I'm challenging myself to write outside my comfort zone. A friend suggested this short, but intense contest, and I have to say, I really enjoyed the first round. Here is the story I submitted.
Leila stormed into the kitchen to find her son standing in a puddle of orange juice, his blue eyes watery, his lip quivering.
“I spilled my drink, mommy.”
Leila shuddered at the flashback from her childhood: her mother’s face twisted in fury, leather belt in hand.
“It’s just juice Mommy,” she sobbed as the belt whacked her again and again. “I’m sorry.”
They say you learn parenting skills from your mother. Rage infused Leila. She rushed toward her son, then pulled him into her arms, gently wiping away his tears.
Oh, she had learned!
“Oh, honey. It’s just juice.”
Winning this prize would really be empowering. Writing in a castle in France--oh the food, the solitude, the atmosphere, the people. What more could you want to write an interesting ghost story?
For years, my poor husband would tell me how unfair it is that he married a fashion model and couldn't brag about it. You see, after I quit modelling (yes, I was a model, for about 10 years), I rarely told anyone. If they asked how I was able to travel around the world, I would tell them I just bummed around or worked under the table.
Why would I be so reluctant? Because fashion models have a stereotype of being stupid. After spending 10 years of having every aspect of my face and body scrutinised for the smallest flaw, I wasn't confident enough in my own capabilities to be able to counter the stereotype.
But I'm coming clean now because I realise there is another reason for my reluctance to admit being a model. Everyone knows the stereotype of actresses sleeping their way to the top. Well, there is no industry like the fashion industry for sexualising women, both in front of the camera and behind it. And if the film and TV industry is having its moment of comeuppance, then the fashion industry should do the same. Now. Today.
In the ten years that I modelled, I was groped, kissed and fondled incessantly. I had one photographer press his erection on me and tell me, "Imagine this was inside you. That's what I'm looking for." And that wasn't porn. It was a standard fashion shoot. That particular incident was unusual, but less aggressive assaults were the norm; you just learn to deal with it, laugh it off, and move away. Models are invited as eye candy to the best parties where musicians, actors, socialites and hangers on are invited. Add drugs and alcohol, and you can guess the result. During photo shoots, models are posed in the most sexualised positions you can imagine (and many that you, if you are a woman, probably wouldn't imagine). And since many women are so, so young, it is not surprising that they are taken advantage of by the people in the industry. Who? Photographers, assistants, advertising staff, special effects engineers...Well, those were just the ones who tried to take advantage of me. When the industry looks the other way, I imagine others further down the ladder are prone to the same behaviour.
But it wasn't only fondling and groping. I knew women who were raped by photographers, although back then, we didn't call it that. We wondered what we had done wrong to allow it to happen.
I was lucky, though. Although some situations were more tricky than others, sex was never forced on me. And I met some of the most amazing photographers who are still friends today. The others? I have forgotten them, dismissed them, and they likely have no recollection of me, because the next day or at the next party, there were many more beautiful models, more vulnerable young women to choose from.
So, I hope that somewhere out there today, there are models willing to come forward with their #metoo stories about the fashion industry. It is time to bring to light the dark side of the images that grace our magazines and billboards. Does anyone really believe that an industry that sexualises women when advertising virtually every product would be a standard-bearer of virtuous behaviour? It isn't.
Maybe, just maybe, by revealing how vulnerable women are in the fashion industry, not only will it remove women from potential predators, maybe it will also change how fashion portrays women. Maybe we can stop being sex objects.
I remember when Monica Lewinsky became the modern version of Hester Prynne. I remember feeling sorry for her, and hating Linda Tripp for being such a dishonest friend. But honestly, the scandal between Lewinsky and Clinton didn't bother me one bit; what consenting adults do is no concern of the public's, in my opinion. Then, I never really thought about her again after the scandal died down.
Last week, The Guardian published "The Shame Sticks To You Like Tar," about Lewinsky's life post-Clinton, and what she has done to wrest some control of her life. It is a great read, and I highly recommend it, because it is sad, inspiring, depressing, uplifting, and promising.
