Empowerment, Political Affairs & Youth Education: Fashion Week’s Other Side

If any of you follow fashion, you know every major city has celebrated it’s Fashion Week over the past month or so.  And I can’t help but reflect on it all.  Sure, Fashion Week is full of crazy outfits, “who’s who” sightings, and glamazons.  But in some overt and covert ways, it also uplifts society.  Based on what I’ve read and experienced first hand, Fashion Week also helps open borders; gives those otherwise ignored and let down by society a sense of respect and hope; and, in some veiled ways, empowers a group of women living within a conservative and somewhat sexist society.  And when it comes to me, personally, it has helped open my eyes to and widen my appreciation for another world.

No question, the fashion world has it’s share of issues: underage models, eating disorders and, most recently discussed in the press: sexual harassment.  I’m certainly not saying the industry is perfect.  But there’s a beautiful side to it.  Let’s just take a look at New York Fashion Week as an example.

One particular show that kicked off the week, received a ton of buzz, and impressed the hell out of me.  It celebrated the talents and models of the NYC’s homeless youths (see full New York Times story here).  For four weeks, designers from PVH mentored homeless youth, teaching them how to design, sew clothing and choreograph a show.  These lessons culminated in a show that displayed major doses of creativity, elation and pride.  So many of these youths are on the street due to abuse and neglect from their families.  You can imagine the lack of confidence, anxiety and helplessness they must feel on a daily basis.  But this experience not only taught them key skills in design and crafts, but gave them a sense of accomplishment and pride they rarely felt before.  The pictures of the event, alone, tug at the heartstrings.

Here’s another fascinating example from The New Yorker.  Given the uber-New York-ness of fashion week, The New Yorker dedicates a whole issue on the topic every year.  The best story by far in this year’s edition, “Armor and Lingerie,” features Amaka Osakwe, the designer of Nigerian fashion line: Maki Oh.  She, too, showed her talents at NY Fashion Week.  Despite her “unassuming” appearance, Osakwe is “obsessed with the female form and seduction,  subversive interests for Nigerian women.”  She also makes it a point to highlight Nigerian fabrics and designs, embracing  and bringing to light her culture around the world.  Perhaps most exciting for me, is her expertise in turning her clothes into a form of “elicit escape.”  In other words, her designs give women the permission to embrace their sexuality — on their own terms — despite the taboo of sex in Nigeria.  As such, she gives women back their power to determine how, when and in what ways they want to express their sexuality.

Needless to say, the NYC Fashion Week story that affected me the most was that which I experienced myself.  I was invited to attend a fashion show for Chinese brand, Naersi, at the American Museum of Natural History.  I had no idea what to expect.  I’ve never been to China nor have I developed an sense of Chinese fashion.  But given my relationship with UniPx media (a source of fashion and lifestyle to the Chinese market), and the wonderful VIP accommodations I was given, I jumped at the chance to attend.  Naersi dressed me in one their own beautiful gowns, sat me in the front row next to it’s founder, one of the top models in China, and a few seats down from TV star, Leighten Meester (how’s that for a view?:)).  And best of all I was able to drag a few of my good friends to join me.  The brand’s role, according to its literature, is to “instill confidence and success to independent women….through beautiful and modern design.” As to be expected, some of the designs are meant for the runway show only, but there were quite a few that inspired me.  What hit me most was not so much designs themselves but that I was able to peer inside a world that I have admired from afar but, until now, have little contact with and understanding of.  But right there and then I felt a new sense of kinship with Chinese fashion lovers.  Despite the political, cultural or philosophical boundaries that separate China and the U.S., the spirit of beauty, celebration of female empowerment, and love of pushing the limits unites us.  Thanks to fashion, I feel a new sense of appreciation for and connection with a culture that always seemed to distant and different.

No doubt fashion is fun and sometimes frivolous.  And in some ways, it’s because of its very lack of seriousness that it can be used to subvert culture, push against our assumptions and make us think.  When used for the right purposes, fashion has the potential to unite and empower people.  That and a nice new pair of boots will certainly give me a lift. 🙂


I Understand the Humiliation

For the past few days, I had been seeing articles pop up on my feed about Zimbabwe’s “Beauty Without Brains Syndrome.”  While pageant stories show up a lot in my feed, recurrence of this “syndrome” intrigued me.
Here’s the story: in a Zimbabwe pageant, beauty contestant after beauty contestant was coming up short – way short – when it came to answering questions about current affairs.  Moreover, their ability to articulate in English was way below acceptable levels.  This lack of education among the contestants embarrassed the people of Zimbabwe.
Who cares anyway?  After all, this is a beauty contest not an episode of Jeopardy! As I’ve written in past posts, why can’t beauty contestants be judged for the gifts they were given, i.e., beautiful hair, teeth, bodies…you get the idea. What’s wrong with just appreciating others’ beauty … end of story?
But I kinda get the issue here.  The beauty contest is sponsored by the country’s tourism bureau.  This organization sees its beauty queens as representatives of their country and culture.  So it makes perfect sense that it should want its reps to be intelligent too.
You may ask, why should beauty queens be looked at as a culture’s representatives?  Why not sports heroes, great teachers or successful businesswoman?  Perhaps Zimbabwe’s tourism organizations realize that no matter how much we appreciate strong, athletic, good-hearted people, we are hard-wired to be attracted to beauty.  And as depressing … or not … as this sounds, I am happy that Zimbabwe not only wants their beauty queens to be smart but that they believe they CAN be smart!  In other words, the belief that beautiful people can’t be smart and vice versa, isn’t at play here.
So, in the end, I applaud the people of Zimbabwe for being haunted by this lack of education among their contestants.  Maybe, maybe just maybe, this issue will influence the government to up-level EVERYONE’s education.  That’s a pretty good thing, no?

