Visualizing Leadership

Sometimes, I like to think that I have enough imagination that I don’t need my leaders to look like me. I  think that I don’t need to be “pandered to” when I come across some events that are specifically designed to cater to one or more of my identity markers. I resist the idea that I need a narrow vision of a leader to identify with. In the last few weeks, I have had the privilege of hearing from leaders who have reminded me of the power of seeing Someone Like You Do Something Like That.

I was reminded that it isn’t a lack of imagination that makes it seem so vital to hear the voices of different leaders than we’re used to. It isn’t a failing if I don’t relate as much to the leadership stories of cis men who have found success in their passions or careers. I can relate to a lot of people, but I don’t need to feel guilty about the empowerment I feel when I hear from someone a little more like me.

The leaders I was hearing from were women, but they differed in their heritage, history and passions. I heard from a panel of leaders in health care who have climbed a career ladder to get to jobs I wouldn’t necessarily even aspire to. I heard Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks speak at the New School online, often about experiences I had little reference for (video below). I heard from entrepreneurs and professionals and communications strategists at a conference I normally wouldn’t attend. Still, I walked away from listening to these different women feeling more confident in my own path, however different.

Anyone whose face is less represented in the media than they are in real life – people of colour/women/queer people/non-binary folks/fat people/people with disabilities/and on – is forced to learn to identify with someone else in order to tap into stories. We are asked to imagine what it would be like to be somebody else constantly. Asked to relate to the decisions made by those in a position we might never be in. I think this is a vital skill for all, encouraging empathy and a radical imagination, but it can also be exhausting. Is it any wonder that we crave hearing from people a little closer to our own starting point? Everyone is an individual, but hearing from someone who keeps my concerns closer to their heart offers a narrative intimacy that feels more rare than it should be. Decreasing the number of steps I have to walk to get into their shoes feels like such a luxury still. Hearing all of these women, I find different assumptions being made, different rationalizations, different emotions, and it feels like they open up my own options. I feel braver for hearing them.

Representation can nourish something that you don’t realize needs attention, sometimes. Seeing something of yourself mirrored back in stories of accomplishment and struggle and passion can be powerful. It isn’t a weakness to want to see that leadership comes in millions of forms and strategies, including someone like you.

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Seeing is Believing: Why Media Representation Matters

[I spent this evening chatting about women and media representation at Eastside Yoga, so I thought it was time to share this post, which was featured on The Body is Not an Apology in August. Take a look at the next few posts to get my series of posts on media, visibility, invisibility and some of the consequences of (mis)representation. You can find all of them under the tag or category (In)visibility or Representation.]

Seeing is Believing

In North America today, we are exposed to media on a nearly constant basis. The average teenager now spends over 7 hours a day consuming media and so it’s hard to argue that it’s not having any impact on how we experience the world. For much of the day, we’re living in the media landscape through the internet, cellphones, television, advertisements, magazines, and movies. Unfortunately, the world of the media sometimes proves to be a strange parallel universe that excludes the reality of many, many people.

If you step back and take a look at the media, who you see? Better yet, who don’t you see? The answer may be: You. Your friends. Your family. Even if we forget for a moment about wanting accurate or positive portrayals, some groups can’t even seem to get time on the screen, even if you spend 7 hours staring at one!

When you turn on the television, who is reporting your news? And who is deciding what’s newsworthy? Who is on the cover of the book you’re reading? Whose stories are told? Who is in on the cover of magazines?

[Photo of Vanity Fair’s 2010 Young Hollywood issue featuring 9 young actresses, from left to right: Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Kendrick.]

There has been significant frustration with the whiteness of magazine covers, for example, but this phenomenon is just another aspect of the whiteness of media in general. In 2010, Fearless Magazine noticed a rather ridiculous lack of any visible women of colour in the photo spread above from Vanity Fair for their Young Hollywood 2010 issue and Fearless decided they wanted to do a different version.