"Lewinsky was once among the 20th century’s most humiliated people, ridiculed across the world. Now she’s a respected and perceptive anti-bullying advocate. She gives talks at Facebook, and at business conferences, on how to make the internet more compassionate. She helps out at anti-bullying organisations like Bystander Revolution, a site that offers video advice on what to do if you’re afraid to go to school, or if you’re a victim of cyberbullying."
Lewinsky's life is a perfect example of finding yourself in a wasteland, feeling the victim, seeing no way out, then finding the path, painful though it is, back to some semblance of normal. Because of her efforts against cyberbullying, the Guardian interviewed her, and one of the most honest things she said was in response to how she would be treated had the scandal occurred today. The journalist suggested that people would not be so quick to condemn her since we have been made aware of slut-shaming and putting women down. And people are much more concerned with misogyny against women that the men perpetrating it would be called out.
Lewinsky responded: “A lot of vicious things that happen online to women and minorities do happen at the hands of men,” she says, “but they also happen at the hands of women. Women are not immune to misogyny.”
Lewinsky is spot on. As much as many of us wrap ourselves in the mantle of feminism and call for equal rights, there is an astonishing number of studies that show women don't always walk the walk. For example, a 2013 study showed that women prefer working for male bosses by a 13% margin; in 2014, Wired Magazine ran an article detailing how women and men are virtually equal in their use of misogynist terms on Twitter; and another 2013 study determined that promiscuous women receive plenty of criticism from other women, even other promiscuous women.
Lewinsky would know about misogyny. It was a woman friend who betrayed her, she was reviled by men and women alike, and comics, male and female, felt no compunction about using her pain and suffering for their own advantage. She has commented that feminists were particularly cruel to her.
Today, Lewinsky has been referred to as the first person to be destroyed by the Internet. But she has found a way to overcome the bullying she faced as a child and as an adult by becoming the spokesperson, so to speak, against cyberbullying. Her Ted Talk has had nearly 8 million views, and she speaks regularly about her ordeal in order to help others find their own way through their difficulties and shaming.
It is so horrible to read about what that poor woman went through. It is so sad to see how a young woman of 22 was abandoned when the country's most powerful people used her for their own political advantage. But it is truly inspiring to read about the strength that woman found, eventually, to stand up to the shame she was burdened with, and address the issues that hurt her most so that others can find ways of escaping their pain and shame.
There is so much discussion in the political world these days about Clinton's 1996 comment about bringing the super predators to heel, and Bill Clinton's subsequent defense of her comments a few days ago. I must admit that I understand Bill Clinton's defense. At the time Hillary Clinton made that comment, we saw on television every night news stories about violence in the inner cities, drive-by shootings, crazy crack addicts, innocent people being shot and killed while sitting on their stoops or walking to school. As a white woman, it was understandable to me then and now that there was something problematic in the black community, and something needed to be done. As Bill Clinton said, "I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn't."
That is the easy reaction to this political hot topic.
Twenty years later, however, we should be able to look back with a different perspective and reflect on what happened in the early 1990s.
Today, one thing that strikes me about the coverage at that time AND today is that the news implies that the violence in the 1990s stems from black populations going wild; from bad black males who are out to hurt their communities in order to earn money, power and fame; from some natural internal deviance that had to be tamed. So based on this narrative, Clinton and the Conservative Republican Congress passed laws that put more black men in prison, that demanded harsher sentences for crack cocaine than powder cocaine, that pushed people off welfare and made them more desperate, that cut funding for programs like after-school care that could provide safe environments for kids as well as offer mentoring. Twenty years later, there is enough evidence to show that Clinton's policies did more to hurt poor people and the black community, all based on the idea that it was bad individuals rather than policies that were the major cause of violence.
