politics

Resting in Power: Resisting the Depolicitization of Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

10741303-republic-of-south-africa--circa-1994-a-stamp-printed-in-rsa-shows-nelson-mandela-circa-1994I was sitting at home this afternoon, quietly working, when my Twitter feed suddenly started swelling with grief. Though the world had known that the life of Nelson Mandela would end sooner, rather than later, and that the year had been filled with precarious moments during his repeated hospitalizations, the news has hit us hard. My eyes welled up with tears, and as I communicated with friends, and shared the news of his death, we mourned together, silently. It was as if a hush had come over all of us, a quiet knowledge that with Mandela’s passing, we were witnessing the end of an era, witnessing the death of one of the greatest freedom fighters we have had the privilege of knowing.

And yet, in and amongst the messages of sorrow at his passing, and joy in celebrating his life, were a number of statements about Mandela—both by politicians and by citizens-at-large—that erased an important part of his life: the ways in which he actively fought against violent white supremacy, and the ways in which the global community turned their backs on apartheid in South Africa. Predictably, while it is being remembered with deep sorrow and a deep recognition of history, the death of Nelson Mandela is also in danger of becoming branded and sold, commodified and traded on the public market of memory.

While I do not begrudge anyone their grief, or wish to condemn their expressions of sorrow, of honouring, and remembrance as insincere, I believe that on the occasion of such a death, we must also honour and remember the difficult things, the things that we do not necessarily wish to commemorate.

Photograph by David Turnley.Let us not forget that for all the years of freedom Mandela had, and for all of the years of political change he was able to enact in South Africa, the government of his own country had, with the support of other nations, sought to absolutely destroy the anti-apartheid movement. Let us not forget that politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, labeled him as a terrorist.

Let us not forget that Mandela spent 27 years in prison, forced to undertake hard labour. It is far too easy to forget, perhaps because most of us cannot ever really imagine, nor will ever be forced to experience, what 27 years in prison was like.

Let us not forget that until 2008, when Mandela was 90 years old, he was still on the U.S terrorism watch list.

Like many other social justice activists and freedom fighters, Mandela’s actions, words, and legacy have often been co-opted and folded back into the very systems that continue to oppress racialized communities. Whether spoken by Martin Luther King, Jr., or Rosa Parks, by bell hooks or by Maya Angelou, the words of racialized anti-oppression activists are often stripped of their context, and of the historical and political specificity of their struggle. Their quotes now circulate the internet in numerous memes, deployed, understandably, for inspiration, but it is crucial not to forget under which circumstance words have been spoken. The words of anti-apartheid or anti-racist freedom fighters have been used to inspire workouts at the gym as much as they have been used to sell products and to uphold the greed of capitalism. Forgive my bluntness in saying that the fight against cellulite is not equivalent to the fight against white supremacy, and that for the words of anti-poverty activists to be used as a capitalist selling-point is absolutely reprehensible. And while it may be nice (pleasant, even) to use these words, including those spoken by Nelson Mandela, to sell the illusion of a multicultural society that simply needs to love each other, we often do so in order to turn a blind eye to the violence that continues to rage around us, or to elide our own complicity in systems of racist oppression. The words of anti-apartheid struggle do not belong to us all equally (if they do at all), and we must be mindful of how they are appropriated. Some words may not be ours to use.

Confronting death is difficult, especially when it comes to the deaths of those figures who seemed to embody a nearly superhuman sort of dedication, resolve, commitment, and leadership (though of course, Mandela was a human being, and not a saint). Confronting a legacy is difficult enough without having to look critically at the social, political, and economic problems that still persist, without having to acknowledge that we do not by any means live in a post-racial society, that we do not live in a world where “peace” and “love” can simply transcend or erase racial boundaries, because there are active forms of oppression, apartheid, and genocide in our world today.

images-1For me, confronting Mandela’s legacy means continuing to acknowledge the various privileges that I have in my life, and in the community where I live. It means acknowledging that while I am of mixed race, I still have a large measure of white privilege. As a citizen of Canada, living on the West Coast, it means being critical of the ongoing legacy of colonialism and violence towards Indigenous communities, about recognizing that the country I call home has attempted to wipe out entire Indigenous nations. It means listening to the testimonies of survivors from residential schools. It means acknowledging my status as a settler on unceded Indigenous lands. It means knowing that this violence was no mere accident, and that Duncan Campbell Scott, a Canadian politician and poet, actively called for Canadian policies to “kill the Indian in the child.” This is the work to be done in my country and community: others have their own geographically and socio-politically specific legacies to confront.

