It’s not about the makeup

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Last week I flew back from Salt Lake City where I attended the annual conference of the Association for Women in Psychology.  My students and I (seen above in the photo) presented our work on activism and social media (such as GirlcottProject Weightless, the prevalence of “thinspiration” images on Pinterest, and advocacy for sex workers).  I heard two phenomenal keynote addresses (Ouyporn Khaunkaew and Jennifer Nez Detendale), attended sessions on white women confronting our own privilege, the size acceptance caucus, an innovative program for incarcerated women, listened to research on body image and the sexualization of women and girls, and sexual identity. It was an invigorating few days.  All the great feminist work and thought being done globally around women’s issues is always heartening to me. 

One of criticisms regarding Girlcott or any movement to go makeup free is that, against these larger, “real” global women’s issues, it is trivial.  What are we doing, really?  I would like to address that.  I wrote a little bit about this in the most recent artzine, Visions, that is published by the Charter Oak Cultural Center (Spring 2013 issue).  I’ve updated it here.

“I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school. All I want is an education. And I’m afraid of no-one.” – Malala Yousufzai

If you don’t recall her name, Malala Yousufzai is the 15 year old Pakistani girl who was shot in the neck and the head by the Taliban on October 9, 2012 while she was returning home on a school bus. She was targeted for assassination by the Taliban because she was an activist—she  spoke out the right for girls to be educated. The editors of Time Magazine voted her as their runner-up for 2012’s Person of the Year. She is also the youngest person in history to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.    

I’ll never forget her name. I’ll never forget it partly because it is so close to mine and there is something heartening about that. I’ll never forget it because at age 15, I could never imagine being in her shoes or having her tenacity. I’ll never forget it because I am in awe of her courage.  

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage lately.  I teach courses on body image and feminism. A class on “body image” sounds fun, doesn’t it?  It is.  But, like many things, when you begin to dig under the surface, it’s complicated. Wow. Talk about courage. Young women’s bodies are under attack in ways they never have been before.  Unlike Malala, women in my class have access to an education. For many of them, that education has been transformative for them…and me.   I am a witness to intelligent young women’s journeys of all kinds of attacks to their bodies—both from themselves and others.  Those attacks are both physical and emotional.  They are far more courageous than they know.

In the spring of 2008, I had a particularly powerful, inspiring class (an honor’s seminar I teach called “Women, Weight, and Worry). My commitment to those young women was to begin a campus organization dedicated to the issues we shared and the bonds we formed with each other.  Women for Change was born. We are an activist based organization regarding women’s bodies (e.g., weight issues, the representation of women in media, violence against women, sexuality).  We need activists like Malala, like my students, like those members in Women for Change, like those who are part of CT Girlcott.  For years, I have challenged the women in my classes to go a single day without makeup.  For some, it’s not a big deal.  For others, it’s excruciating.  Some have even told me to take away their points for the assignment—they simply could not do it.  To go for an entire month would be unheard of.  For me, that says less about an individual woman than it does about the culture that makes her feel “less than” if she doesn’t wear it.  It’s not about the makeup.  Join us and know that letting yourself  be seen can be an act of courage, vulnerability, and activism.  If you think it isn’t, sign up for my class.

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50 Shades (or more) of Gray

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girlcott.FINAL.Color.As a person steeped in years of training in Psychology, I am comfortable with shades of gray. By this I am not referring to the fairly recent book title and subsequent discussion of BDSM phenomenon, but rather I am referring to complexity. For me, there is nearly nothing that has a black and white or easy answer. Black and white answers denote that there is some ultimate truth and that there is a “right” and a “wrong”. This type of thinking almost always makes someone or a group of people “bad”. I’ve never been fond of viewing the world in this way for several reasons. First, it prejudges and thus limits our experiences. I prefer my experiences to be as unencumbered by my preconceived notions as possible. Second, it forms and upholds stereotypes. I like to have my stereotypes challenged and broken (it happens continuously). Third, it restricts our potential to grow as human beings. Learning about new ways of thinking, being, existing, loving, and adding to what I already know is essential to me. Finally, it puts us in a position of being better than or superior to others; this point of view can allow for dismissal or outright violence. Others’ perspectives, those shades of gray on any subject, allow for conversation, compassion, and connection.

