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Feminist Minded Musings

“Lean-In” to the Master’s House?: A look at patriarchy, intersectionality, and essentialism in Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto

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When I first heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, I was inherently intrigued. It is rare for feminist literature to take hold of the public imaginary, and I was interested to see a book on the New York Times bestseller list that firmly placed issues involving gender inequality in the workforce on the map. However, my interest and excitement soon waned as the critiques from feminists of color, LGBT feminists, and other feminist communities came rolling in. It became clear to me that Sheryl Sandberg was just another white feminist who did not fully understand her privilege, positionality, and place within the feminist movement. Lean In was instantly critiqued for its lack of an intersectional focus, its heteronormativity, and its disregard to institutional and structural barriers to women in the workforce. I dismissed, the book entirely in favor of feminists like Audre Lorde, Roxane Gay, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many other phenomenal feminist writers, theorists, and rhetors. It wasn’t until my Feminist Theory class in the spring of 2015 that I was once again confronted with the “Lean In” movement and its place within feminism. For class, a clip of Sheryl Sandberg on Good Morning America was given as supplemental material to facilitate class discussion. Immediately I linked Sheryl Sandberg’s interview and ideas about “leaning in” to Trina Grillo’s piece Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House. In this article Grillo quotes Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, “the masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Hackett, Haslanger 30). In my mind, this quote perfectly summed up many of the contentions other feminists had with Sandberg’s framework of “leaning in”. It was this undeniable connection between Grillo, Lorde, and Sandberg that sparked my interest in writing a critically analytical research paper on Sandberg’s “Lean In” framework and its place within the feminist movement. I opine that although Sandberg’s “Lean In” framework has a place in feminist discourse, ultimately the framework is too entrenched in patriarchal standards of equality and how to achieve it, to bring about genuine equality through institutional change. Thus, this essay articulates the pros and cons of Sandberg’s framework by contextualizing it within feminist theories of anti-essentialism, intersectionality, and “dismantling the master’s house” (Lorde 112).

Before I delve into my research and critical analysis, I would like to position myself firmly within my research. I am a middle-class, white, able-bodied, cis-gender, heterosexual woman with a university education. My studies focus on women’s and gender studies and with that comes a highly theoretical understanding of oppression and privilege. As a researcher, I must constantly negotiate my places of privilege, which are many, and my own marginalization. I consistently approach my work with an intersectional lens in order to contextualize my thoughts within a radical, anti-essentialist feminist framework that destabilizes domination and hegemony. It is with these cornerstones of my feminist identity in mind that I approach this essay.

Firstly, in order to fully understand Sandberg’s approach to the “Lean In” movement it is vital to understand her positionality. Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook where she became a billionaire. Prior to this she was the vice president of Global Online Sale and Operations for Google. She has also served as the chief of staff at the United States Treasury Department during the Clinton administration. Sandberg has a degree in economics from Harvard and also attended Harvard Business School. Currently, Sandberg lives in Northern California with her husband and two children, a boy and a girl (“Sheryl Sandberg Biography”). Clearly, Sandberg has a fundamental understanding of what it means to be a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, upper-class woman in higher education, politics, and the corporate world. These positions of privilege become abundantly clear throughout the reading of Lean In, and Sandberg has been able to achieve great success due to her relentless work ethic and her refusal to be silenced in concert with the privileges and opportunities afforded to her based on her identity.