To honour Nelson Mandela’s legacy is a difficult task. To do so, we must look around, in our own lives, in our own communities, and know that his work is not finished. Indeed, it is the time to remember that Nelson Mandela cannot be, and never could be, the sole source of courage, of action, and of protest, neither in South Africa, nor in the world at large. We must look at the leaders we have in our respective communities, and we must support those who are fighting for freedom, for equality, for environmental protection, for economic justice. These great tasks are our collective responsibility, one that he has now, in no uncertain terms, left to all of us. We must fight for equality and justice in this lifetime, on this earth, as Mandela did.

Madiba, rest in power. We are grateful for your fight.

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What’s In a Name?: The Legacy of Street Harassment and Everyday Sexism

When I was growing up, I fervently disliked my first name. I can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it had to do with the numerous times that people mispronounced it, or the fact that I honestly thought that “Sophia Lorenzi” would be a much more poetic and dramatic moniker. As I got older, however, I learned to embrace my name as a wonderful gift that my mother had given me. Lucia is from the Latin word for “light,” and I can’t think of a more apt description for myself, as someone who is curious, creative, and stubbornly optimistic.

During the process of learning to accept my name and to enjoy hearing it spoken by others, especially by those who I loved the most, I also learned that there was another process of naming that I had started to face: the ways in which I was spoken to and addressed by people who saw me not as a person, not as Lucia, but as a sexual object.

 “Hey, sexy.”

“Hey, baby.”

“Hey, gorgeous.”

These names—adjectives or nouns turned into imposed identities—have been hurled at me from across the street, whispered into my ear by abusive individuals, or spoken to me by men who were little more than acquaintances and wanted only to sleep with me or objectify me. I was no longer myself, but was being claimed, written on, territorialized by the naming practices of street harassment and male entitlement. And it didn’t just stop there. The re-naming of women is often followed by attempts to solicit sexual favours, to imply sexual availability, to taunt, terrify, and to try and tell women that they are nameless, faceless, and powerless.

 “Hey, sexy….wanna fuck?”

“Hey, baby….why don’t you smile for me?”

“Hey, gorgeous….nice ass.”

I became very confused. It had always seemed to me that pet names (honey, sweetie, darling, dear, baby, sexy, beautiful, lover, depending on one’s relationship to a person) ought to be an indication of familiarity and affection, trust and mutual respect. It seemed that to call someone something other than their given name ought to be an indication of an pre-existing relationship, and of intimacy. It seemed to me that it ought to denote shared vulnerability. And yet, it wasn’t. I felt dehumanized. I felt ashamed.

This troubling re-naming practice doesn’t just manifest itself in the ways in which street harassment and catcalling dehumanizes women by suggesting that their identities and personal lives don’t matter, because they are objects to be targeted, identified, and (potentially) consumed or used. It also extends to the ways in which individuals in relationships only use these names when they want or are engaging in sexual acts with a person, when you’re only “baby” in the bedroom, “sexy” in the sack. I’ve been there once before. I’ve been the girl who is kept a secret, the girl who is good enough to sleep with but not good enough to acknowledge or hold hands with in public. It’s humiliating.

It’s this incongruity, the strange melding of affection and violence (or affection and cruelty, affection and coldness, affection and indifference, etc) that can be so difficult to reconcile. It’s unsettling. It feels unsafe. At times, it has made me question whether or not I will ever be seen for any more than my body. It makes me start to question myself, and wonder if because I dress a certain way, or look a certain way, that that’s all I’m seen for, in spite of the creativity and intellect that I nourish and cultivate. It makes me wonder if people see ME at all. While I may embody sexiness at times or a particular heteronormative aesthetic of femininity at times—especially considering my love of fashion, modeling, and photography—those things are not who I am, and nobody has the right to make those things my identity, or to reduce my value to my presumed sexual availability. I,  Lucia, may feel or be or look sexy, but “sexy” is not an outright replacement for my legal name.

Naming practices and acts of address are powerful, and they are deeply political. One need only look to histories of colonization, in which names are and were either “Westernized” or erased entirely. For instance, consider the recent incident involving Academy Award nominee Quvenzhané Wallis, who stood up to an AP reporter who refused to learn to pronounce her name and call her “Annie” (Wallis’ upcoming role) instead. Think about the how the term “slut” is part of a deep history of the sexualization of racialized women, and the precarious politics of the attempted reclamation of that term. Think about how women who suffer sexual assaults are referred to only as “Jane Doe,” or, in the case of victim-blaming, as “that whore, that walking mattress, that skank.”

I want to be very clear: I am absolutely not suggesting that there ought to be a radical policing of language, nor do I want to assert that “sexy” or “beautiful” as adjectives should be completely erased from conversations with and about women.  Given how often women are shamed for confident, assertive displays or articulations of their sexuality, I think that it is important to recognize sexiness and beauty of all kinds. I think it’s important for women to be able to use those words in order to describe themselves without being shamed or seen as objects. I consider myself to be sexy. I consider myself to be someone who embraces her sexuality. I enjoy it when people recognize it in a positive and kind way, whether they are acquaintances on Facebook or friends or otherwise. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with exchanging a knowing glance or a smile with a stranger. Flirting isn’t off-limits.

