Want to End Violence Against Women? Start by Wearing Orange

Aldijana-Sisic-UNiTE-Campaign-Manager

I had the privilege of attending an intimate lunch with an amazing group of accomplished and giving people at the U.N. the day before Thanksgiving.  The purpose of this luncheon was to commemorate the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women.  The gathering was hosted by the United Nations Trust Fund To End Violence Against Women and was kicked off by an event which included speeches, poetry readings and a panel.

This group’s mission is to “support(s) effective initiatives that demonstrate that violence against women and girls can be systematically addressed, reduced and, with persistence, eliminated….(It) has awarded USD 103 million to 393 initiatives in 136 countries and territories. The UN Trust Fund currently supports 95 programmes in 75 countries and territories with a value of USD 56 million.”

Of course I’m going to support this initiative!  I am fortunate enough to have been brought up in a loving environment and continue to live and work in safety.  But I also realize that there are many, many women — abroad and in our very own country — who live in harm’s way.  Imagine being under constant fear of sexual exploitation or being at high risk for HIV contraction because you live on the street in Eastern Europe?  Imagine living in Campbodia where a common form of punishment is acid being poured on your face, or if you were denied access to services after being sexually abused in South Sudan?  And the list of violent acts towards girls and women around the world goes on.

“What does this have to do with beauty?” you may be asking.  Certainly the subject seems so trivial in comparison to these UN’s initiatives.  Ah, but there is a connection.

The symbol of the commemoration was the color orange.  More than that, the event’s attendees were asked to wear something in the color.  Some people wore orange dresses or other pieces of clothing, like ties.  And if you didn’t have an orange garment, everyone was given a gift of a lovely orange scarf to wear.  I, too, received and wore one.  I’m sure most people didn’t think twice about donning it or why the very act of WEARING orange — not just having orange decorations and merchandise — is significant.  But it is.

What we choose to put on our bodies is important.  We don’t just wear clothing to shield our ourselves from the elements or to comply with social norms.  We wear what we do to tell a story — a story about ourselves, about our beliefs and about our hopes.  In fact, what we wear is often our first form of communication.  We are visual people.  Seeing is one of our first senses and certainly one of our most complex.  We compute information when we see it far faster than when we decode it via language. By my wearing the orange scarf and then posting the image to my social media networks (vs just tweeting a few words of encouragement), I undoubtedly caught people’s attention.  And by doing so, I both showed support for the cause, and, hopefully, prompted others to learn about the UN’s amazing projects.

But clothing doesn’t JUST communicate to others.  It reminds us of who we are and what we stand for.  It forces us to pay attention to our bodies and our personalities. When we ask, “does it fit?” when we put something on, we are asking, “Does it fit our physical selves?”   That question may urge us to get in better shape or remind us that we are fine as we are.  Or we may be asking does it fit our inner selves, i.e., is it too corporate, too immodest, too casual…you get the point.  It may force even more profound questions upon ourselves, like, who are we?  What do I want to be known for?  And, for many of us privileged Americans, how privileged am I to wear what I want without fear of attack.

We can choose to view clothing as something frivolous.  Or we can see it as a way to reconnect with ourselves, with others and our united hope for a better future.

I will definitely hold on to that orange scarf and wear it with pride.   It is a reminder of what we have done to help women around the world and how much further we have to go. And, in this time of thanksgiving, it’s a reminder of how grateful I am to live as a woman in freedom and safety.

“Things of Beauty Affirm Our Power to Change the World for the Better,” Roger Scruton: Why Beauty Matters Now More Than Ever

The Symmetry of Paris
The Symmetry of Paris

I have to admit I had a hard time thinking of what to write for today’s post.  After the tremendous horror of this past Friday night in Paris, I did not now how to respond.  All of the beauty stories that filled my feed seemed trivial compared to these events.  How could I write about a recent story regarding the genetic factors underpinning our perceptions of beauty or about the controversy in social media over the site 100 Years of Beauty?  They are all interesting stories, but they all seemed so banal.  How could I talk about beauty at a time like this?

But then I remembered Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous quote, “Beauty will save the world.” At a time like this, maybe this is EXACTLY what we need.  I’m not talking about being pollyannish and seeing the good or beauty in everything.  No, I’m talking about the actual social need for beauty, and how satisfying this need may actually make the world a better, safer and more loving place.