Sandberg’s approach to the “Lean In” movement is based on her articulation of a handful of internal forces that prevent women from advancing within the corporate world. These forces are enumerated in Sandberg’s table of contents, but the three biggest points in her Lean In manifesto and TED talk are: 1) sit at the table, 2) don’t leave before you leave, and 3) make your partner a real partner (Sandberg)(“Why we have too few woman leaders”). In the chapter “Sit at the Table” Sandberg gives a short anecdote about a group of women in senior positions that attended a meeting with Sandberg and a group of other executives. These women remained on the literal sidelines of the conversation even after Sandberg invited them to sit at the table with the rest of the group (Sandberg 27-8). Sandberg uses this as a jumping off point to discuss how women internalize sexist institutions to the point where they do not feel as though they have earned a “spot at the table”, even if their title, education, etc. reflects otherwise. This is one way, Sandberg claims, that women’s internal barriers influence their behavior, consequently influencing their visibility and their ability to move up the corporate ladder (Sandberg 28). Thus, Sandberg’s solution is to implore women already in positions in which they have a relative amount of influence to have no shame in claiming their “spot at the table”. Sandberg asserts that once women do this, they will already have made a step in validating their worth internally, which will ultimately translate to the elimination of external barriers for other women (Sandberg 8). The chapter “Don’t Leave Before You Leave” focuses on the following scenario outlined by Sandberg: “An ambitious and successful woman heads down a challenging career path with the thought of having children in the back of her mind. At some point, this thought moves to the front of her mind, typically once she finds a partner. The woman considers how hard she is working and reasons that to make room for a child she will have to scale back… Often without even realizing it, the woman stops reaching for new opportunities… several years often pass between the thought and conception, let alone birth… by the time the baby arrives, the woman is likely to be in a drastically different place in her career than she would have been had she not leaned back,” (Sandberg 93-4). As you can see, Sandberg is advocating for these women considering parenthood to “lean in” in those months, years, or decades leading up to the birth of their child, instead of “leaning back”, which makes women complicit in the truncation of their career trajectory, thus not landing them in the corner office. Sandberg’s final main point is articulated in the chapter “Make Your Partner a Real Partner” in which Sandberg implores women to find a partner who is willing to split responsibilities 50/50, both in their careers and in the home, because the amount of success she will have in her career is contingent on finding such a balance (Sandberg 108). Although Sandberg has several other points that further address how to “lean in”, it is these three main points that Sandberg seems to be the most passionate about, and the three main points she continuously brings up in interviews and presentations, which is why I chose to highlight them. Although Sandberg briefly references external institutional and structural influences such as sexism, and even more briefly racism, homophobia, etc., the connection between how these internal and external forces are linked is never fully articulated.

Obviously the advice that Sandberg gives to her reader is not inherently “bad” advice, but it is also obvious that her understanding of what it means for women to “lean in” is more about how to convince elite women who already occupy positions of privilege and power to do so, and less about how to actually get into a position of privilege and power. This is perhaps one of the most fundamental missteps that Sandberg takes, because it inherently lacks an intersectional lens. Sandberg briefly references the places of privilege that she occupies, usually stating that she is “lucky” to have had opportunities afforded to her, or that she is “lucky” that she is able to afford child care, or that she is “lucky” to be taken seriously in her field. But I contend that is not luck, it is privilege, and to claim it as “luck” is to deny that very privilege and to ignore the ways in which society has set her up for success versus a woman of color, or a lesbian, or a disabled woman, or a trans* individual. Grillo states in her speech Anti-Essentialism and Intersectionality: Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House that “the most dangerous thing for [a woman] would be to go through life as if she were always subordinated, because she then might not notice situations in which she was ignoring someone else’s voice,” (Hackett, Haslanger 38). When Sandberg chooses to focus solely on her femaleness as a site of subordination, she ignores the privileges associated with the dominant intersections of her identity. Thus, not only does Sandberg not fully articulate the ways in which her intersectional identity influences her position within the “Lean In” movement, but she also does not recognize the way in which other women’s intersectional identities could render “leaning in” irrelevant or impossible to implement in their own lives.

In addition to lacking an intersectional understanding of identities, Sandberg makes many assumptions about women’s lives and the supposed common experiences women have simply as women. This exemplifies Grillo’s very definition of essentialism: the notion that there is a single, universal experience intrinsically linked to a certain group based on one facet of their identity (Hackett, Haslanger 32). For example, Sandberg’s most grandiose assumption is that either, a) all women already occupy a position in which they can “lean in”, or b) that all women need to do to get to a position of privilege and power is to “lean in”. According to Grillo, a cornerstone of essentialism is that it is possible to strip down one’s experiences to the nature of one specific part of their identity, as if it is possible to extricate gender from race, race from class, etc. (Hackett, Haslanger 32). Sandberg’s assumptions about women’s positions of power and privilege essentialize women’s need for the “Lean In” movement. It denies the complications of race, class, etc. in determining a woman’s social positionality and the institutional and structural barriers to their success, or merely even entrance into the workforce. In addition, one of Sandberg’s biggest grievances is that having children prevents women from “leaning in” and scoring that corner office. This is essentializing because, although Sandberg notes that not all women want to get married and have children, she writes as though this is an innate quality of all women once they hit a certain age. This is not only fundamentally false, but also an essentialist ideal of women and their desire for motherhood. Additionally, the reality is that there are plenty of women without children who are “leaning in” who still do not ever reach the coveted status of CEO.In fact, there are more women CEO’s of Fortune 1000 companies who are married and have kids than those who are unmarried, without children, or both (Fairchild). Thus, it becomes unavoidable to note that the fact women are choosing to have families is not the reason why women aren’t more prevalent in senior corporate positions. It is sexism. It is racism. It is all the –isms.