"On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton made the economy his top priority and argued persuasively that conservatives were using race to divide the nation and divert attention from the failed economy. In practice, however, he capitulated entirely to the right-wing backlash against the civil-rights movement and embraced former president Ronald Reagan’s agenda on race, crime, welfare, and taxes—ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did. " (1)
As a white woman, I can never understand the full import of the policies that destroyed our inner cities and contributed to the violence that disproportionately affected the black communities. But there are people who have researched it. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Poverty? Yes. Globalisation? Yes. Poor education? Yes. The break up of the family? Yes. A lack of opportunity? Yes. And there are so many other reasons. Each community has its own diverse history and factors that contribute to the problems faced by its communities. The problem for me is that none of our candidates are talking deeply about why these social problems exist and how to solve them. We know what the Conservative candidates want and will do--namely cut taxes for the wealthy, cut government programs that serve the poor, eliminate government agencies that protect our environment, round up immigrants and send them home, take away voting rights for minorities, hand more control of the services people rely on to for-profit companies, eliminate a woman's ability to regulate her own body and control her future by ending abortion and access to contraception; in other words, they want to cut more and more programs to push more people into poverty (no, they don't SAY they want to push people into poverty, but 35 years of tax cuts and government program cuts have done just that).
I've watched the debates, and I don't know what Democrats will do. Sure, they won't do a lot of what the Republican conservatives would do, but I want our Democratic Party to have a vision, to offer solutions that people can get behind. How will they counter the negative effects resulting from the existing free trade agreements? Do they really expect manufacturing to return to the US, and if not, how DO Americans compete in the modern world? What is the role of government? Why was Reagan wrong when he said "the nine most terrifying words are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help?' "
This blog is about empowerment, and if anyone needs empowerment these days, it is Democrats. Thanks to the Clintons, Democrats have lost their way and embraced the memes and philosophy of conservatives. I'm willing to forgive and understand Clinton for her super predator comments; we all make mistakes. But her answer--and her husband's defense of her answer and his policies-- shows a lack of reflection. It was a knee-jerk defensive response when it could have been an opportunity to reflect on the unintended consequences of policies that seemed to be appropriate at the time. Most importantly, it could have been an effort by Hillary Clinton to show that she has learned, evolved, and matured in her understanding of the policies in the 80s and 90s so that she would respond as president in a more refined and nuanced way. But she didn't. And I worry that, like her husband, she will argue "persuasively that conservatives were using race to divide the nation and divert attention from the failed economy," but then just continue with the same old mindset and the same old policies that brought us to the economic decline that has diminished the middle class, destroyed many black communities and motivated so many people to rise up in protest of the status quo that Republicans and Democrats are offering us.
The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (Yup, that is a real name!) released their preliminary findings in February regarding their research into how "racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, Afrophobia and related intolerance..." affect African Americans in the United States. It certainly comes as no surprise that the Working Group's findings are pretty depressing: The recent police killings of African Americans, men in particular, recall the terror of the Jim Crow era lynchings; African Americans, men in particular, disproportionately suffer from mass incarceration, racial profiling, solitary confinement, death penalty prosecutions, and disenfranchisement; the criminalisation of poverty is the most recent systemic policy that disproportionally impacts African Americans. In fact, "the cumulative impact of racially-motivated discrimination faced by African Americans in the enjoyment of their right to education, health, housing and employment, among other economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, has had serious consequences for their overall well-being."
Unfortunately, this type of discrimination begins early. African American students are expelled for such minor and subjective infractions as being disrespectful or loitering, whereas white students are expelled for violating stated rules regarding smoking, vandalism, or profanity. It is again, not surprising, then, to learn that African Americans and Latinos, males in particular, are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, leading to what many call the school to prison pipeline. In the 13 southern states, those numbers increase drastically.
So it was refreshing to read "Monks and At-Risk Teens Run School Together With 98% Graduation Rate" on the Huffington Post. Considering a quarter of black and latino youth from low-income families do not graduate high school, the 98% success rate of low-income men of color at the St. Benedict's Prep school is astounding. Most refreshing is the headmaster's understanding that poverty and the emotional stress that comes with it is like a lid tamping down a child's potential. He says, "It’s very rare that cognition is the reason for poor academic performance in our experience — frequently it’s emotional distress.”
With this understanding, St. Benedict's Prep focuses on counselling to help the students deal with that emotional stress. In addition to career counselling, the students attend group sessions that help them cope with the emotional problems that hold them back--anger management, family relationships, depression, etc. There are also school psychologists that the students have access to. Of course, the high graduation rate is not due to counselling alone. The students are responsible for a large portion of the school's day-to-day activities, and they rely on each other for support, counselling, tutoring, mentoring and preventing fellow students from succumbing to gang or other harmful influences outside the school.