[Photo of Fearless Magazine’s Class of 2010, featuring Lauren London, Monique Coleman, Tia Mowry, Tiffany Hines, Naturi Naughton, Kyla Pratt, Jennifer Freeman, and Chyna Layne]

Magazine covers are hardly the be all, end all when it comes to the media, but not letting Vanity Fair’s cover go unanswered is an important challenge to media norms. The covers of popular publications give us a sense of who major media producers think will get attention (i.e. sell more copies). More importantly, they also set up who they think belongs in the public eye and whose body gets to be seen – and being seen matters.

The media helps to shape who and what we see as important, as well as outlining the range of visible options for what is collectively seen as possible. Who can be a politician? Who can be celebrated? Who is part of the community and who is Other, the outsider? Who is seen to live happy, healthy lives, and whose lives are invisible? If you see yourself, or someone like you, portrayed positively in the media, it can offer a sense of belonging and opportunity, but the opposite is also true.

For example, the It Gets Better campaign is an attempt (not without its own problems) to create media that offers representations that the mainstream media and culture do not: real, (generally) happy stories of LGBT folks overcoming challenges and achieving their dreams. With all of the negative representations of the queer community in the media, many people felt that it was critical to offer a different version of the story, particularly in response to high rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide among LGBT youth.

The media is one of our tools for interpreting our reality, but when our reality is absent from the media, we may feel like our role has been written out. We may feel ignored, rejected, or erased.

Miss Representation is a documentary that seems to have struck a chord with a lot of people, myself included. Although the movie itself is hardly a perfect example of representation, it did get a lot of people’s attention focused on the issue of how women are (under/mis)represented in the mediaand the important impact that this has on the world. In the film, Marie Wilson quotes Marian Wright Edelman, saying:

“You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This quote really hit me hard. How do you dream from scratch, with no role models to be found? If you can’t see yourself reflected out there, how do you believe you belong? How do you visualize your future?

Still, I would like to revise the notion a little, because many people never do see examples of the people that they hope to become – and they do it anyway. It is too often a privilege to be able to look around and find examples of dreamers who look like you. Obama had to believe that he could be the President of the United States, regardless of what history and the media told him. Hillary Clinton had to believe it too. On a more daily level, many people have been able to imagine lives for themselves that they didn’t see reflected around them by peers or the media.

It’s not impossible to be a trail blazer by any stretch, but it’s an up hill climb when you’re the only one you know who can see your vision of your future (or even your present). It’s tough to keep the faith when everyone else is busy convincing you that you’re just dreaming – or just plain “crazy.” Often, it’s a whole lot easier not to defy everyone else’s expectations. In fact, in a way, the problem at hand isn’t about what you see necessarily, but that people can’t see you. People don’t recognize you or your dreams. To them, you’re invisible, and maybe even “impossible.”

Fortunately, there are more and more people working to create media that offers inclusive representations and positive portrayals. Making media that makes space for everyone is a powerful step towards accepting and celebrating everyone. We should all feel welcome and reflected in our media and in our communities.

Magic Trick #1: Disappearing Acts

Inspired by the title of The Illusionists, a documentary in the works that is going to be a must-see, I’ve decided to start a new series of posts called Magic Tricks. It’s about deconstructing the illusions of beauty and media, so that we can see through the “magic” of beauty standards, advertising and celebrity culture. Once you know how a trick works, it’s not so magical anymore.

Disappearing Acts

In my opinion, one of the most threatening things about how we currently imagine beauty for/as women is that there is no size that is too small. There’s a definite “too big” in society, but girls and women are encouraged to shrink and shrink and shrink… until they disappear. Check out Beauty Redefined for examples of photoshop making women tinier than they are.

invisible woman

[Sidebar: Sure, when extreme eating disorders become visible on a body in an undeniable way, people may finally admit that someone can be too skinny – but those with anorexia will often receive compliments up until weeks before they’re hospitalized. It’s also true that some people with a naturally very thin frame are in fact harassed by others, who label them with eating disorders that they don’t have. However, losing weight is giving an immediate positive connotation in most of Western society. ]

As a woman who wants to take up space, I find the urge to disappear disturbing. I mean, we have a size 00 – size less then nothing. It strikes me as incredibly bizarre. As we try to increase the number of women in professional sports, laboratories, board rooms and legislative assemblies,  it seems that Western women are spending even more time trying to decrease the number on their scale and their dress size. We need women to take up space, be present and unapologetic about their bodies, but instead we are constantly told that we are too much.