At the end of the day, critiquing Sandberg’s “Lean In” movement as lacking intersectionality and essentializing women’s experiences as women is a relatively moot point. It is perhaps most important to note that the entire framework that Sandberg uses in contingent on using “the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde 112). Sandberg continually states that only by climbing the ladder of success into the corner office will women be able to dismantle patriarchy and instigate equality in the workforce. By default, Sandberg’s assumption is that gender parity in the corporate world in and of itself will create equality. It is possible that this phenomenon would foster an ability to facilitate equality, however it will not “create” equality for women. Furthermore, what if it is the rat race to the corner office that is the problem in the first place? The entire structure of corporate America has been created by and for the patriarchy, and I would contend that claiming that women will have “equality” when we have gender parity in the workforce, government, etc. is a tool of the patriarchy to distract us from the scope of the entire patriarchal system. Moreover, it is women like Sandberg, who are so entrenched in patriarchy that they cannot see they are inherently complicit in the patriarchal structuring of society, government, and corporate America. Without the use of such feminist tools like intersectionality and anti-essentialism, feminists, like Sandberg, will continue to attempt to dismantle the patriarchy within the very confines of the patriarchy they wish to dismantle. By essentializing all women’s experiences, all women of color’s experiences, etc. into that of “woman” we lose sight of the ways in which sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. intersect in order to complicate the web of oppression that the patriarchy weaves. In doing this we are ignoring the very ways in which oppression prevents women from pursuing these roles in the first place, and we are only evaluating their success, worth, or importance from the standpoint of how the patriarchy would view success/worth/importance. Arguably, only a complete restructuring of society will ever truly eradicate systemic and institutional oppression.

So I ask, what good can come of “leaning in” to the master’s house? I ask this question because it is nearly impossible to reconcile my radical feminist side (that wants to completely restructure patriarchy) with the very pertinent reality of trying to succeed, or merely survive, in a patriarchal society that has the deck stacked against everyone in some way. It seems like there is no winning, does it not? Thus, I end my research with a bit of both. Yes, we do need women to “lean in” because we currently need more women in the canon of government and corporate America. However, we need more feminist women to “lean in”, because without them, women will have a hard time finding support dismantling patriarchy from the outside of the confines of the master’s house. It is with this in mind that we also need to recognize the power of women who radically redefine what success looks like, women who do not merely chose to “transcend” patriarchy by “leaning in”, but who actively dismantle the master’s house from the outside and replace its bricks with feminism, intersectionality, and anti-essentialism. I envision this as a sort of double-agent game. Radical feminists who are willing and able to play by the rules of patriarchy must infiltrate its inner sanctum and become CEO’s, senators, and board members. They must “lean in” all the way without forgetting the cornerstones of feminism: intersectionality and anti-essentialism. At this same time we need radical feminists on the outside, who reject the patriarchy and its standards, to rise up in huge numbers in support of equity, anti-capitalism, anti-white supremacy, anti-imperialism, etc. As more feminists infiltrate the patriarchy, and more feminists begin to rise up, we will be at the tipping point of institutional power and radical protest. Since there would already be feminist-minded individuals on the inside, they would recognize the power and importance behind this growing movement, and with this inside support, we could work together because of our differences, not in spite of them, which could lend itself to an entire restricting of society, free from oppression. If there is one thing I have learned in my feminist studies, it is that there is not one singular way to be an activist. There is not one singular way to be a feminist. And there is not one singular way to smash the patriarchy. However, it is the unification of these intersectional, anti-essentialist means of feminist activism that will, brick by brick, dismantle the master’s house from both inside and out.