Unfortunately, not all school leadership in the United States is so enlightened. The very next article I read today stated, "three of the five largest school districts in the country prioritize school security above students’ mental health." The article goes on to explain that in the country's largest school districts, there are twice as many security officers than counsellors, despite studies that have shown security officers in our schools escalate confrontations and are a crucial link in the school to prison pipeline. And, as expected, it is students of color from low income communities who are most affected by such policies.
"The zip code can determine to some extent the future development of young African Americans. People from Black poor neighbourhoods are more likely to face lower education achievements, more exposure to violence and crime, a tense interaction with the police, less employment opportunities, environmental degradation and low life expectancy rates as well." (The UN Report)
It doesn't have to be this way. Zero tolerance policies and policies that seek maximum sentences for even minor infractions have done nothing but crowd our jails, criminalise our youth, and destabilise our society. School budgets that spend more on security than counselling send the message to our communities that mistakes can label our children for life and second chances don't exist, at least not if you are black or Latino. By prioritising security rather than counselling in our schools, we are teaching our youth that authority and 'knowing' your place in the hierarchical order is more important than education, developing character, finding solutions in the face of adversity, freedom, critical thinking, and establishing one's own identity. In other words, all of the things that are meant to make us American.
It seems to me we can all learn from the boys at St. Benedict's Prep. Their motto is "Whatever hurts my brother, hurts me." Let's divert some of those funds from security to counselling and dealing with the emotional well-being of our students so they have more of a possibility to reach their potential. In other words, let's have a little more brotherly love in our schools and a little less policing.
Statement to the media by the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, on the conclusion of its official visit to USA, 19-29 January 2016
RACIAL DISPROPORTIONALITY IN SCHOOL DISCIPLINE: IMPLICIT BIAS IS HEAVILY IMPLICATED
Study finds higher expulsion rates for black students in SouthMonks And At-Risk Teens Run School Together With 98% Graduation RateThere Are More Officers Than Counselors In The Largest Public School Districts
A couple of weeks ago, I posted about an article I found on Huffington Post titled "11 Middle-Aged Women Strip Down to Reclaim 'Sexy' On Their Own Terms." You can find the original article here, but it was about how these 11 women viewed their sexiness differently as middle-aged women compared to when they were in their 20s. My critique was that these very same women, despite their new way of looking at their sexiness, posed in traditional industry-standard poses. The kinds of poses you find in any advertisement that objectifies women. As stated in the blog, I believe that "if these women truly wanted to reclaim the word sexy, rather than being photographed in various states of undress in typically 'sexy' poses, they would take their own words to heart and celebrate the diverse factors that contribute to any person being deemed sexy."
But several people whose opinions I value disagreed with me--vehemently. Their basic argument was that if posing semi-nude in sexy poses is what makes these women feel sexy, then who am I to criticise them for that decision? So, over the last two weeks, I have thought about my original post. I wondered if I was body-shaming these women as someone accused me of doing? Was I being judgemental? Was my original comment--that the women are simply falling in line with the industry standard of sexy despite their newfound wisdom--misinformed?
While my initial reaction to the article was one of annoyance, after thinking about it for two weeks, I have changed my opinion. I am now incensed by it. Let me explain.
First, let's get rid of the obvious--yes they are all beautiful, no, they are not obligated to follow my sensibilities regarding sexiness. The point the article is trying to make is that older women are sexual beings, too, and they should not be considered unattractive or of no value simply because they have passed the 50-year milestone. Of course I agree with that. And if these women feel sexy by posing as they do in the article and by wearing skimpy clothes, more power to them.
