Election Protests & Reacting With Grace and Style : Lessons Learned From NYTimes’s Bill Cunningham

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I had one of my usual circuitous, yet brilliant, conversations with someone from my team this week.  You know those dialogues that starts going in varied directions but then comes full circle as we start to see how these different directions connect?  I love those!  During this particular discussion, we touched on a range of subjects — from human insights, to NYC traffic, to learnings from the recent election.  We also somehow got to the topic of the late and much-missed Bill Cunningham of the New York Times.  For those of you unfamiliar with him, he gifted us with wonderful images and videos of the people of NYC.  When we got to the topic of Bill, we must have spent 20 minutes just gushing over how great he was — all his great work, his sense of curiosity, and his humble but so-uplifting attitude.  Even his intro music to his videos makes me smile wide!

Ah, Bill.

Despite Bill’s simple, unpretentious personal style (he rode an old-school bicycle everywhere, wore something akin to my father’s ordered-from-Sears office uniform everyday, and never tried to hide his Boston accent), he had a deep but fun appreciation for others’ sense of it.  You could feel his energy and absolute love for people.  The streets were his playground and canvass.  The people of New York were his subjects, the camera his tools, and his columns and quirky, lovable slide shows were his masterpieces.  People loved getting photographed by him — you can see it in all of their broad smiles — and fashion designers looked to his work for a sense of current looks.  Essentially, he peered into the mini-world of street style and elevated it for us.  Bill gave the people of NYC an extra dose of dignity.  He shared the amazingness of people’s everyday behaviors.  And he saw style as a way for people to express themselves.  Bill would say things like: “Everyone can put fashion down and that it doesn’t mean a thing.  But it does!  Because each morning when you get dressed, when you go out, it just lifts your spirits!”

You can imagine why Bill’s work should be celebrated in this blog.  We are all about embracing beauty.  But I’m celebrating him for whole other reason.  And it’s this reason that he randomly made an appearance in work conversation about the election and human insights.  (Note: our brains don’t just leap to random thoughts for no reason.  We may not consciously realize the connection at first, but our brains do!)  Bill surfaced because he represents EXACTLY what we all need to do post election: be humble, observant, celebratory of others’ cultures.  While he was not a fashionista himself, he could see and, more importantly, appreciate, the beauty of others.  While he didn’t put a lot of creative effort in his own wardrobe, he took such pleasure in others who did.  He recognized the small but brilliant behaviors we express to give our selves happiness, meaning and fulfillment.  And we ALL do this in different ways.  We just need to start appreciating both ourselves and others for it.

So what does this all mean, really?  What is Bill actually teaching us …especially with regard to the election results?

I think it’s something like this: no one is totally stupid, wrong or misguided for living the way they do or thinking the way they do.  We have to stop looking inwardly and crying in our soup.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t protest changes in government that we don’t agree with, like Trump’s pick today of Exxon CEO as new Secretary of State.  What I am saying that we have start looking outwardly with a keen eye and respectful, considered mindset.  We need to be more observant and try to understand and appreciate the brilliant behaviors that we so often overlook in others.  We don’t do things for no reason — whether its wearing chevron stripes or voting for Trump.  We have to give others the respect Bill gave every person on the street, i.e., observe, dig deep, learn and understand, and even appreciate others.  And by doing so we not only grow but we also give others a sense of dignity.

Oh another thing we learned? We can’t forget to have a bit more fun with what we and others wear too, of course! 🙂

Want to Fight Sexism? Don’t Eschew Beauty — Embrace It!

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Nigerian feminist and author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, hits the nail on the head, again!  This isn’t the first time I’ve brought her up.  You may recall that I wrote about this in a recent post,  Stand Beautiful on Feminism — For More Reasons Than You Think.

And this past week I brought her up again.  I had the privilege of speaking a lovely and brilliant group of people: the Professional Beauty Association.  While the topic of the conversation was tapping our innate creativity, there was NO WAY I wasn’t going to reference points of view of, examples of and my own stories around beauty.  One such example was Boots No.7’s recent partnership with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi.  I chose this story to point out how all brands, especially beauty brands, can have a bigger purpose than the just selling products. For Boots No7, make-up is a way for women to “speak louder.”  Who better to represent that thought than the brilliant, make-up wearing author?!

But the real reason this gorgeous and brilliant spokesperson is top of mind for me has to do with a recent interview of her I read in the New York Times.  In it she explains how she felt very comfortable in her native Nigerian expressing her beauty. But when she started moving in Western Circles she was worried she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she wore make-up and embraced her femininity with high heels or womanly clothing.  At first she succumbed to those fears and stopped wearing make-up.   But then she got her mojo back and went back to embracing her love for beauty.

More interestingly is her take on WHY we deem such behaviors — donning cosmetics, feminine clothing and high heels, as frivolous in the first place.  She attributes this disdain not on feminism but sexism! Here’s how she puts it:

“It’s about a culture that diminishes women. The things we traditionally think of as masculine are not things our culture dismissed as frivolous. Sports, for example, we think of as masculine. It’s something that our culture takes quite seriously. … I think it’s part of a larger picture of a world that simply doesn’t give women the same status that it gives men.”

Aha!  This reminds me of a post I wrote a number of years ago, When Goddesses Ruled. I tried to explain our culture’s discomfort with beauty.  Here’s what I wrote:

What explains this discomfort with beauty in our culture? I’ve spoken about the strong influence of Calvinistic doctrine that emphasizes productivity over sensual pursuits and the Puritanical aversion to Catholicism’s appreciation for the aesthetic (see Beauty is Beautiful).  And as women have fought to gain equality over the past few decades, they have sometimes felt the need to purposefully push “traditional” behaviors (like beautification) aside for more male ones, e.g. playing sports or working on Wall Street.

Here’s yet another explanation.  In “Look at My Ugly Face!”, Sara Halprin, psychologist, author, and documentary film-maker explains that in ancient societies, “women’s procreative power was understood to be linked to all sorts of creative abilities.”  Goddesses ruled!  But as men took on the claim of being the “creative ones,” and the more powerful of the two genders (and also more violent and competitive), around 4,000 years ago ,the biological act of childbearing, along with female sexuality and appearance, was downplayed.  Women’s sexuality had to be “visibly harnessed to the service” of men. “To justify the subjugation of women,” she continues, “her beauty was viewed with profound ambivalence, as a threat, a danger, as evidence of impurity, and at the same time, as the sole justification of a woman’s existence.”

Finally, Halprin points out how, up until recently, women were expected to be obedient to men and their beauty served as decorative support to their husbands.  Ironically though, women also ‘suffer from being perceived as dangerous to men…a woman’s beauty is associated with her sexual appeal and sex is viewed with suspicion by patriarchal society.”

As I examine my thoughts from the past and Ngozi Adichi’s words, I can’t help but think that NOT embracing our beauty is our giving in to social pressures and the ideals of masculinity over femininity.  Of course I believe we all should decide for ourselves what femininity looks like but all I can say is we shouldn’t shun it but rather relish in it.