 

Works Cited

Fairchild, Caroline. “Women CEOs in the Fortune 1000: By The numbers.” Fortune Women CEOs in the Fortune 1000 By Thenumbers Comments. Fortune, 08 July 2014. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

Hackett, Elizabeth, and Sally Anne Haslanger. Theorizing Feminisms: A Reader. New York: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984. Print.

Sandberg, Sheryl, and Nell Scovell. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Print.

Sandberg, Sheryl. “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Sheryl Sandberg:. TEDWomen 2010, Dec. 2010. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

“Sheryl Sandberg Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.

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How I Realized I Wasn’t Pretty – A Video Tribute To My Mother

Last week I posted an article called “The Day I Realized I Wasn’t Pretty” about my struggle with body image and how my mother’s struggle with her own self-worth forced me to face my own issues. I used that article as inspiration for a Final Project for my class, Media and Diverse Identities, at MSUM taught by the amazing Kandace Creel Falcon. This video is a digital story of photos, narrated by me, about those same issues brought up in my article. Adding images and my own voice allows this message to hit a little harder in my opinion. Below, I have to link to my video so please check it out and leave feedback! Under the video I have also posted my Final Paper reflection so all of you can see how this relates to my feminist views on the media as well. Enjoy!

When I first began creating my digital story I had no idea on the huge impact it would have not only on myself, but also on my mother, and for my friends that my story would reach. Since I chose the very personal topic of body image, this project became very cathartic and healing for me. Behind the scenes, this project not only took sweat and determination, but also quite a few tears because of its sensitive nature. I love the idea of a digital story as a means of combining pictures, voice, and personal narratives to create a multidimensional representation of a theme or topic. Since I focused on both my mother’s and my own struggle with body image a few of the themes that I focused on were the media’s effects and impact on one’s body image, the central ideas surrounding what it means to be feminine, and how misogyny is perpetrated through the media by contributing to women’s self-loathing around their bodies.

Telling this story was very important to me because body image issues have been something I have struggled with my whole life. I remember the day I realized I wasn’t pretty, the day it was confirmed I wasn’t pretty, and just about every day after that when I reminded myself how unattractive I was. I remember the intense depression, self-loathing, and general malaise that went hand in hand with these thoughts.  It was also important to tell this story for my mother. I don’t know anyone as amazing as my mother, and it hurts me so much to see that she often wraps her self worth up in how she feels about her appearance, when she is so much more than that (not to mention beautiful). However, probably the most important part about this project for me was catharsis.  As someone who has just recently come to terms with my body and being confident in not only how I look, but my entire being, it was important to reflect on some of the very hurtful memories and animosity I felt towards myself. This project not only allowed for so much self-reflection and healing, but it also opened up a dialogue between my mother and I about body image issues. She feels a lot of guilt over “showing me” how to hate my body, but this project is not to point blame at where I learned my self-loathing, it is to foster an environment of healing for myself and for her. My digital story is an ode to my mother’s beauty, and how my reflection on her struggle has allowed me to dismiss my own flaws and love myself for the beauty I hold both inside and out. And that has been truly powerful.

As far as addressing themes we talked about in WS 415, there are a lot of connections we can make between body image issues and topics like media’s impact on society and individuals, patriarchy, and what it means to be feminine. According to the media’s definition of “femininity,” I might as well not be a woman. I do not fit the traditional mold of femininity constructed by the media: I am tall, have broad shoulders, I take up space, I am considered “plus-size”, and the list goes on and on. All of these factors that permeate my self-perception are inherently based on medias influences of what we are told is beautiful, which is one of the many ways the media impacts women in a negative way. It constantly tells us we are not good enough as we are, and we never will be. All of these ideas are also intertwined with the agenda of the patriarchy. With male run corporations controlling media for the masses, it is not too hard to see that in one way or another, men are creating and perpetuating body shame and self loathing. The patriarchy is a multifaceted creature with roots that reach almost every realm of the media, and we are poisoned by its messages. For all of these reasons I felt the need to share my story of overcoming my body issues, and asserting myself as a confident, beautiful, feminist. I hope that my story will be able to reach an audience that has ever felt that way I do about my body, who will then use my struggle as a means of overcoming their own feelings of inadequacy in order to subvert the patriarchy in arguably its most dangerous game: instilling feelings of worthlessness in an entire sex based on their appearance. If we can all overcome these feelings, and work together to overthrow this system of oppression, we will be a forced to be reckoned with, and we will take no patriarchal prisoners.

