2013: From the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue
2001: From the Donna Karan Spring/Summer ad campaign
Fashion photography (and I’m using the term very loosely to include SI) is sooo innovative!
Like so many others, I’ve been thinking a lot about gun control in the wake of the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Although the discourse around gun control can be sometimes mystifying, if not downright mind-numbing (teach kids to rush at shooters rather than hide; enlist a male janitor to heave a bucket at the shooter’s knees??), I’ve appreciated the many thoughtful discussions that link unthinkable violence such as that which took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School to the many acts of violence that many Americans just don’t think about, like the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen that have killed scores of civilians (including children) and the street shooting deaths and injuries of predominantly black and brown young people in cities like Chicago, Oakland, and Jacksonville, Florida. But what does fashion and style have to do with America’s culture of violence? A better question might be, what can a discussion about fashion and style illuminate for us about this culture of violence? A lot, it seems.
Recent reports tell us there are clear links between the “aggrieved entitlement” of white, middle-class men and mass shootings (of the 62 mass shootings in the past 30 years, 70 percent were carried out by white men). But America’s culture of violence is not limited to masculinity and as Vijay Prashad reminds, it doesn’t always take spectacular form. (Though fashion media is replete with spectacles of violence. See – trigger warning! - here and here, for a start.)
There’s another, also gendered, dimension of America’s culture of violence in which women and girls are predominantly the perpetrators and victims. The “slow violence” of body dysmorphia and eating disorders are a significant, if often invisible, part of America’s culture of violence that implicates women across generational, racial, class, and sexuality differences in uneven ways.
Rob Nixon defines “slow violence” as
violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.
Although Nixon’s discussion of slow violence focuses on environmental catastrophes like industrial pollution and the aftermath of chemical warfare, his concept can be extended to the particular relation of gender and violence that women and girls experience every day. Because girls from a very young age are conditioned to believe their identity and self-worth is tied to their appearance, to please others, and to seek out the approval of others, they are especially vulnerable to the countless verbal and nonverbal messages they receive about their never perfect bodies from family, friends, co-workers, and a wide array of media including women’s magazines, men’s magazines, fashion blogs, pro-ana websites, diet and exercise books, TV shows, and websites. The failure to fulfill all the requisites of ideal femininity triggers for many women and girls the slow violence of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression and for some others, drug and alcohol abuse, cutting, and disordered eating behavior.
A 2008 study conducted by SELF magazine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that 65 percent of American women between the ages of 25 and 45 have disordered eating behaviors which includes skipping meals, perpetual dieting, incessant self-weighing, smoking to lose weight, and maintaining a diet of 1000 calories per day or less. An estimated eight million Americans have been diagnosed with an eating disorder such as anorexia and bulimia. Among them, 7 million are women and girls. The slow violence of body shame begins at an alarmingly early age. Consider these statistics from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD):
Formal studies like these don’t take into account the slow violence of “body-checking”—the everyday pinching, tugging, and monitoring of body fat—that so many women and girls casually perform on themselves and others everyday. For nonwhite women and girls, gender violence is often bound up with racial violence. Precious few studies include the impact of racial hierarchies and norms of beauty on women of color’s everyday body-checking. The whitewashing of eating disorders (anorexia as a white girl’s problem) also conceals the role race plays in the diffusion and development of negative body perceptions. Additionally, the slow violence of pro-ana ideologies that view rigorous dieting, exercising, and starvation not as problems but positive lifestyle choices are too infrequently discussed.
The scope and scale of body shaming clearly indicate that the fashion industry is not solely to blame for this gendered sphere of America’s culture of violence. But the fashion industry isn’t entirely off the hook either. As a purveyor of millions of globally-circulating images and words that reinforce and celebrate a body ideal that 95 percent of U.S. women cannot attain naturally, it has enormous power to impact the culture of slow violence that leads to the physical, psychological, and spiritual deaths of so many women and girls. More often, though, it normalizes impossible thinness (underweight models like Coco Rocha—a 5’10” model weighing 108 pounds—are told to lose weight and already-thin models are regularly Photoshopped to appear even more slender. Although the Council of Fashion Designers of America has come out against unhealthy modeling practices and the culture of fat shame, its policies have been weak and unenforced. The CFDA Health Initiative is a set of guidelines rather than mandates. Bans against using models under the age of sixteen have been repeatedly broken without any real consequences. As a result, adult women are tacitly told to strive for a pre-puberty body, a goal that engenders a myriad of interlinked slow violences. The fashion industry’s normalization of compulsory thinness is a huge reason why we only have estimates of eating disorders and disordered eating behavior. Shame and guilt about not meeting the standards of beauty and thinness as well as the shame from trying to attain these standards when we “should know better” has made invisible this culture of femininity and violence.