An Albino Beauty Rises Up

While biology/evolution explains why we are attracted to certain features, culture and social norms have always played a tremendous role.   Case in point: the harsh stigma against being too white in Africa.  Good news: The Root published a story about an Albino beauty, Thando Hopa, who, against the odds, has risen in the African world of beauty and fashion.
I have to say, this story was a bit of a shock.
For generations in the U.S., and even in many parts of the world today, white skin and light hair has been deemed the most beautiful combination.  The cultural conversation, for as long as I can remember, has been about advocating for darker skin hues in the fashion mags and catwalks to mirror are “browner” society.
So to hear that white skin and light hair, in this case Albinism, have been stigmatized, stopped me in my tracks.
On the one hand, you can be depressed by this story.  It seems that cultures just can’t help but segment people into the “beautiful” and “ugly” camps.
On the other hand, you can be uplifted by the fact that Hopa has overcome her own culture’s biases and can help teach her community that looking different CAN be beautiful.
I look forward to seeing more diversity like this in fashion shows and beauty shoots.  First Africa; second the world!

Week in Review: 11/25-12/1

Here’s what went down @Beautyskew this week:
Ha!  If first impressions count, guess where shoes fit into the equation Weekend Observations: I Wasn’t Totally Crazy After all!
Paris Photo very well could be the best photo exhibit out there…get a taste of why Pic of the Week: The Best Photography Exhibit in the World
How some African countries have rethought the beauty contest and why Can the Beauty Part of “Beauty” Pageants Be All Too Encompassing?  
The Africans are Getting it Right
Great beauty-in-culture reading ripped from the headlines More to Love:Additions to the Reading List
Welcome December!

Can the “Beauty” part of beauty pageants be too all encompassing? The Africans Are Getting it Right

I came across an intriguing article about how beauty pageants in parts of Africa have redefined how to judge beauty.  You’re probably thinking I mean that instead of judging one’s beauty by Western standards, e.g., slim, light-skinned bodies, women are judged by African standards.

Yes and no.

The contestants are indeed subject to African standards of beauty.  But what struck me is that the pageants reward different women for different types or aspects of beauty, like their curvaceous bodies or their amazing legs (Miss Curvy or Miss Legs).  The pageants are acknowledging that there are multiple aspects and interpretations of what is beautiful.

What they’re saying to me is that maybe it’s crazy to expect one person to exhibit all the possible beautiful features of the human body.

I think this is very healthy.  In essence, these pageants are saying: “of course there are so few perfect specimens out there.  So instead of rewarding that tinsy winsy group, let’s reward many more for their specific assets.”

I think we should do the same.  That way more people would have realistic expectations of themselves, and feel better about their own type of beauty.




Not Slaves, But Not Nuns Either

I just read an impassioned plea by an African woman to end the “beauty-ism” that women face.  She believes that women are enslaved by their concern for men’s opinions of their appearances.  This concern not only detracts them from other pursuits, but also makes them feel bad about themselves if they don’t “measure up.”

I certainly don’t think we should be valued by our looks alone, and, frankly, I don’t think men ONLY choose us based off of our looks.  But, let’s face it: men are wired to be attracted to how we look.  So is it truly in our best interest to throw all beauty treatments out the window?

And it’s a 2-way street!  Men should meet our expectations of good hygiene, a nice physique and nice clothing.  Shouldn’t we all look a bit better?

Our sense of sight is probably the most evolved and sophisticated; and we “read” people, situations and environments via our eyes first.  We’re never going to let that go.  Of course we don’t want to be slavish to beauty, but it doesn’t make sense to throw away the baby with the bath water.  All of our gifts –intelligence, athleticism, kindness …and yes, even beauty, should be cultivated and shared in a balanced and reasonable way.

Pic of the Week: First African Miss Universe

Soooooo the winner of Miss Universe is Leila Lopes from Angola!

Wow to have an African Miss Universe is so heartening.  In fact, of the five finalists, none were Western looking e.g., blonde hair, blue-eyed, white skin.  (Countries of origin for top 5 contestants: Angola, China, Philippines, Brazil and Ukraine.)  Don’t want to sound naive but if Miss Universe is any indication of trends, it seems like the world may just be ready to embrace more varied types of beauty.