But I also think that an awareness, especially in interpersonal relationships that take place in private (whether online or offline), in dating, and in flirting, of the histories of oppression that many women have faced with regards to certain naming practices, is equally important. I believe that it is important to recognize that women all have different experiences with street harassment and sexual assault, and that treading lightly at first, finding different phrases to express a thought, or being up front in asking if it’s okay to use certain language is thoughtful, valuable, welcomed, and necessary. I can’t be the only one who thinks that asking for consent and having discussions about things is a super-mega-turn-on. I’ve had male friends and acquaintances who have asked me. It’s wonderful.

Having read through the various stories featured on the @EverydaySexism Twitter account, having followed the #streetharassment hashtag, and doing the research that I do regarding sexual violence and sexuality, I know that while many women have different experiences of naming practices, there are a large number whose experiences have been similar to mine. Sometimes, you never know when that “hey sexy!” hollered at you from across the street is going to turn into someone grabbing you, following you, or assaulting you. I was stalked on my old university’s campus several years ago, and I can tell you first-hand that what seem like “compliments” that women should just “take lightly” from strangers can quickly escalate into terror.

While Shakespeare suggested that “rose by any other name” may still be a rose, a woman by any other name is often made to feel that she is not still a woman. She’s made to feel like an object. And that’s not okay, because as we know, such practices of harassment and dehumanization often lead to other forms of violence. It reinforces an environment where it’s seemingly okay for those things to happen. It’s really fucking not okay.

I still struggle all of this myself, and I certainly don’t pretend to speak for any woman other than myself. However, I wish so badly that those words I’ve called, those names I’ve been assigned, could become precious again, saved for the mouths of people I feel safe around, and loved by. But they’re not. And I can’t pretend that “words can never hurt me,” because sometimes they still do. I can’t pretend that it sometimes feels strange to hear those words from a partner or a lover. I can’t erase their history, and I won’t, because as so many of us know all too well, the line between terms of endearment and terms of endangerment is a very fine one.

For more information and stories about street harassment, visit:

Hollaback! A Non-Profit and Movement to End Street Harassment

Michael Laxer’s Rabble.ca article: “Sexual harassment on the street: taking misogynist hate speech seriously.”

The SFTUCatcallers Tumblr

“Mixed” Feelings: Looking at Racial Identity in Beauty, Fashion, and Beyond

In the past few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the politics of racialized bodies more than usual. As a person of biracial descent (my mother is white, and my father is half-black), this isn’t an issue that is ever far from my mind. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked (by perfect strangers, no less) “what I am” and “where I’m from.” I’ve been asked (when out with my white mother) if I’m adopted. I’ve faced questions and received comments, based solely on my appearance, that would never be asked of or directed towards individuals who are white. For racial, biracial, and multiracial individuals alike, the constant interrogation over our appearances—and the assumptions of identity and behaviour that often accompany this barrage—are a constant reminder that in a culture where whiteness is still considered the norm from which all else deviates, those who appear different are always forced to answer for who they are.

Ken Tanaka’s recent video for YouTube Comedy Week, entitled “What Kind of Asian Are You?” cogently points to the sheer ridiculousness of the logic of this interrogation of race and ethnicity by turning the tables on a white man after he asks a Korean woman “where her people are from.” In a similar fashion, NPR’s Code Switch project, which features a team of journalists writing about race, culture, and ethnicity, put together a slideshow of some of the awkward and offensive questions that racialized people face on a daily basis. When General Mills launched a new commercial for Cheerios, featuring an interracial couple and a biracial daughter, the internet exploded: General Mills had to halt the ability to post comments to the video on YouTube because of the sheer amount of virulent racism hurled towards it.

This is just a small sample of what’s been going on in the media lately regarding racial identity, and of the many struggles that racialized people face on a daily basis. It’s also an indication of the fact that racism, both overt and covert, is still extremely prevalent within our culture. Now, I’m going to go out on a very generous limb by suggesting that many of the comments, questions, and labels about racialized appearances do not emerge from a location of sheer malice in the style of white-supremacist groups. However, these articulations exist within a spectrum, in which natural curiosity, internalized narratives of racism, and the ignorance and denial of white privilege all exist. 

What fascinates me most, as someone who is interested in the body as read through the lenses of fashion and beauty, are the comments that pertain to the ways in which racialized beauty (and, in particular, biracial or multiracial beauty) is read. Indeed, many of these comments are earnestly seen or intended as compliments, rather than as symptoms of the historical commodification and sexualization of racialized women. I’ve written before about my various criticisms of a lack of critical thought about diversity in the fashion industry, although I’ve focused mostly on diversity of size and shape. However, as we well know, among the other privileges that exist within the modeling industry (youth, thinness, and some arbitrary definition of “beauty”), white privilege is alive and well, and, in my opinion, the privilege that often underlies many of the others.