To be feminine and beautiful, we are told to be “less,” less fat, less masculine, less angry, less emotional, less demanding. Of course, there’s a list of “more” as well, but I want to focus here on the ways that we try to make women small. The “ideal woman” almost always achieves the adjective “petite.” Her feet are small, her hands are small, her waist is small, her nose is small, her mouth is small, her thighs are small, her ears are small, her height is small, and her stomach is non-existent. It’s ridiculous and I think it actually has real consequences for women as they try to take up social space and join fields frequently requiring a person to be big – in personality and in physicality.

Compare this beauty standard to the growing requirement for men to be huge. As women are told to shrink and take up less space, boys and men feel an increasing pressure to work out and measure their masculinity in the amount of weight they can bench press. Men are increasingly expected to have a buff body, but it requires hours at the gym, specific diets, and sometimes even steroid use.

Taylor Lautner Taylor Lautner (left) is best known as Jacob Black in the Twilight series of movies. He’s said to have put on 30 lb of muscle after the first movie in order to retain his role for the later films. In the year or so between films, he packed on muscles and he’s been rewarded with a lucrative film deal and millions of fan girls drooling over his abs. This transformation into the “ideal man” was not without effort and sacrifices, and has to be constantly maintained. It’s starting to sound a lot like our ideal woman, except that we demand that men become “more.”

Bigger is constantly equated to better for men, putting pressure on shorter and less muscular men to conform to this new he-man stereotype. The toys marketed to young boys are increasingly muscular, with G.I. Joe and Superheros gaining muscle mass with every coming year, and I find it hard to believe that this isn’t having an impact.

I see the shrinking of women and the bulking up of men as a result of trying to police gender roles through our bodies. As men and women blur traditional gender roles in other areas, our bodies – the most biological ties we have to gender performance – remain a battlefield for gender conformity. For me, this is why women are told they that can be judges and politicians and police officers, but simultaneously told that they must still conform to the “ideal beauty” at the same time. Success only counts if you still “look like a woman” doing it. To retain the supposed separate-ness of masculinity and femininity, society encourages extreme differences in the ideal male and female form.

Of course, “ideal” doesn’t really exist. That’s the trick.

International Efforts to End Sexual Violence in Conflict

I just wanted to spread the word about the live blogs going on at Feministe surrounding the upcoming conference gathering people to discuss how to end sexual violence during conflict. The live blogs are being done by Jaclyn Friedman, who edited the fantastic book Yes Means Yes, and will help to document the discussions surround finding strategies to keep girls and women safe, to extend support to survivors, and to build a vision of a future where war doesn’t mean systemic rape.

For those less familiar with this issue, an extreme example is what is currently happening the the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC. On May 11, 2011, the New York Times covered a new study about the rate of sexual assault in the Congo that determined that a woman is raped nearly every minute. It is a strategy used by rebels as part of their war effort. It is a disgusting tactic that has disturbing consequences for the girls and women of the Congo. There are constantly new stories about this horrific pattern. However, there needs to be strategies for the survivors to handle their experiences and conferences such as the one being covered by Feministe try to imagine how to locally heal this kind of widespread trauma.

This is an important issue and while it’s not necessarily a part of this blog, I am a feminist blogger and so I thought this would be a useful link for some readers. Click here to check out more information and for the timing of the live blogs.

Women Represent! Online

This Thursday, January 20 was an exciting day for me and, hopefully, for the students at the Calgary Girls’ School. The staff and students there collaborated with many community and even distant figures to put on a Digital Citizenship Symposium at their middle school. I had done a presentation there a few years ago and so when they approached me to join in on a panel during the event, I was excited to go back. They had given me a warm welcome the first time and this visit was no less inspiring. I love talking to students and hearing both their questions and answers. I always learn when I go into schools or other groups. I jump at nearly every opportunity to get out into the community.

