Service versus social justice

10 Mar

The other day I received in the mail an example of something I’ve been talking to schools about: the distinction between service and social justice. While there can be resonance or even simply an overlap between the two, they’re not the same thing. And you can do service that actually serves injustice, even while it improves the circumstance of an individual or a particular community.

I’ll break it down here, courtesy of Spanx. (This is what I get for ordering trouser socks: a lifetime supply of Spanx catalogs.)

The cover of the latest Spanx catalog announces that the company is “Shaping the world one woman at a time: Find out how Spanx, and Founder Sara Blakely, are shaping butts & transforming lives.”

They had me at “transforming lives.” (This promise is de rigeur these days for charitable and service efforts.) So I flipped to Sara’s Giving Pledge, excerpted here:

At Spanx, philanthropy is part of our culture. I believe in sharing the opportunity to give back directly with the people who have helped me earn the right to do so in the first place. We have a rotating philanthropy board made up of employees. Each board is allocated a portion of the company’s profits to give away. They volunteer their time to research and determine who receives the money. Employees get to make surprise visits to organizations with checks in hand and witness the tears first hand. As a company we have created a program called Leg-UP that features other female entrepreneur’s products for free in our catalog. We have also built homes for families together, sent women to college, funded entrepreneurial programs in girls’ schools, joined in a dance flash mob to stop violence against women, and even rendered the queen of talk, Oprah (and our accountants at the time), speechless when we donated $1 million to her Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa.

I want to be clear: this is awesome. Spanx as a company doesn’t just believe in–they actually provide–charitable, much-needed services for women around the globe because Sara recognizes that opportunity and success are not naturally equally available to all. As she reflects:

I have so much gratitude for being a woman in America. I never lose sight that I was born in the right country, at the right time. And, I never lose sight of the fact that there are millions of women around the world who are not dealt the same deck of cards upon their birth. Simply because of their gender, they are not given the same chance I had to create my own success and follow my dreams. It is for those women that I make this pledge.

Add to her list of identities that impact our access to resources and opportunities: religion, race, physical and mental abilities, sexuality, size…


That’s an interesting one, in the context of a shapewear company’s commitment to making the world “a better place.” And here’s where I get uneasy. Yes, Spanx is providing important and necessary services to women and communities they identify as needing assistance.

And when it claims to “shape the world,” Spanx crosses in my mind from doing a service to supporting injustice. When I read shaming culture, and its efforts to help that movement go global. I wince at how “Keeping it Slimple” is an invitation for women the world over to obsess over our lines, bumps and lumps, in conformity to a very specific white Western aesthetic of feminine beauty. I can’t help but connect the dots between the “Skinny Britch” collection (think girdles) and eating disorders, thinspiration culture and other ways women mask, edit and delete our bodies (not just our shapes, but our colors and our hairs).

I get angry that Spanx gets some of kind do-gooder cred from its service programs toward its main business of “whittling waistlines,” which subtly but stunningly (and with our dollars) perpetuates misogynist, racist, ageist and sizeist standards that do indeed transform us women… just not necessarily into our own best selves. I also get scared, because when Spanx declares, “We’re shaping more than butts. We’re shaping women’s lives,” I believe they really are.


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