The theme of this blog, however, is Empower Yourself, so I am looking at this article from that perspective. The title of the article-- 11 Middle-Aged Women Strip Down to Reclaim 'Sexy' On Their Own Terms-- gives the impression that the women in this spread are going to present something unique, something that reflects the wisdom they have acquired over their 50+ years. Their own words confirm that impression. Typical comments from the women include: "No one but me dictates my sexiness," "With maturity comes confidence and the knowledge that our brain is our sexiest organ, not our body," "My sexuality, my identity, and my sense of self-worth and belonging need to come from inside me first," "Today at 50, sexy is about my nurturing my inner beauty in addition to cultivating the outer beauty," "Feeling sexy now is a lot less about your body," and similar comments.
Of the 11 women, four are sexily posed in various states of undress on a bed, 2 are scantily clad posing either at or on a piano, one is lying coquettishly on her back on the sofa, one is half dressed standing in a room, and three are fully clothed in various settings. So eight of the 11 women in this article chose to present their bodies in states of undress as representative of their idea of sexy despite their statements to the contrary. So either, their concept of sexy is exactly the same as that of every advertisement we see that objectifies women's bodies, or they were not strong enough, despite their statements to the contrary, to stand up to a photographer's suggestion to fall into the traditional poses that are viewed to be sexy. Whichever it is, it does not represent empowerment, nor does it reclaim the idea of sexy. It simply allows middle-aged bodies to be objectified the same as young women's bodies.
Now, if the title of the article had been "Middle-Aged Women Can Be Sexy, Too," or "Hot Middle-Aged Women" I would still have found it to be a perpetuation of body objectification, but would not have cared enough to bother writing about it.
Secondly, the introduction to this article states: " We believe women can be smart and sassy, beautiful and confident — and that they can continue to shake things up in the world around them — whether they’re 50 or 75 or 100." Without a doubt, that is true. I couldn't agree more. And that is reflected through sexiness? Let's focus on how those "smart, sassy, beautiful and confident women are sexy. And while focusing on their bodies, let's put them in various seductive poses and states of undress? So the lesson to be learned from this is that older women should be objectified to the same degree as younger women? No. I reject that. As I said in the original post, these women had the opportunity to use their confidence and wisdom to change how women are perceived. Instead, they are perpetuating a view that is harmful to women of all ages. They should have taken their own words to heart to show that sexy can be much more than women's bodies being sexual objects. The fact that three of the women in the article did exactly that shows that my position is not unreasonable.
But the part of this article that really gets my goat is its first line: "Sometimes, to be a woman over 50 is to feel invisible. It’s walking into a bar or restaurant and no longer being on the receiving end of an admiring glance." Because that is what we women over 50 really stress about--that no one gives us admiring glances anymore. The implication that women over 50 are so distraught about a decline in admiring glances that they must strip down to prove that they can compete with those pesky younger girls who are sucking all the oxygen out of the room is unbelievably insulting!
Older women DO feel invisible--invisible from board rooms, invisible in the political arena, invisible in movies, invisible in advertising, invisible in business ownership, invisible in upper management, invisible in virtually all decision-making positions in society. I would bet that 'invisible when walking into a restaurant' is way down on the list of worries for the vast majority of women. So to read an article about women using their confidence and wisdom to reclaim the concept of sexy only to find the same old shit that you can see in magazine, TV or billboard ads is infuriating. The fact that the article is about women's sexiness instead of actual empowerment is even more so.
Why does any of this matter? Why am I spending so much time and energy writing about this? Because my 20-year-old son saw me looking at the role-reversal photos posted above. My intent was to discuss how sexually-charged poses do not determine sexiness, and what better way to show that than with the parodies that so poignantly convey how laughable those poses are. But my son commented that these parodies didn't really make any sense because "those are feminine poses," he said.
No, they aren't feminine poses. They are contrived poses that no one naturally stands/sits/lies in. But they are so pervasive in our culture that we become inured to them. We come to expect them. We come to define them as natural to women. I would argue that this objectification is to some degree the reason why women are "invisible from board rooms, invisible in the political arena, invisible in movies, invisible in advertising, invisible in business ownership, invisible in upper management, invisible in virtually all decision-making positions in society." It certainly explains why, when women are raped, the women are often blamed as having dressed or done something to bring it on themselves. It accounts for why, in sexual harassment cases, men and women alike will claim "boys will be boys." And it is likely linked to the epidemic of violence and misogyny that women face at all levels of society.