As someone who has dabbled in modelling, and who has interviewed with a couple of modelling agencies, I know first-hand that one of the first things out of agents’ mouths are questions about ethnic and racial heritage. I was reminded of that last week, when a local agency—Wilhelmina Vancouver—posted about two of its biracial models.

In introducing one of their latest models, Wilhelmina used the following hashtags: “#eurasian #mixed #halfer.” I must point out that this post was later edited to exclude the word “halfer.” A couple days later, an update about a model on an international contract featured the hashtags “#eurasian #mixed #exotic.” Now, I can see how those who are writing these posts may conceive of these words as simply descriptive, and that they are using terms like “exotic” and “halfer” in order to point to the beautiful mosaic of all colours and creeds that are ostensibly represented in our wonderful, multicultural society. I can see how they might think that these are totally, non-problematic compliments.

And yet, it’s important to call attention to the fact that these seemingly innocuous posts are symptoms of the exact same things that Ken Tanaka and NPR’s CodeSwitch are trying to address.

For instance, why is it that only the racialized models receive hashtags that a) identify their race and/or ethnicity, and that b) link their racial identity directly to their beauty? I certainly don’t see the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde models identified with hashtags such as #purebred #white #alabaster.

  • Why is it that modelling agencies ignore the ways in which whiteness has appropriated, commodified, or sexualized racialized beauty by calling it “exotic”, and, more tellingly, the manner in which the praising of biracial beauty often comes at the expense of and the exclusion of fully-racialized individuals?
  • Why don’t we talk about the fact that the racial makeup of people is often still spoken about in the same way as dogs’ pedigrees are: in terms of “purity” and fractions of heritage?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that white models still make up the large percentage of models featured on magazine covers, runways, and in catalogues in North America and Europe?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that white models have their eyes taped and their faces painted black in order to mimic racialized physical traits?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that surgeries to achieve more Western features and products such as skin lightening creams are part of a multi-billion dollar industry?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that most lines of makeup are created for and advertised with skin tones on the much lighter end of the spectrum? Or that “flesh” tone is still code for “white”?
  • Why aren’t we talking about the fact that biracial or multiracial individuals are still constantly interrogated about their racial identities, because there is a fervent desire to attach a label or category to “othered” appearances, and that these labels allow for organization, commodification, and marketing of appearance to various markets?
  • Why aren’t we talking about how we still police people’s racial self-identification? How some women aren’t considered black enough, or white enough? How people fall between the gaps when they identify as something other than what people WANT them to identify as?
Ondria Hardin in blackface.

Ondria Hardin in blackface.

I acknowledge that fashion isn’t usually seen as a particularly potent arena in which to begin meaningful discussions of oppression of any kind. People are very willing (in the name of capitalism, under the guise of “art”) to blatantly exploit race, and to continue obviously racist practices, such as the recent use of white model in blackface for an editorial entitled “African Queen.” People are very willing to subscribe to the “multi-culti” narratives of inclusion and love, willing to claim that they “don’t see colour,” and that they have “evolved past racism.” However, since fashion and beauty are all about the visual, all about the image, they provide a unique environment in which to observe the types of narratives and attitudes that are created around and about racial identity and appearance. It’s a microcosm, in many ways, of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and it’s worth looking at. As Touré notes in a NYT article, we do not live a post-racial world. We don’t live a place where we can casually throw around words or questions about race without any historical or social attachment to them. But we can live in a place where we begin to think and talk a bit more critically about racial issues, and start to face them head-on. We can question why we want or need racialized beauty to be exotic, why we need to know “where someone’s from” or “what they are,” and to think deeply about how we have come to learn about, understand, and live out race in our own lives. Racial issues are difficult: they can force us to confront out privileges, our biases, our assumptions, and our desires. Just because I’m part-black doesn’t mean I haven’t had to deal with my own privilege from often “passing” as white, or white enough. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to learn about the history of Orientalism, or the disproportionate amount of sexual violence perpetrated against Indigenous women. I’m not exempt from this process of inquiry: none of us are.

But from where I’m standing, from the racialized body in which I’m living, that’s a hell of a lot more beautiful, honest, nuanced, engaged, and community-oriented than the depoliticized hashtags, labels, and identities that we often assign each other about how we look.

Questioning Capitalism: A Poem

What is the price of human existence?

What is the exchange rate of love these days?

When did the philanthropy of venture capitalists become admirable? When did it become “generous” to give back what you often took through exploitation? When did it become illogical not to restore one’s surplus back into the system?