What does all of this have to do with CT Girlcott, with my going makeup free for one month? I started this blog with the intention of writing about my personal journey. I am. But, so far, one week into my experience, it’s not the makeup (or lack or makeup) on my face that has gotten the attention. No one has said anything to me about how I look and I really haven’t felt much different (only the occasional blotting of my face because it tends to be oily and the face powder I wear apparently helps with this). The interesting thing has been the conversations I’ve had and the reactions I’ve gotten regarding the idea of going makeup free. These comments and conversations have happened with me personally and have been stated on Facebook.
Let me reiterate what Girlcott is: a movement of women willing to go makeup free in the month of March. The money they would normally spend on makeup will be donated to organizations benefitting women and girls locally and globally. So, this is about raising awareness about the relationship between women and issues of makeup/beauty and raising money to help other women and girls. Enter 50 shades or more…

I realize that everyone will have a different reaction to an idea. No problem. So far, the three general responses (all kinds of gray areas within these) are:

1) “cool, I’ll be interested to follow your blog/experience; how is it going?” (i.e., I’m going to try it too, count me in, what a great idea, how many people are involved?, what organizations are you giving money to? How much money have you collected?)

2) “I could never give up makeup; I like my makeup” (i.e., I won’t do it, women look terrible without makeup, why would you want to do that?, don’t judge me if I don’t do it, it’s really hard to do, I need to wear it sometimes, I can’t give it up for a whole month, when will you do something to benefit men?)

3) “I don’t wear makeup” (i.e., I can’t give you any money, you won’t get much support/money from groups of people or communities who don’t wear makeup; why aren’t you engaging in important activism?, I don’t get it—what’s the point?, it’s trivial)

I find that when someone has a strong reaction, it’s touching something in them. I know this is true for me. What it is touching, I cannot say for each person. But, collectively, women in the United States are judged incessantly for their looks. Let me be clear about two things. Girlcott is NOT an anti-makeup movement nor am I. It is simply asking for a dialogue about this cultural phenomenon. The other thing is that I am NOT out to make anyone’s choices “bad” or “wrong” in regard to makeup use. As someone who teaches and thinks about these issues, I am entering into the movement with curiosity about how it will be as a woman, a professor, and a feminist who normally does wear makeup. I fully expect to see all the shades of gray (as I have begun to already) around this issue, have some stereotypes broken, and be open to my experiences along the way. Thank you for sharing and continuing to share your reactions and experiences with me.

Baring it all for CT Girlcott

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IMG_9466Thursday night was the opening reception for “Revealed: Women Leaders Who Bared to Make a Change” at the Charter Oak Cultural Center. Many of us involved in Girlcott arrived a little bit early because we were so anxious to see the exhibit that had been months in the making. We weren’t allowed into the gallery until it was time—no peeking! I have attended plenty of art openings in my life, but I have never been part of one so this was so personal, you know? The doors finally opened. The photos were glorious—large black and white prints—matted on white framed in black. I didn’t know which photo was finally chosen of me. I was a little bit nervous to see what would be hanging on the wall. All the women looked amazing–professional, strong, fully in their bodies, looking directly into the camera, present, and like…well, women who do stand up and change the world. (By the way, the exhibit is indeed a testament that being makeup free is beautiful). Then I see my photo and a wave of “I don’t belong among these accomplished women” swept over me. In that moment I was experiencing “the imposter syndrome”. It’s that self-doubt that many high achievers have. Knowing about the imposter syndrome doesn’t make us immune to its effect, unfortunately. My internal dialogue went something like “I have been fooling people into believing that I deserve a place among these women—they think I’m more successful and talented than I really am. Someone will find out eventually.” Academics, especially female academics (yep, that would be me) are particularly prone to feeling like they are “imposters”. As you can see from the picture above of me standing next to my exhibit photo, I am, not stately standing, leaning against a wall, or calmly seated (as I perceived many of the other “non-imposter” women’s photos), but I’m sitting on the floor of my office with my hands around one of my calves, laughing. We’re our own worst critics.

