Archive | March, 2014

Putting “Cover Girl” in another light

18 Mar

I just watched this TED Talk by journalist Tracey Spicer: in “The lady stripped bare” ( Spicer deconstructs the time women spend on personal grooming, and the impact this investment in grooming has on women’s psyches, earnings and parenting. (I’m thrilled to have a financial argument that I can present to my mother the next time I have to explain to her why I don’t and won’t wear make-up.)

I think it’s a great talk: informative, engaging and useful. Essentially, it’s about covering. Professor and author of Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights Kenji Yoshino explains the concept of covering, tracing it back to sociologist Erving Goffman’s coinage of the term in his book Stigma:

Written in 1963, [Stigma] describes how various groups including the disabled, the elderly and the obese manage their “spoiled” identities. After discussing passing, Goffman observes that “persons who are ready to admit possession of a stigma… may nonetheless make a great effort to keep the stigma from looming large.” He calls this behavior covering. He distinguishes passing from covering by noting that passing pertains to the visibility of a characteristic, while covering pertains to its obtrusiveness. He relates how F.D.R. stationed himself behind a desk before his advisers came in for meetings. Roosevelt was not passing, since everyone knew he used a wheelchair. He was covering, playing down his disability so people would focus on his more conventionally presidential qualities (

This is what we women do: we literally cover (and compress) ourselves to cover what is “spoiled” or “stigmatized” about us (which everyone is aware of anyway, simply by recognizing that we are women, just as the world recognized that FDR was physically disabled). The visibility of the covering (the apparently teased hair, carefully applied makeup, slightly unnatural Botox-smoothness) underscores the purpose of covering: not to actually erase the stigmatized identity, but to reduce its “obtrusiveness.” And, therefore, to communicate our efforts to contain or tone it–and ultimately, ourselves–down.

As Yoshino argues, and I believe as Spicer’s talk suggests, this is a bigger issue than whether or not an individual woman decides to wear makeup. This is about what Yoshino refers to as “the new discrimination”:

In recent decades, discrimination in America has undergone a generational shift. Discrimination was once aimed at entire groups, resulting in the exclusion of all racial minorities, women, gays, religious minorities and people with disabilities. A battery of civil rights laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 sought to combat these forms of discrimination. The triumph of American civil rights is that such categorical exclusions by the state or employers are now relatively rare.

Now a subtler form of discrimination has risen to take its place. This discrimination does not aim at groups as a whole. Rather, it aims at the subset of the group that refuses to cover, that is, to assimilate to dominant norms. And for the most part, existing civil rights laws do not protect individuals against such covering demands. The question of our time is whether we should understand this new discrimination to be a harm and, if so, whether the remedy is legal or social in nature.

Put simply, the question underlying Spicer’s talk is whether women as a group have the right to “dare to be openly different” from what grooming standards dictate. And by “right,” I mean the same access to resources and opportunities (including employment and informal social networks), whether or how much we cover.

Shutting up: A social justice tool

14 Mar

I love when people send me web stuff they find inspiring or useful in the work of increasing equity, inclusion and justice in the world. All too often, they’ll preface the share with “You’ve probably already seen this…” as if reading or watching social justice resources again is a waste of time (especially when compared to all the other web stuff I crawl through every day). Whether I have or haven’t actually seen it before, I’m always grateful for the send.

Here, I’d like to share two awesome posts that have recently come my way:

I found myself nodding (and laughing) at the convergence of these articles, which are both about how privilege matters and impacts others even when the privileged have the best of intentions. Useful takeaways for me, mutually stated by Robot Hugs and Utt-recycling-McKenzie:

  • “Shut up and listen.” (Collective gasp–can you say that? Isn’t social justice about everyone’s voice being heard? Yes. Key word: everyone’s.)
  • “Stop thinking of ‘ally’ as a noun. Being an ally isn’t a status. The moment that we decide ‘I’m an ally,’ we’re in trouble.” It’s just like “inclusion,” “equity” and “justice”–those aren’t states of being: they’re processes.
  • “Learn from screwing up.” Tough, no? But what else can we do when, as Robot Hugs puts it, “I will screw up sometimes; I will be thoughtless, misinformed, aggressive or unkind”? Accept it? Heck yes! And then, “I will listen when people call me out on it, and figure out how I can avoid screwing up again.” I know, I know. I still cringe when say or do something that has an impact I didn’t (and sometimes did) intend. And I always will. The question is what I do next, including nothing.

** Thanks to my colleagues MB and NS for sharing these fun, educational and accessible resources!

Thanks anyway, for flying with us!