When did people start to subscribe to the myth of individualism? When did they start to ignore the social, economic, and political privileges that allowed them to accrue capital, pursue an education, or make a profit? Or the forces of oppression that makes it almost impossible for many people to get out of poverty? When did it become okay to talk about how you can do anything you want, be anything you want to be, when the system is designed for the success of a select few and the exploitation of many? When did it become okay to dehistoricize the words of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, or Maya Angelou to talk about success in venture capitalism?

When did the objects in our lives begin to have more worth than the people around us? When did we become more selective about the patterns of our upholstery and the make of our car than about the types of relationships we want, the communications that we engage in with others? When did we do more research on which smartphone to get than which political party to vote for? When did we start mobilizing our bodies to wait in line for 48 hours for the launch of a new iPad instead of protesting the inequities of our governments?

When did we start talking about “rich dads” and “poor dads” without talking about the culture of masculinity that suggests that your worth as a man, as a spouse, and as a father is defined by the amount of take-home pay that you receive?

When did the gurus of wealth become the spiritual and relationship advisors of our generation?

When did it stop being okay to live an ordinary life, a life where your success was measured the smiles you exchanged with strangers, the love that you gave to your children, the respect you had for your spouse, the hours you gave back to your community? When did it stop being okay to be human, just like everyone else?

When did we start giving lip service to the power of an individual just to change one life? When did it become an imperative to change the world?

When did large-scale entrepreneurship become the only way of living a meaningful life and making a dream come true? When did jobs in the interest of the public service, or mom n’ pop businesses become too ordinary for many to strive for?

When did happiness at your job become measured in how many square feet you could rent or purchase with your paycheque? When did we become willing to work 100 hours a week in a job that we hate, with little to no sleep, with poor diets and cigarettes and drinks to get us by because we just had to have that new summer property to get away from the job we hate so much?

When did we start looking down on the individuals who make our clothes in factories, who process our meat, pick our vegetables and fruit, assemble our iPads, clean our offices, and drive our taxis? When did we come to believe that we were better than them?

When did we start selling products to treat the symptoms of a broken system? When did we start believing that weight-loss supplements and health supplements are remedies for a system in which thinness is privileged and obesity is shamed, health-care systems are inequitable, and access to nutritious food is still often limited based on how much money people have left at the end of the day? When did we start to believe we could buy our way towards immortality or beauty?

When did the self-help industry take the place of the wisdom of our elders, the connections in our community, and fostering love and communication within our relationships? When did we subscribe to “10 easy ways” to achieve happiness, connection, love, safety, and peace without being willing to face the vulnerability, the sorrow, the grief, the pain and the disagreements that all come with our human existence and relationships? When did it become not okay to struggle?

When did we start complaining about first world problems, without actually wanting to engage in the reality that many of our industrialized woes are truly banal and meaningless?

When did we stop meeting the gaze of a stranger on the street?

When did we start having more intimate relationships with our phones than our loved ones?

When did we lose sight of who we were?

When did we stop hoping for something better than the existing system?

When did we decide that it was okay to exploit, to denigrate, to objectify, to consume, just because we’re always-already complicit in the system?

When do we choose something different?

Bodies That Shatter: A Spoken Word Piece on the Politics of the Body

I need to talk about the body. About my body. About the bodies of others.

I need to talk about how the body frightens us.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather embrace the veneer of slogans about how we must want it enough, try hard enough, visualize our beach-perfect bodies enough, instead of sitting with the discomfort of what leads us to the kitchen to swallow the feelings we’ve been taught how to hide. And the shame that bubbles up in our chests when the messages that our bodies are failures are crammed down our throats, not only by the magazines that confront us at the check-out stand but by the well-meaning friends who check-in to ask how we’re doing and if we’ve lost weight yet.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather contend that “strong is the new skinny” when strength is not only about the number of reps you complete at the gym or the visibility of your abdominal muscles but the strength of sharing your deepest traumas, of surviving the rape or the miscarriage, the abuse or the disappointment, the heartbreak or the nightmares, of living with cancer or lupus, AIDS or chronic pain, or getting through the day when it would be easier to just give up.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather make claims that all illnesses and disabilities and emotional blocks can be cured by intensive exercise, by gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free, meat-free, sugar-free, green smoothies and whole foods and dubious, unscientifically proven weight-loss supplements because the terror of being confronted with our own misery, morbidity, and mortality, is too much to bear for a society that thinks they can purchase happiness, health, or the ability to live forever.

 

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We would rather say that the weight-loss industry is a means of empowerment, a means to combat the crises of obesity and poor health without dismantling the capitalism that enables industrialized food systems and weight-loss industries alike to flourish. We would rather hide the bodies that are not perfect, capitalist drones, the bodies that unsettle the neoliberal idea that individualism and hard work are enough, the bodies that remind us that we are flesh and blood rather than well-oiled machines.

