For International Women's Day, I listened to Nobel Peace Prize winner and self-described feminist, Leymah Gbowee share the stage with her daughters and friends in activism for a mother-daughter audience at my former all girls high school. At the celebration, Ms. Gbowee shared many gems of wisdom to the point that I had chills.
She discussed the importance of dominating one's space, not as a bully or in a way that is disrespectful, but because if one doesn't own their space, someone else will. She discussed her refusal to separate any parts of her identity as an African, a woman, and a feminist. She and the women she shared the floor with discussed their differences, the ways they overcome misogynistic impulses from how they've been raised, and how they channel compassion to make change instead of criticism. But what stood out to me most, was her and her daughters discussing how there are many ways to be a woman and to be a feminist.
Also for International Women's Day, Pink voiced an opinion on how to be a woman with a Twitter shout out to women who use their brains, strength, work ethic, and talents over their bodies and sex and notes that the following the first path may result in less money and less attention.
I saw the tweet reposted by Amber Rose, with a lengthy caption that among other things called the tweet "down(ing) each other instead of uplifting," and that this viewpoint was classist. While I adore Amber Rose, I find myself struggling to agree with her. I think it's time we stop insisting women like Tia Mowry, Ayesha Curry, etc. for saying they enjoy being covered up and highlighting their skills instead of their bodies. By celebrating women using their brains, Pink is also not slut shaming. The narrative I see being told here is that as women, we can only be one or other and to celebrate one, we are shaming the other. We use our bodies as a means to monetization or we use our brains as magic to maintain our pride and self-respect. But the reality is both frequently play a part in the paths our lives take.
I find myself sitting in an odd place. I enjoy my body and my beauty. I've competed in pageants, I've been a brand ambassador for a national beauty campaign, I love a bikini, I am constantly chasing lighting for that right selfie, and I work out to maintain a certain aesthetic. Arguably, that aesthetic has played a part in my career successes. There are also countless academic studies that support the notion physical attractiveness is linked to wealth, career growth, and most recently, even academic success.
On the other hand, as a career coach and a vendor for the NYC Department of Education, I work with both women and teen girls on professional skills, as well as confidence and beauty. In workshops with teen girls, we do value exercises and I help them identify their assets beyond their physical shell. Girls as young as 14 will note that there is an unfair attention paid to women's bodies, style of dress, and beauty choices. In Women Who Don't Wait in Line, Girls Who Code Founder, Reshma Saujani even reflects on the attention paid to her dress over her ideas during her campaign for NYC public advocate years ago.
(source: John Ricard)
We live in a world where what women look like matters too much, where models have more social media presence than the First Lady, where there are not enough women in STEM and where only 4.6% of S&P 500 companies have women CEOs. Of course, there are many layers to why that is, including lack of resources, systemic sexism, and more, but I'd argue if we paid less attention to teaching girls and women about how to ged rid of belly fat and pose and more about how to code and manage, we'd start to see stats change and values shift.
We discuss social media regularly in my workshops, and some girls are influenced by the insta-famous and do face temptation to use their bodies as a means to economic advancement. As someone who deals with teenage girls affected by both urban and rural poverty, I've been able to see firsthand that they are frequently told a singular story via magazines and social media on how to upgrade their lives, and the main character in that story is not their brains. The reality is, while a fortunate few are able to monetize Instagram likes with product endorsements, starting their own businesses, and hosting events, those are more often the anomalies. For sustainable economic advancement, more girls need to be taught tangible skills, business acumen, and a strong work ethic, like Pink celebrates in her tweet. And while I'm all for the women who are able to do make financial gains via sharing their assets on Instagram, I can't in good conscience support the idea that this is the formula for success for girls.
The thing is, the formula is just more complex than that--It's not one or the other. Using our bodies and beauty, if we please and choose, shouldn't be shamed, but those in the public eye should also be responsible and realistic about the effect of doing so on young girls who are sent the message that it's the only way to advance. Amber Rose questions Pink for sending this message and suggests grown women can do as they please, and while that is true, grown women send messages to young girls and we should be responsible for what that message is. Pink celebrating women who use their work ethic doesn't mean other women have to run and cover up or even that physical attributes can't also be celebrated.
As I heard Leymah Gbowee and her daughters describe, there is undoubtedly more than one way to be a woman. Maybe we can one day unite around our internal beauty and forget the rest. Ultimately, some women feel empowered naked and some feel empowered clothed, but all women have a right to express and celebrate what empowers and inspires them, without being shamed for that either.