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The Day I Realized I Wasn’t Pretty

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There are moments in every young girls life when cracks in our confidence begin to form, and the toxic foundations of self-doubt, self-consciousness, and self-loathing take root. My first crack came when I realized my mother wasn’t perfect, or at least, she didn’t feel she was. I remember watching her in the bathroom mirror sighing over barely-there wrinkles, stressing over non-existent back fat, and grumbling about her voluptuous frame. Looking at her, I couldn’t understand how someone so smart, strong, and statuesque could have so many flaws. I then came to realize that if someone I knew to be so beautiful was so inherently dreadful, then I must be as well (this is also known as Chandler’s most fucked up and problematic epiphany ever). The problem with body image issues is not only are they cultivated by the media’s constructions of beauty and acceptability, but they are also passed down from one generation of women to another. In many ways, I inherited my mother’s own body image issues because she had yet to come to terms with them herself. I saw her struggle with how she felt about her weight, she let it define her self-worth, and so I did the same. She convinced herself that she would be happier if only she were thinner, so I also equated thinness with happiness. It is for these reasons that I believe I so readily accepted the bodily critiques from my peers. I had known for a long time that I had innumerable flaws; so when they were finally pointed out to me, I was easily convinced. I do not blame my mother in any way for my body image issues, but I do find it incredibly sad that negative body images have pervaded society long enough that it is even possible for women to hand down these practices of self-hate and feelings of inadequacy. For these reasons, I find it transparent that impossible beauty standards are a systemic problem that women are not only subjected to by others, but subject themselves to as well. Furthermore, when society is able to instill a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy in an entire sex based solely around their appearance, it allows a powerful form of self-sustaining oppression to keep women from achieving all that they can.

I remember the day I realized I wasn’t pretty.  It was my eighth grade year, and as I stood in front of my mirror in the hallway I noticed it for the first time. There it was glaring back at me in the mirror, just pooching out over the top of my jeans, was a muffin top. I was in shock. Has that been there the whole time? I asked myself, all of a sudden deeply self-conscious, ashamed, and embarrassed. I became painfully aware that my light wash Gap jeans did not make me look as “long and lean” as they were intended to. I was practically bursting out of the waistband. When did I get so fat? I thought, as I searched my body for other hidden imperfections that I had been blissfully unaware of, convinced there were more flaws to be found. In some sort of bizarre masochistic treasure hunt, I began my journey into the depths of self-consciousness, a path most women know all too well. Later that same year, I was convinced again that I was definitely not pretty. In gym class (I know, how cliché) a boy in my grade told me that I needed to cover up my thunder thighs, because no one wanted to see those things. His disdain, shock, and horror that any girl could have the audacity to uncover her “thunder thighs” set the stage for an intense amount of self-loathing that I would carry for a majority of my youth. It was one thing for me to find flaws in myself, but for someone else to be so deeply offended by my body, took my insecurity and exacerbated it to a monumental extent.

From a young age I knew that I wasn’t like other girls. I was always the tallest girl in my class – actually, I was always the tallest person in my class, and being tall came with a particular amount of visibility that no one else can really understand. I also wasn’t the “right” kind of tall. Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I mean, either. There are three appropriate ways to be a tall girl: 1) the skinny model tall girl, 2) the skinny athletic basketball player, and 3) the skinny athletic volleyball player. At least, these are the only ways I had seen tall girls portrayed in a positive way. I knew right off the bat I would never be a model because not only was I not skinny enough, but I had convinced myself that I was not conventionally attractive in any way, and therefore of no use to society (because obviously, as a woman my only worthy contribution is my looks). That left me with tall skinny volleyball girl and tall skinny basketball girl. I chose tall athletic basketball girl (spandex shorts weren’t really my thing – for obvious reasons), but I had to leave off the skinny part, after all, I had thunder thighs. In my mind, at least my thunder thighs would be useful for something out on the basketball court. They would propel me across the hardwood, they would stand their ground fighting for a rebound, they would hip check my opponent guarding the hoop. But alas, even the noblest of ideas can be shattered. Case and point: In high school, a good friend of mine overheard another girl talking about me the day after one of my basketball games. She said something along the lines of “If my Dad had a daughter as big as her, she would be disowned.” My first thought upon hearing this was Chandler, don’t burst into tears, my second thought was Disowned?!, and my third thought was Wow, maybe I am a lot fatter than I think I am. Maybe I have reverse body dysmorphia?  No, my train of thought was not that this girl was very, very mean, or that she clearly has her own unresolved body issues, or even that my friend misheard her – in my twisted mind, I was convinced I was so fat and so disgusting that it had to be true.