But we don’t really want to talk about that, do we? We’d rather pretend that conformity is key, and that biodiversity is a myth. We’d rather believe that there is one model of health, one model of beauty, one model of the able body, the able mind. We’d rather pretend that the promotion of fitspiration can change the health of a generation without realizing that we are repeating the same message over and over. And the most frightening thing is the well-meaning tokens, the well-meaning slogans that act like Trojan horses for a eugenics of body-based shame.

But we have to talk about that. 

We need to understand the body as a place of intersectionality, that among the tangles of neurons and veins and tendons are the influences of economics, politics, cultures, and society.

We need to talk about the thoughts that we harbour about what constitutes health and wellness are based on deeply-rooted systems of oppression. We need to talk about the fact that working hard in the gym for hours is a different kind of labour than the backbreaking work carried out by the bodies of many, and that despite the complaints we articulate about the laziness we hate, we would rather our laborious physical activity be a personal choice than an economic necessity.

We need to talk about the isms, the ableism, the racism, the sizeism, the sexism, and the biggest ism of all, the capitalism that underlies the profit that preys on the pursuit of perfection. That the gurus of health are the gurus of wealth and that we inevitably pay the price of profit.

We need to know that Monsanto’s genetic modification of crops is not disconnected from the attempts to genetically re-structure the shape of our society by cultural genocide. Think about what it means to put a patent on a plant, to isolate and regulate genetics under the rule of law.

I know it’s hard to talk about.

I know it’s hard to change a lifetime of indoctrination about the politics of the body.

I know it’s hard to acknowledge that the well-meaning words we say can slay the spirit of another, and that the bruises we leave in others’ bodies run so deep; I know this might make it hard to sleep.

But the bodies that shatter are the bodies that matter.

And that’s worth talking about.

Thoughts on Vancouver Eco Fashion Week

When I first imagined blogging about fashion or being involved in the modeling business, I was a teenager with somewhat naïve thoughts about what the industry was really about. I had grown up doing ballet and theatre, and to me, the catwalk and the photography studio were just extensions of the same type of performance, the same types of artistic expression. Beautiful fabrics, stunning makeup, gorgeous hair. In my late teens and early twenties, I studied technical theatre, and the intricacies of lighting design, sound production, stage management, and costume design only solidified my beliefs that despite the problems of the fashion industry – from the overuse of thin, white, young, tall models, to the ridiculousness of overpriced garments – there was really a space for creativity.

   As I’ve gotten older, however, and learned to be a more careful critic of the industry, the more I find myself needing to position myself not as a fashion aficionado, but as someone who calls the industry out for the various forms of hypocrisy that it espouses.

I have previously written about some of these inconsistencies in an open letter to Vancouver Fashion Week.. In that letter, I suggested that VFW’s alleged commitment to diversity was not as noble as it seemed, given that the element of racial diversity still came at the expense of diversity in body types. The answer I was given, somewhat predictably, was that designers simply offer certain sample sizes in order to be able to present their work consistently to the public in a multitude of venues. There was no mention, of course, that the preferred aesthetic of tall and slim is also endorsed by the agencies who only choose to represent this particular type of model, or that there is an inherent laziness in not having the time to at least present a few select pieces in each collection on different types of bodies, and to put calls out for models who fit these proportions. Having walked the catwalk for Brilliant!, a charity fashion show that took place in Vancouver in fall of 2012, I know first-hand that a serious effort was put into selecting models of a variety of shapes and sizes (and ages!) from the pool of volunteer models (most of whom were just regular people) that auditioned for the show. And surprise, surprise, the participating designers were able to find clothing for all of us.

This week in Vancouver, another fashion week is taking the stage: Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week. On first glance, the event’s commitment to addressing the wastes of resources in the fashion industry, and the need for a more sustainable form of clothing production is admirable. Certainly, as we know from recent reports about companies such as Zara, whose products were exposed by Greenpeace as having hazardous chemicals in them, it is important to talk about how what we wear can affect our health, and the health of our planet. It’s key to address, as VEFW does through its use of collections that are assembled from pieces sourced from thrift shops like Value Village, that the creative use of second-hand clothing can offer just as many options for fashionable self-expression as buying items new. The depreciation in value for clothing is just as real as the depreciation of cars that are driven off the lot: we’re being gouged at the register, and many of us are willing to buy into the lure of name-brands and 800$ pairs of jeans.

However, there are a few things about VEFW that I take issue with, and I would caution anyone reading this not to simply take the view that because a “eco-friendly” standpoint is being promoted, that this event is not depoliticizing or ignoring other equally important issues.