It’s not my intention to detract from the national conversation about the epidemic of school and street shootings. Instead, my hope is to expand these discussions to include other relations of gender and violence that are no less a part of America’s culture of violence.
Timed for the new academic year, a few weeks ago Racialicious published “Haute Couture in the ‘Ivory Tower,’” a sharp essay by Tanisha C. Ford about academic chic, whose bodies are imagined to inhabit the so-called ivory tower, and the racial and gender implications of their adornment. In response to a recent New York Times Magazine fashion spread, Ford argues that the specific sartorial and other fashions on display alongside the absence of bodies of color reinforced the image of the intellectual as elite and, well, ivory. Ford observes,
The spread presumes that when a professor walks into a classroom she is a blank slate, a model to be adorned in fine clothing and given an identity. The reality is that scholars of color, women, and other groups whose bodies are read as non-normative have never been able to check their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation at the door. As soon as we walk onto campus, our bodies are read in a certain (often troubling) manner by our students, our colleagues, and school administrators. Our professionalism and our intellectual competence are largely judged by how we style ourselves. Therefore, we are highly aware of how we adorn our bodies. And, like our foremothers and forefathers who innovated with American “street fashions,” we, too, use our fashion sense to define ourselves, our professionalism, and our research and teaching agendas on our own terms. As a result, we are actively dismantling the so-called Ivory Tower.
Totally psyched about her essay and the amazing outfit she wore in the author photograph (those are my colors, too!), I wanted to interview Tanisha C. Ford for Threadbared. I actually met Ford in 2009 at the annual Graduate Symposium on Women’s and Gender History at the University of Illinois, where she presented an awesome paper on soul culture and gender politics in the 1963 March on Washington. Ford has since received her PhD in History from Indiana University, and spent time as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan before starting as an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently writing a book called Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment. You can follow her on Twitter at SoulistaPhd.
How did you first conceive the research questions that would fuel the shape of this project, and how these questions have evolved since that first nascent encounter with your research questions? I’m interested in this process for you!
It was my love of the music, culture, fashion, and politics of the 1960s and ‘70s that initially brought me to this project. I was particularly fascinated with soul singers like Nina Simone, Odetta, and Miriam Makeba. I admired how they performed their politics not only through their music but through their hair, dress, and stage costumes. To me, their natural hairstyles, caftans, head wraps, ornate African-inspired jewelry, and printed dresses were more than mere clothing to cover their bodies. They used such fashionable items to express their unique personas while also communicating something critical and important about race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationalist politics. My interest in these dynamic women sent me on a quest to understand how and why they adorned themselves in this way. Were they alone? If not, who were the other women who dressed similarly? What influenced their sartorial choices? I discovered that there were several books and articles on black women’s hair politics, but there was far less written on fashion and body politics, especially concerning black women. With the help of some savvy archivists and women who were willing to let me interview them, I began piecing together fragments of a vibrant and complex history of fashion and its connection to histories of oppression and human rights struggles. My research led me to destinations a far flung as Jackson, Mississippi; London; and Johannesburg. What began as a dissertation project on celebrities and pop culture has—six years later—become a book monograph in progress that focuses on grassroots cultural-political engagement and the ways in which Africana women activists have utilized fashion and beauty culture as both a political tool and a means to re-imagine and redefine black womanhood on their own terms.
What are some of your favorite examples from your book about Africana women’s uses of fashion and beauty culture as a political and imaginative landscape, and how you read their labors?
I’m having so much fun writing this book, uncovering such fascinating histories. One of my favorite examples is from a chapter on the denim-wearing women of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). When I first saw photographs of SNCC women such as Dorie and Joyce Ladner wearing denim at the March on Washington, I was stunned. Women in denim overalls seemed antithetical to everything I had learned about the civil rights movement since I was a kid. I started digging into the SNCC papers, rereading memoirs written by SNCC activists, and tracking down SNCC members for interviews. I had to know why they wore denim and why I’d only learned about the women who wore dresses, cardigans, pearls, and heels! I discovered that SNCC women adopted their denim attire for both practical and political reasons. And, their overalls and au naturel hairstyles caused quite a stir on their college campuses and among many elder activists. I have used my SNCC research to revise the cultural history of the Civil Rights and Black power movement era as well as histories of radical fashion in the late twentieth century. An article derived from this chapter,“SNCC Women, Denim, and the Politics of Dress,” will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Southern History.
