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.


  1. So happy you spoke your mind and so sorry I missed it!

  2. I was shocked to see that Susie Orbach was on the panel. But that might be from my FA background, since she is so well liked in other circles and I often forget that. The panel in general doesn't seem to have people who would actually have to understand their privilege or get it challenged on a regular basis, if at all. They all seem to have their own hand in exploiting women.

  3. Hey...great job. I am glad to hear you are at this summit and are reporting on it. Good for your for speaking up.

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  5. The WTCI is really coming around to getting FA...believe me they really are trying with people like Jess Weiner, Deb Burgard, Erica Watson, etc...on their panels.

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  8. You ROCK Michelle! I think your message was incredibly important and can't be emphasized enough.
    Your sister in solidarity,

  9. Well, you have certainly gotten off topic here. The main reason that so many women gathered was to talk about body image. This was not a conference about being poor, and if you were able to attend a body image conference, you most likely can afford to contribute a little to making a change in the consumer industry.
    If you can't, and/or are more concerned about women who have no time to worry about body image due to financial hardship, why don't YOU donate some time, or some money, to their cause? That might make more of a difference than standing in front of a panel of powerful women who have done great things for ALL of us and insulting their integrity.

  10. Did you read what I wrote?

    It's not off-topic. You think poor women don't have body image problems? Actually, poor women, specifically poor women of color, make up a disproportionate number of those affected by the "obesity epidemic." They're also constantly bombarded with images of light skinned, thin women, selling clothes and diets that would fix everything, if only they could afford it.

    I'd like to think I donated some time to their cause by representing them in a room that apparently had people who think like you, who would never imaging to consider how poor women deal with body image. I grew up in poverty myself, experiencing homelessness as one point, and thus I feel like I am in a position to comment. I don't understand why it's an US vs. THEM mentality. Would it have made up more comfortable to assume no one there was poor? It sounds like it.

    How did I insult their integrity? Were you at this conference? Did you hear me constantly saying, "I think what you're discussing up here is totally important." I wanted those powerful women to check how really powerful they were, and a few of them seemed off-put by it because, I assume, they never thought about how privilege might tie into this.

    Also, I don't think having the ability to contribute to making change in the consumer industry IS the answer to fixing body image. You probably missed that entire part of my post. I implore you to re-read. I don't think contributing to the machine that made this mess in the first place is the be all and end all of people hating their bodies. I really think it'll just cause people to hate their bodies in new ways. Hate makes money.

    You do know what social workers do, right? Are you actually asking me to contribute my time to helping the cause of poverty since, you know, that's pretty much what I do all the time?