  • VEFW, as opposed to VFW, only uses agency-represented models for its shows. Thus, not only are freelance models being excluded, but the types of models that are featured in these shows are representative of the narrow standards of beauty that most agencies feature in their fashion/runway rosters: tall, thin, young, conventionally beautiful. Emphasis on the tall and thin.
  • By having a very narrow body type on which to feature collections of clothing from thrift shops, a strange message is being sent out, namely that consumers are encouraged to have greater economic access to fashion by buying stylish clothing at second-hand clothing stores, or greater ecologically responsibility by buying from eco-conscious designers, but the aesthetic, the bodies on which they are featured at VEFW (and, indeed, the experience of walking the runway at VEFW) is something that only a select few can have access to. Exclusivity in the fashion industry is huge – it’s what the glamour of modeling and of haute couture thrives on, and VEFW is no exception in promoting this principle by its exclusive use of agency models.
  • VEFW has a large affiliation with Value Village. Unlike a local, independent, non-profit thrift shops, Value Village is a highly-successful, for-profit corporation. The prices at Value Village are, often, still inaccessible for many, because they are priced in such a way that the company stands to make a multi-million dollar profit in sales each year. I’ve been a thrift-shopper since it was uncool and deemed as the lot of the poor or the unfashionable, and I’m still shocked that when I visit, I see items at prices that are still relatively unaffordable. While Value Village does have some fantastic finds (hello, I bought my favourite cowboy boots there for 7$, and my favourite jeans for 9$), it certainly is primarily interested in the accrual of profit, not necessarily only in providing a way of taking care of the environment by re-using clothing.
  • The economic realities that have long-governed thrift shopping – i.e. that many individuals and families simply cannot afford to purchase new clothing items – are being completely erased. Thrifting or vintage shopping is super-trendy now, unlike when I grew up. VEFW’s Value Village collections seem to suggest that despite certain clothes being previously worn and less expensive, ensembles are still supposed to appear as though it could be an ensemble that rivals the most expensive designer clothing. Don’t look poor. Don’t look as though you have to shop at these stores by necessity. Erase the economic inequities that the fashion and clothing industries fundamentally revolve around.
  • Essentially, my issue with Vancouver Eco-Fashion Week, as with all corporate or profitable initiatives that take up the ecological cause, is that I find it increasingly harder and harder to separate our interest in justice and care for our planet without justice, equality, and care for the people living on it. While VEFW is doing some amazing work around providing information about sustainability, starting conversations and offering workshops about the true environmental cost of producing clothing (i.e. the amount of fertilizer and pesticides involved in making clothing from non-organic cotton), I think there is always room for improvement.

And here’s why.

  • I find it hard to accept that we can talk about fashion without talking about economic access and financial privilege. “Hobo-chic” is a politicized issue, because homelessness is not a fashion trend. Second-hand clothing is a politicized issue.
  • I find it hard to accept that we can show eco-friendly clothing on models whose body types are representative of those that our culture values most, and those that our culture still holds up as a way to shame those who do not fit a particular brand of beauty or embodiment. The ecology of our planet and our biosphere is inherently dependent on diversity. How can we attempt to break down the monocultures of things like food production and energy production when we can’t even break down our monocultures of beauty in magazines, advertisements, and on runways?
  • I find it hard to accept that we can talk about ecological waste without talking about the ways in which the fashion industry itself constantly promotes the quarterly purchasing of new clothing and accessories and accrues billions of dollars by brainwashing us into thinking we need new things, more things, prettier things, fashionable things. If we can’t admit that we’re selling “eco” as a product, and that we don’t want to stop making more things instead of using and wearing what we already have, how can we ever break the hold that rampant capitalism has on most of us? Aren’t our closets full enough already?  How can we encourage people to participate ecologically in other ways, like planting gardens and taking care of our waterways, in ways that don’t require buying something, but rather involve giving something back?

I am not suggesting that we bring the fashion industry to a screeching halt, nor that VEFW should not be a fixture of the local fashion scene. I am friends and acquaintances with many models, makeup artists, hairstylists, fashion designers, and photographers. I love the beautiful things my friends create. I am in awe of how people are able to create clothing out of recycled items, out of earth-friendly materials. Upcycling things, rather than producing completely new things: totally awesome. And people need to make a living, and should make a living out of providing things that people desire (and possibly need). But there needs to be a balance.

By thinking critically about these issues, and acknowledging the ways in which certain parts of the fashion industry operate, I hope that I am able to spark a discussion how how we might approach an ethical, holistic fashion industry. Is it possible to combine social justice efforts with fashion in more than a tokenistic manner? I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s entirely possible to take out all the “isms” (racism, sizeism, ableism, ageism, and, obviously capitalism) that converge in this industry, but I know that we can do even better than we’re currently doing.

People as Pixels, Daughters as Data: Thoughts on the Tragedy of Rehtaeh Parsons’ Suicide

It’s been five days since Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17 year-old girl from Coal Harbour, Nova Scotia, was taken off life support following a suicide attempt that left her in a coma. As her family grieves her death, and outrage spreads throughout the global community, many are left wondering how we managed to fail – yet again – a young girl who experienced sexual violence and harassment at the hands of her peers, and who was so tormented by them that she took her own life.