What do I mean? I’ve actually written about this topic in posts a few years back.  But the thinking, while super heavy, is still true today. Elaine Scarry points out in On Beauty and Being Just, the pursuit of beauty is really the quest for improvement. This dense but provocative piece explains: beauty’s spectacle encourages replication and further creativity. When I see a beautiful woman, for example, I’ll check out her look and make it my own. This inclination towards creativity affirms our uniquely human ability, that is, our power to make change and create a better, more just future.  Yes, the world sucks sometimes, but we KNOW that we can make it better.

In Beauty, Roger Scruton explains beauty is so vital, as it presents our ideals and compels us to seek them out.  Here are my words from my post, Beauty: A Moral Imperative: “things of beauty, like art, move us because they take us out of our everyday ‘by providing us (says Scruton) with objects, characters, scenes and actions with which we can play … in play … free (of) contemplation, reason and sense are reconciled, and we are granted a vision of human life in its wholeness.’  He goes on to say: ‘Our favorite works of art seem to guide us to the truth of human condition and (ultimately)… show the worthwhileness of being human.'”

Trying to summarize Scruton further, I wrote: “In our attempts to experience beauty, we measure our lives, circumstances, and surroundings against the order and fittingness presented … and we have the freedom to challenge the injustices, hardships and disharmony we see around us…Things of beauty affirm the transcendental part of all of us and our power to change the world for the better.”  We are compelled — at the moment we encounter beauty or after contemplation of it — to see our world in comparison to it.  This forces us to challenge ourselves and our world.

What am I really saying here?  When we feast our eyes on a painting at the Louvre or a garden at Versailles, we are seeing something extraordinary.  It shows us the power of people to make something from nothing.  We have the ability to improve our world.

When terrorists choose to massacre innocent people, we can’t just wallow in misery or cower in fear.  We need to believe we can overcome such horrors.  Sometimes it’s hard to have that sort of optimism or strength.  But when we engage with things of beauty, we are reminded that we have the brilliance and creativity to do so.

The topic of beauty may seem to irrelevant to us this weekend.   We are grieving, we are trying understand how something so terrible can happen, and we are challenging humanity.  But don’t dismiss it.  Embrace it. Things of beauty remind us that we can all be better.  Beauty not only soothes us during these moments, but it shows us we have the agency, the creativity, the sense of justice, to get us all closer to harmony.

When the Seemingly Ugly Is Very Beautiful

IMG_20151106_091859Imagine this: you walk to work surrounded by cranes in the sky, trucks roaring beside you, cars impatiently waiting at a tense standstill as heavy mobile cement mixers drive against the traffic.  Then imagine having to take walking detours as men in hard hats motion you to get out-of-the-way of a huge load of metal rods that are being lowered onto the street.  And almost every street has scaffolding obscuring any character of the buildings you pass.  There are no scents of flowers or shady trees.  There are no sculptures or mini parks.  There’s just concrete, trucks and wooden make-shift walls.

“Ugh,” you’re probably thinking, “what a horrible place to be.”

Well, this is my commute, EVERY SINGLE DAY.  I walk from 59th St and 10th avenue to my offices on 15th street in in Manhattan. For over 40 blocks I can’t avoid any of this.

And, yet, I love it!  I find all this hassle, men in hard hats, grinding sounds of construction and boarded up buildings, well, beautiful.  There is an energy to all of this construction.  Men and women are hard at work, yelling commands at one another, measuring distances or hustling to manage some sort of construction material.  You can really see the imagination and brawn of humankind taking shape. It’s quite magnificent.  It literally takes my breath away.

Why am I sharing this experience with you all?  Because so many of us live in cruise control.  We don’t notice the beauty around us.  More importantly, we don’t the notice the beauty that may be hidden to us at first glance.   We are constantly on the move trying to achieve the next thing — picking up our kids, getting to work, prepping for our presentation.  And let’s be honest, there may not be any flowers to stop and smell along the way.  But I guarantee you that there is beauty taking shape in interesting ways all around us, all the time.  We just need to tilt our heads in a slightly different angle and truly notice it.

This desire to see the beauty in the seemingly mundane — even ugly — things around us is one of the explanations for the preponderance of banal images that seem to overwhelm our internet feeds.  In my research I found that people are attracted to these everyday pics MORE than the the unusual, out-of-this-world stuff because we crave the beauty in the everyday.  Such a discovery elevates our everyday and reminds us that our daily lives are full of wonder, not just the grind.

What may seem ugly, drab or boring may just be quite beautiful.  We just need to scrape away the layers a bit and truly take the time to think about it.  But when you do, you’ll realize how cool our everyday world really are.

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