The imposter syndrome feeling doesn’t stay with me too long, however, mostly because I am surrounded by the work and women I love—close friends and students. That photo represents a great deal about who I am. It was important for me to be surrounded by my books—I have always loved to read and think about the ideas that were contained in them. I still do. I love that I am an intellectual, an activist, a feminist, a professor, and can have my joy at the same time. I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive; in fact, the more I do what I love in the world the happier I am. Serving on the Girlcott committee and all that it represents is part of that work. So few people are privileged to do engage in meaningful work, but I do. Women’s bodies are under attack in all kinds of ways—through outright violence, various forms of oppression based on class/race/sexuality, representation in the media, such that there is little choice but to internalize such standards by which we judge ourselves. The use of cosmetics can be a way by which women judge their beauty, and thus, their “worthiness”. Part of my work is about questioning the ideas regarding the relationship between our worthiness/self-esteem and how we look.

The “Revealed” exhibit showed that makeup certainly did not hinder women’s worthiness or beauty in the least. In fact, I felt such joy on Thursday night, being there with my students, colleagues, and friends. Women for Change was built on the core belief that women should support one another, and we do. My friends were there to support me too—I cannot say enough about the amazing women in my life. When I got home, I uploaded the pictures I had taken to various pages on Facebook. I received comments from so many people. I end this post with a couple of comments from two dear friends. From Jennifer: “I’m so proud of you–as I looked through all of these pictures, I contemplated the REVOLUTION you have begun….you have found your zone, and you are living fully in it. I am so grateful for your friendship!” This IS a revolution. When one does anything with conscious intention, it makes a huge difference. This is the 15th anniversary of V-Day (One Billion Rising). A global call to action to end violence toward women and girls, Eve Ensler’s motto STRIKE, DANCE, RISE, reminds us that a single heartfelt action of one individual can grow into a powerful movement to change in the world.

And from my poetic friend, Donna Fleischer: “We attended last night’s opening to honor our loved friend Mala Matacin’s extraordinary, ongoing work with women and students. As I viewed her portrait, and each of the 30+ B & W, almost life-size, photographs of Connecticut’s women leaders who chose to go before the world, plainly and magnificently without makeup, I recalled Judy Chicago‘s sculpture installation “The Dinner Party”— that epic return to this world, this time through art, of the women who came before, some forgotten, devalued, or ignored by his-story. What the B & W portraits also reveal is both a self and societal recognition-acknowledgment of the particular work each of the women do in our community, for our community, and oftentimes in community, every day creating change, making her-story.”

As I read my friend’s and student’s words and still feel the energy from the opening reception, I do feel like I belong on that wall, like I’m not an imposter after all. I went out into the world yesterday, my first day makeup free, filled with love, energy, purpose, and eager to learn. Let’s see what day two brings. Ah yes, possibility.

Revealed: Images of Women Who Bared to Make a Change

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One of the culminating events of Girlcott will take place tomorrow evening, Thursday, February 28th, 2013. A diverse group of over thirty Hartford area women leaders were asked to “bare it all” for the camera (have their photos taken without makeup) and we did. Three photographers, Nilofer Haider, Lena Stein, and Nicolette Theriault generously volunteered their time travelling the area to take the pictures. These photos will be revealed to the public at a reception at The Charter Oak Cultural Center’s art gallery from 6-8 pm. In addition, two groups that I am involved with on campus will be represented in the gallery exhibit in poster form—Women for Change and the students in my first year seminar (“Beauty, Body Image, and Feminism). I love that what I teach in class has connection to what is happening in the community/world; CT Girlcott has certainly provided such a link.