After the gang rape of a young woman in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, after the gang rape of a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, and after the suicide of Amanda Todd, a young woman who lived in my own community of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, I had hoped – perhaps somewhat naively – that we were all learning our lessons, youth and adults alike. I had hoped that the anti-bullying campaigns, the days of wearing pink shirts, and the insistence that such tragedies will never happen again would somehow materialize into a cultural shift in our attitudes towards both the teenage perpetrators of rape, other forms of sexualized violence/harassment, and their victims. While I am acutely aware that change takes time, I am increasingly doubtful that the current rhetoric of “bullying awareness” is at all a viable strategy. What I am convinced of, now more than ever, is that we need to teach our youth – and do this by modeling it ourselves – a deep form of empathy based on how we treat others’ experiences and stories.

It is strange, as someone who survived rape as a teenager, to say, with utmost confidence, that I am very grateful that my assaults took place more than a decade ago, when social media and cell phones were scarce, if not completely nonexistent. When I was raped at 15  (the same age as Rehtaeh was when she was raped) I was most certainly isolated and silenced in my experience, but at least I knew that my story, my awful secret, my most vulnerable moment, was mine to tell. The fear of having photographs of myself distributed amongst my classmates with a click of a mouse or the pressing of a button was not a fear that ever crossed my mind. The terror of being relentlessly pursued online – and knowing that the harassment against me could seemingly forever be preserved in the archive of the Internet – was also not a fear that ever crossed my mind. Despite the fact that when I finally chose to tell my story, I was met with an appalling lack of inaction, I at least had the option of being able to maintain my privacy.

The late media expert Marshall McLuhan told us, quite famously, that “the medium is the message.” As media that rapidly duplicate and publicize experiences, texting and the internet not only share victims’ rapes with the world, but suggest that as pieces of information that can be rapidly and casually shared, photographs and stories about rape, can be quick, casual things that we take as seriously as any of the number of memes that circulate online. But we all remember the ways in which the childhood game of “Telephone” taught us that messages and stories can be rapidly distorted as they are passed from person to person: the same principle applies to how a victim’s story, identity, and sense of security can be distorted, mangled, ripped apart, and destroyed.

This form of invalidation, casual indifference, or, at worst, malicious mocking, is not merely “bullying” or “harassment.” It is a form of secondary traumatization, and as any victim of rape will agree, can be as bad if not worse than the actual assault itself.

Rape is an experience in which control is taken away from a victim, often viciously, and by the people we expect it from the least. What I recognize now, as someone who researches trauma and storytelling every day, is that it is not only the opportunity to tell one’s story that matters, but the ability to reassert control by deciding how, where, when, why, and to whom we tell that story. For Rehtaeh, and other young women who experienced similar situations, I can painfully imagine that the culmination of several losses of control over her story – from the distribution of photographs, to the harassment, to the gossip, and to the lack of a day in court to speak out against her attackers – was simply too much to bear.

And lest we believe that we, as adults, must not be part of the problem of this culture of second-hand victimization, I would suggest that we think carefully about how we speak about others, and what kinds of information we casually pass around online. When I see others gleefully sharing allegedly-hilarious photographs of overweight individuals in Walmart, “slutty” girls in nightclubs, or not-so-witty advertisements that clearly promote rape culture, I realize how easy it is for many to start seeing people as pixels, and daughters as data.

We must not only teach our children media literacy, but recognize that it is profoundly connected to emotional literacy. Programs that teach empathy cannot stop before youth transition into high school, when relationships, sexuality, and issues of consent absolutely require ongoing reinforcement of emotional intelligence and moral and ethical action.

We must not shy away from including a frank discussion of sexual assault and violence alongside sex education in our schools.

We must empower our children to understand that photography is not merely a 2D representation of a person, but a powerful and life-altering medium, and that the schoolyard chant of “sticks and stones may break my bones / but words can never hurt me” is nothing more than a lie that has been passed down from dysfunctional generation to dysfunctional generation.

I wish I had answers. I wish I had a curriculum to implement, or justice to serve. At the moment, however, all I have is a deep sense of sadness for Rehtaeh and her family. All I can do is keep speaking about my own experience, offering an ear to those who have survived sexual violence and harassment, and keep trying to advocate for change. Tomorrow I go back to work, writing with a heavy heart and reluctantly adding another name to add to the list of those to whom I dedicate my research:

For those whose names I will never know.
For the Jane Does of Pitt Meadows and Steubenville.
For Amanda Todd, November 27th, 1996 – October 10th, 2012.

For Rehtaeh Parsons, December 9th, 1995 – April 7th, 2013.