So, when these confident, accomplished, outspoken, and strong women had the chance to truly reclaim something about sexy, they accepted the definition of sexy that permeates society. Most of them chose poses and clothing that perpetuated the objectification of women. Fine. They did what they thought was right for them, and they have every right to do that. So respect them for their accomplishments, admire them for their boldness, and commend them for their insightful words of wisdom, but don't say they have reclaimed anything.
A blogger named Barbara Sostaita recently wrote an article on the Huffington Post titled I Refuse To Celebrate Your Feminism. She writes that the old feminism, that was primarily about anglo-saxon middle-class white women, is not enough anymore, so she will not celebrate their history. During Women's History Month, she and other non-white women must endure "31 days during which I am subjected to the celebration of white women's accomplishments and victories, many of which have come at the expense of women and communities of color."
Instead, she wants "Nicki Minaj's "Miley what's good?" feminism. Beyoncé's ***flawless feminism. Sandra Cisneros' "becoming a woman comfortable in her skin" feminism. Toni Morrison's thick love feminism. Warsan Shire's give your daughters difficult names feminism. Maya Angelou's still I rise feminism. Gloria Anzaldúa's mestiza consciousness feminism. Ntozake Shange's for colored girls for allfeminism."
In part, Sostaita has gotten her wish. If you do a google search of feminist icons, there are such women as Gloria Steinem and Hillary Clinton, but also Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Bell Hooks, Yoko Ono, and Beyonce. It is true that the movement was so long represented by a few famous names, most of whom were white, but that is no longer the case. The younger generation is speaking up about women's issues, and they have their own leaders, leaders who are bringing a new sense of urgency and passion that has dwindled over the last few decades.
Most encouraging, women are reclaiming the word feminist. Long vilified by conservatives as some kind of militant, lesbian, man-hating group of activists, feminism became a dirty word, and even women didn't identify themselves as feminists. But leaders such as Lena Dunham, Malala Yousafzai, Beyonce and Anita Sarkeesian are taking back the true definition of feminism by showing that it is really about empowering women to stand up for themselves at home, in the workplace, online, in the community, and against the sometimes vicious and vile attacks that women face when they speak up. Feminism is about creating a fair world for all, holding all to the same high standards, and social justice for all.
So I hope Sostaita does not reject the advances that have been made over 150 years of feminism, but that she uses her obvious talents and passionate voice to build on it by bringing in more of the voices that she lists in her blog. She is absolutely right to point out that women of color have been pushed to the edges and celebrated as after thoughts. But that could be said for women in general. Why is it that we only hear about the accomplishments of women scientists during Women's History Month? Why is it that we hear about only a sprinkling of women business owners throughout the year? Because women are still tokenised, and yes, women of color even more so.
Sure we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. We need generations to come together and ethnicities to work together because as long as we are fighting among ourselves about who represents feminism, the issues that are most important to us--economic and social justice-- will not be solved to our liking.
These women just appear to be submitting themselves and their 50+-year-old bodies into the typical poses that someone else has always deemed to be sexy--laying seductively on beds and pianos, exposing large breasts, sitting with legs wide open, and laying on your back with a sexy kitten expression. And they are doing all of this while talking about how 'sexy' is now less about the body and more about the inner beauty. Ugh!
Sexy is not sitting naked or half-naked in awkward poses. If these women truly wanted to reclaim the word sexy, rather than being photographed in various states of undress in typically "sexy" poses, they would take their own words to heart and celebrate the diverse factors that contribute to any person being deemed sexy. They should be photographed being mothers and friends and wives and colleagues while laughing and talking and dancing and working and shopping and volunteering and mentoring and all the things that make them who they are.
Three more states need to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment for women to have truly equal rights in this country. Look where it has yet to pass--the conservative south. This is an issue that women should make a priority in the 2016 election. Come on women!!!!
What would the Equal Rights Amendment mean to women?
I am a yoga instructor, author and activist. I wrote The Diamond Tree to inspire women to take chances. Even if the outcome of any given risk is different than expected, there is something for the community and the individual to gain from it.