As part of this gallery exhibit (and the online gallery that all of you can be a part of), we have to turn in a six-word bio that makes us unique or makes us beautiful. Mine is “continually learning through new experiences”. I like to challenge myself. I do. I love to do things I have never done before, travel to new places, test my own boundaries, expose myself to new ways of being, thinking, ideas, and push the notions of what is possible. In fact, I live my life from a place of possibility.

What does CT Girlcott and going makeup free have to do with all of this? Since the 1920s, American women have made tremendous strides, but there is still so much more work to do. (By the way, I just watched a wonderful documentary on public television here in CT last night and highly recommend it: “MAKERS: Women Who Make America “. Thank you to Christine Pizarro of the CT Humanities for telling me about it). Some authors and activists (e.g., Naomi Wolf and Amy Richards) have argued that the attack on women’s bodies is a backlash against their advancement. And it’s working. Cutting, various forms of disordered eating, and poor body image are on the rise. Women are harshly judged and bullied for their weight, sexuality, appearance, etc.

So, when women defy the conventional standards of beauty (by going makeup free) or saying “no” to whatever other standards their culture demands of them, I see it as a courageous act. Courageous? Yes. If you have ever sat in a classroom and ask young women who wear makeup to give it up for just ONE day, as I do in some of my courses, you know the kind of agony some of them go through. It can be terrifying to be seen. I am going to step into this month of March as I try to live all the experiences of my life—with possibility.

Preparing to Girlcott

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Late this past summer, I was invited to join a local initiative in the Greater Hartford, CT (USA) region that captured many things I think about and activities I support at The University of Hartford, where I teach. This initiative, CT Girlcott, is a movement of women willing to go makeup free for the month of March, 2013 (Women’s history month). All the money women would normally spend on cosmetics will go to organizations that benefit women and girls globally and locally (www.ctgirlcott.org). As soon as I heard about it, I was on board!

How did it all get started? In 2004, at a luncheon at the Hartford Club, author, activist, and playwright, Eve Ensler (who is most famous for writing The Vagina Monologues), addressed an audience prior to the opening of her newest play, The Good Body. One of her comments planted the seed of an idea in Rabbi Donna Berman, Ph.D. (Executive Director of The Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford, CT) who was listening to her. Eve said that the cosmetics industry is a multi-billion dollar industry per month, worldwide. Rabbi Berman was blown away by that number and thought, “What if we boycotted, no ‘girlcotted’, cosmetics for a month and donated that money to help women and girls?” It took her eight years for her to find someone to say, “yes, let’s do that!” Now, there are many organizations and individuals involved.

There have been all kinds of events and programming surrounding CT Girlcott—films screenings, community discussions, “makeup sex” groups, an online photo gallery on our website where you can submit your own makeup free photo and 6-word bio, and an art gallery exhibit entitled “Revealed: Images of Women Leaders Who Bared to Make a Change”. Over 30 Hartford Women leaders have been photographed with no makeup as part of this; the reception is this coming Thursday evening, February 28th, 2013, from 6-8 pm at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford. Then, Friday, March 1st hits and those of us who wear makeup go a month without it.

As an academic who is committed to experiential teaching in my courses, I have a deep interest in the ways in which our American culture views women’s bodies, beauty, their “choices” in these areas, and the way women subsequently feel about and experience themselves. I can already feel the “cultural schizophrenia” in me. I love that term—“cultural schizophrenia”—it was coined by Dr. Susan Douglas in Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. It describes that feeling of simultaneously understanding that the prevailing media images we see are social constructions, creations, photo shopped, etc. yet we still somehow feel badly about ourselves as women when we don’t live up to them. It’s the “I want it and I hate wanting it” experience. Hasn’t feminism brought us beyond this? Shouldn’t intelligence, compassion, and other characteristics in women win out? Does it really matter if I wear makeup or not? Well, even though I don’t usually wear very much, I hope my journey in this blog is an extension of the kind of complex thinking, courage, vulnerability, and honesty I experience with my students and other extraordinary women in my life. Are YOU ready to bare it all?