Anonymiss: Expect usI flew back to Calgary for about 18 hours, leaving Wednesday night, and the event started at 8:00 am, so it was a lot to take in so early in the morning. However, there were some great topics brought up. One I found really complex and interesting is how women and girls have a different experience online from others. How is gender performed online? How does a picture of a girl on Facebook receive different responses, and what does that look like?

The Internet offers amazing opportunities for people in many marginalized groups to begin representing themselves, putting them in the seat to determine what messages about themselves they want to see in the media landscape, and so I think the activism potential is really important to consider. However, it brings us to a lot of questions: If women can start to represent themselves in a substantial way, on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, message boards, gaming chat rooms, etc, how are they going to choose to represent themselves? Are we seeing women branch out and show new, more complex ideas about women in these moments, or is it same-old same-old? Why? Do women have the kind of options yet that they need to do what they want to represent themselves?

For example, how are the players available for women in online games portraying women’s bodies? Sexism in the gaming industry is both obvious and infamous. Chain-mail bikinis? Are you kidding me? And of course all the sexism in real life translates online – it’s the same people on the Internet as in the real world, so how would we expect sexism to disappear once we’ve gone digital? – but now there’s the benefit of being anonymous. It doesn’t do anything positive for upholding a standard of equality. If no one can personally call you out for being sexist, a community that is at least vaguely hostile to women can easily develop, just as there are racist and homophobic communities online. It reflects larger society.

How new media and Internet technologies affect women is a huge discussion that I won’t get into further right here, but I think as digital citizens, we do have a responsibility to take a look at our online culture. It’s easy to assume that the status quo is just normal – it’s just the Internet! – but twenty years ago we didn’t have this kind of commonplace access to the virtual world. This is new and still in the process of being defined. How do we want to define it, and gender, online? It’s a big question that no one person is going to ever answer. The answer will only be seen much later, when we all look back at what we’ve done with all these new tools and gadgets.

Dressing to Impress at the Golden Globes

Jennifer Lopez at the Golden Globes So, this past Sunday was the Golden Globes and so there was, of course, the required hours of red carpet footage. No doubt there were hours of red carpet preparation as well done by many celebrities. What they wear is often the source of entertainment news fodder. This year, Time has graciously (eye roll) created a post-event slide show highlighting “Five Stars Who Look Looked Fat and Five to Who Looked Fit.” Gee, thanks Time. What would we do without your critical and enlightening gaze?

Actually, more like just critical. This Sociological Images post does a great job of talking about how the article assumes that fashion is used merely to hide the “flaws” that separate your body from that of the ideal we’re supposed to live up to. Thighs are too big to fit the super-skinny mould? If your dress doesn’t hide your shape, then – according to the piece – you’ve failed. And they plan to publicly shame you. Hurrah.

Fashion as body camouflage? Fashion as the tool for creating a generic body? I think we can find a better use for the creativity and beauty that is potentially possible in the things we wear. Many girls (and boys) see their clothing choices as reflecting who they are and showing the world a little piece of themselves, not hiding what makes them special. Celebrity articles show the extreme version of what happens often when people try on clothes at home or in dressing rooms and compare themselves to how they “should” look. Time is holding up the body image standard here to see how the celebrities compare, and even they – who are often only celebrated for being closest in society to this ridiculous ideal – cannot live up to this measure. Anyone calling J Lo fat in this picture needs to get their eyes checked, and re-checked.

I’m no fan of the Golden Globes. I’m no fan of celebrities. However, I’m even less of a fan of this beauty standard that requires our every effort be devoted to conforming and contorting our bodies to fit the ideal. Can’t we just wear pretty dresses?

Relationship Advice as Seen in Magazines

Recently, Cracked.com put together an image that sharply criticizes the messages sent by magazine covers of some of the typical issues we see on shelves or convenience stores. While the messages may be crude, it’s painfully accurate.

As someone who doesn’t really read conventional magazines, I just don’t get the appeal. All of these messages seem meant to sell magazines, not contribute anything to public knowledge or to a reader’s self-esteem. It sells itself by demanding that readers pay attention to their own anxieties. Sex sells these issues, but so does insecurity. This is a great critique and while it leaves me a little depressed that this is what mainstream customers are supposed to want, it makes me even more eager to speak about the importance of media analysis.