How do you understand the politics of respectability that are brought to bear upon women of color in the academy, and as well strategies that women of color deploy to negotiate the institutional demand that we adhere (more than others, often) to a particular “professionalism,” and its racial and gender dimensions?
My theories about the fashion and body politics of the 1960s and ‘70s have also provided a useful framework for analyzing contemporary fashion culture. Recently, I’ve been exploring the politics of dress and adornment in my own profession—the academy. Interviews with professors of color reveal that there are similarities between the strategies of adornment SNCC women employed and those used by my colleagues. Women of color in particular use their clothing to challenge and redefine notions of “professional” attire on their own terms, incorporating suits in bright colors, stiletto heels, ornate jewelry, eclectic prints, and enviable eye makeup into their “power wardrobe.” They use faculty photos, the social/digital mediasphere, and their classrooms as sites where they can deconstruct the staid image of the white male professor with glasses and an elbow-patched blazer. The award-winning women scholars I interviewed debunk the long-held belief that “serious” academics don’t care about “trivial” things like fashion and style. I’ve written a series of pieces on this topic including “Haute Couture in the Ivory Tower,” “You Betta Werk!: Professors Talk Style Politics,” and the forthcoming “A Fashionista Asks: What To Wear On The First Day Of School.” I’m hoping to turn these pieces into a longer journal-length article.
I remember strategizing so hard for my first day as an Assistant Professor years ago; I ended up in an all-black secretary outfit. Today, for my first day of teaching I wore a short-sleeved (sleeves rolled up), white t-shirt featuring a cartoon carrying books in her arms and on her head and reading “Reading is Cool,” with a yellow pencil skirt and a metal belt with two hearts at the clasp. (My sartorial style is New Wave doyenne.) Last question then — what are you wearing on the first day of school in your new position as an Assistant Professor?
What a fun question! I’m not sure yet…but the process of figuring it out has been both fun and helpful. I just moved to a new city, so searching for cool places to shop helps me learn my way around town. I’ve been finding some great pieces that speak to my fun and flirty fashion sense. I love wearing bright colors and eclectic patterns, statement shoes, and mixing “girly” prints with menswear looks. My number one fashion rule is: there are no rules! Pretty much anything can be worn together if styled properly. For example, I recently purchased a pink blouse with cream hearts on it. I’d likely pair this shirt with a navy and cream striped Zara blazer I own. As a Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies professor, I get to mix my personal style with my professional activities in cool ways. I’m teaching an undergraduate course called “Feminisms and Fashion,” this will give me the space to have fun with my attire while using scholarship on fashion and body politics to engage with my students on salient women’s rights issues. In preparation for my big first day, I’ve been having mini fashions shows in front of my mirror. These one-woman shows allow me to fall in love with my existing wardrobe all over again, inspiring me to look at my clothes in fresh, new ways. Whatever ensemble I wear on the first day of class will be fierce and fly!
Start digging in your attics, basements, the backs of your closets, and your family archives for photos and textiles – and join us at the Human-Textile Wellness Initiative and Of Another Fashion pop-up clinic! Jessamyn Hatcher’s brilliant Human-Textile Wellness Clinic, which began with the first pop-up clinic in Florence, Italy, has been popping up all over New York City and is set to open again on Saturday, June 23. This special collaboration with Of Another Fashion draws together the narrative and visual threads of your family fashion history with the sewing threads of your fashion textiles and/or garments. To participate, please bring a favorite family photo (or a found photo that you love!) and a textile or garment that has some connection to your photo. This connection doesn’t have to be direct or even fully understood by you yet.
There is no cost and no sewing experience necessary – thanks in advance to fashion designer Hanna Astrom, textile conservator Sarah Scaturro, Michelle Zahabian and the wonderful staff at JEM who have all agreed to join us at this not-to-be-missed event!
In addition, I will also be considering photos for inclusion in the Of Another Fashion archive, now part of the WorldCat database, the world’s largest library catalog.
(Click on image to enlarge. Please note, the photos used in the invitation are just two of the over 300 photos that have already been submitted to OF ANOTHER FASHION.)