12 Mar

I’ve been flying a lot lately. A lot for me, that is. And my preferred airline is Virgin America. I love VX. LOVE VX.


There’s a moment–actually a few–every time I fly with them, that I wince. It happens during the safety video, which Virgin has done its athletic best to make entertaining. It’s not the video itself, or even the manic effort to be entertaining (!) It’s this (, beginning at 0:54):

For the .oo1% of you who have never operated a seat belt before… Really?!?

That is their punctuation. Presumably to underscore the point as a young female flight attendant rolls her eyes, with hands on hips and deigns to explain.

It’s a small moment. And it’s just a joke, right?

Yes. And…

I think about being among that .001% (a statistic which I’m sure VX can back up “?!?”) and maybe not knowing how to work my seatbelt for whatever reason. And now I’m being seat belt-shamed. Why? For the entertainment of the 99.999%.

This isn’t the biggest outrage of the year or today or even just the few seconds it takes for the video to move on, but I bring it up because it’s a great example of unintended exclusion that doesn’t really serve any purpose: the joke isn’t that funny, the video is still just a safety video… and why it benefits anyone to make even just one person on a plane feel less than is beyond me. And I simply expect more from a company “dedicated to making flying good again.”

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.


Thank you for the feedback

2 Mar

I just received a comment from “Vinny” on a post I uploaded back in November… 2012. (I wonder what he was searching that resulted in this hit on my blog? He certainly didn’t seem any too happy to find it.) I’ll share Vinny’s comment with you first, and then the post, just as I experienced it:

Diversity is BS.You are merely another of the people selling America out . What benefit do you get? Does it make you feel pious and self righteous. I bet it does. You have no real morality, no real ethics so piety and self-righteousness will have to do, yes.You claim not to hate but you hate white people. You call yourself American but you hate America, don’t you? I am no fan of the Klan but I live on the border. I KNOW what is really going on with this issue. You probably can only guess.

Those are some pretty big claims about me as a person–let alone about “diversity.” I found myself wondering if Vinny only read the one post? Or maybe I’ve met him? Perhaps I’ve facilitated a workshop he was in, or we participated in one together?

Either way, I apparently really struck a nerve with him. And I’m not under any delusions that I don’t have strong opinions or sometimes express myself vehemently. So I was really curious which post of  mine provoked Vinny. Here’s the link to the article I posted on: You can read my comments on it if you go to 11/16/12 in this blog’s archives. Honestly, I didn’t really say much beyond sharing that I thought this anti-KKK clown rally in response to the KKK’s anti-immigration rally was really cool. And I concluded:

… this reminds me that the way we “do” diversity needs to be diverse. Sometimes, facts and debates are useful. Sometimes personal narratives are effective. And sometimes, laughter says it all. Of course, laughter or facts or stories won’t effect social change by themselves. But they are the diverse catalysts that can help a group of diverse people notice, care and act.

That makes me “pious and self righteous”? This is the proof that I hate white people?

But even as I feel that maybe Vinny is over-reacting and ascribing much more to what to what I wrote than what I wrote, I get his reaction. In my experience, there are far too few opportunities and engage in real dialogue with people who have experiences, perspectives and politics that our different from ours. By “real dialogue,” I mean a conversation that we enter into with mutual respect and a shared intention to hear each other and learn. Note that I didn’t say get schooled/be corrected/realize the error of our ways. I said “learn,” as in reflect on why we believe what we believe (including noticing where that belief comes from), appreciate why another (sometimes unfathomable) perspective makes sense from another point of view, and discern what we believe now, knowing that believing is a verb that changes with time, not a fixed noun. No, more often than not, what I do and see others doing with people who have opinions different than ours about identity, diversity and how to be a multiculture is argue or ignore rather than actually, really engage.

And since practice creates not only expectations and habits but neural pathways, it’s not surprising that simply the fact of another opinion can send us into vehement character attacks. After all, we are what we eat–including our own bile. And here, I’m not just pointing the finger at Vinny. He actually bothered to e-mail his thoughts to me. I too have thought someone was a hater–I just didn’t bother to tell them. I also want to admit that while I don’t see what set Vinny off, that doesn’t mean I didn’t say something that sounds hateful to him. That’s part of diversity: recognizing that I don’t and can’t always “get it.” And accepting the impact I may have, regardless of my intention.

So, Vinny, I do appreciate your writing in. I don’t like your tone or your judgment, but I think I can empathize. And maybe we can actually talk sometime.