Some women are, believe it or not, poor. In fact, most women are. Based on the reaction, I knew I had the audience's support. I, being me, couldn't keep myself composed. I broke into tears because I was one, terrified, and two, really concerned about what was happening in front of me. Emme suggested that just spending "ONE DOLLAR" would help. I said to her "That is really easy for you to say." Weiner, the moderator, engaged me further. She suggested that woman write letters when they can't spend money. First of all, that implies that women even conceptualize themselves as having body image as an issue. Based on my experience, most are too concerned with figuring out how to get dinner on the table to think about their body image in an introspective manner. Second of all, I was standing in front of her. I could have written advertisers a letter, but I thought being there in person would be, oh, I don't know, more effective.
Also, this wasn't my point. I wasn't trying to discredit the work the women on the panel were doing, but the fact that every woman up there refused to own up to their privilege and instead put the onus back onto poor women was super disheartening. I struggled with pointing it out, but did it not seem completely fucked up that there was ONE woman of color on the panel?
It was like I was placed in a time machine. I felt like I was in the 1980s and I was speaking to a group of second-wave feminists who didn't understand the idea that some women don't deal with sexism exclusively. And how a black woman or a Native woman or an Asian woman or a Latina experiences sexism is different than a white woman. ESPECIALLY a white, former-supermodel. For the first time in my life, I have such a bigger respect for the womanist movement. Courtney Martin, in her opening statements, said this is the beginning of real action in the movement. If we're having this same conversation right now, I don't know if that's true. And if it is? This is not the movement I signed up for.
Plenty of women came up to me after the fact and thanked me for speaking up. I know I wasn't the only one thinking what I was thinking. All I want is for those women up on that panel to think a little more broadly. Me fitting my ass into an Oscar De La Renta dress is not going to change things for very long. Broadening the scope of the male gaze will only get us so far. We need to address all issues that contribute to our body image problems, including our consumerist, racist, ableist, sizist, sexist, hetero-normative culture.
To put it succinctly: THE MASTER'S TOOLS WILL NEVER DISMANTLE THE MASTER'S HOUSE. Thank you, Audre Lorde.