From then on I knew I would never be good enough, and that my life would be spent with me constantly as a work in progress. Searching for the perfect diet to make me the appropriate size, the perfect haircut and color to disguise my imperfections, the perfect clothes to fool people into thinking I was beautiful.  It became a game. I foolishly turned to magazines and movies to aid me in my search for bodily perfection, not knowing that these false idols were a pivotal part of my inherent dissatisfaction. The farther I got in my research, the less happy I became. My body was betraying my spirit, and I hated it for it. I hated my height. I hated my thunder thighs. I hated my stomach. I hated my double chin. I hated every part about myself that made me, me. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I hated myself for things that weren’t even there, that I hated myself because I didn’t fit a mold that I wasn’t meant to fit in the first place, that I hated myself based on somebody else’s idea of what I should be. It wasn’t until much later that I began to question why I ever allowed myself to feel this way in the first place. Who, exactly, has the authority to tell me that I am not good enough the way I am? Why were people so offended by my height and size? Where was I getting these ideas about what it meant to be beautiful in the first place? Are these ideas even realistic? It was at this moment when I began to question the very fabric of my self-loathing. I began to lick my wounds, accept my true self, and say, “Fuck you” to everyone who tried to convince me otherwise.

The paradox of watching my mother struggle with her body image while simultaneously knowing myself that she is beautiful helped me realize the flaws in my own line of thinking, and my feelings about my body and beauty. I came to realize that even though my mother did not feel beautiful, she most definitely was. This translated into me realizing that even though I do not feel beautiful most days, I am beautiful both on the inside and out. I know this epiphany is in the realm of cliché “love your body” and “beauty is more than skin deep” tropes but it is one of the hardest concepts to wrap your brain around. It is incredibly sad that we as women have to unlearn hating our bodies and relearn how to love ourselves. Thanks to my mother, I have been able to see past my supposed “flaws” and accept my body the way it is. There is nothing inherently wrong with my body, it is capable of so many amazing things – from orgasms to jumping jacks, and whatever flaws I perceive are not really flaws, they are what make my body unique and my own. My only hope is that one-day my mother will come to this same realization. That she will be able to see the beauty she holds inside and out. That she will see that she has given me the strength, the courage, and the know-how to hold my head high above everyone else, and embrace myself as I am.

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Perceived Professionalism: How Sodium Hydroxide Oppresses One Race While “Relaxing” Another

         Image           Good hair. We all want it. We all strive for it. I for one know that having a “good” hair day versus having a “bad” hair day can influence my entire demeanor. Good hair day? Shoulders back, head held high, perhaps even some pep in my step. Bad hair day? Slouching, hair held back firmly in place with a headband in an attempt to tame the unruly (perhaps even greasy) strands, each step taken with uncertainty and self-consciousness. But what if the style of my hair did not only affect my self-confidence, but influenced people’s perceptions of my professionalism, competency, and intelligence? What if my hair influenced my job prospects, my sway in an office, or the amount of attention paid to my opinions? These questions are not merely “what-ifs” at all; these questions reflect a very real problem faced by women of color every single day. “What?” you say, “How can a hairstyle influence whether or not you get a job?” I agree that it seems like a very silly prospect, but it is not so silly when you come to understand the reality that Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist for Louisiana news station KTBS, was fired for defending her natural hairstyle on Facebook (Wilson, “Rhonda). Or that a white Glamour magazine editor told a group of women at a New York law firm that afros are a no-no and that “political” hairstyles like dreadlocks have no business in a work setting (Moe).  These instances are not only deeply offensive, but I argue that they could also be filed under “discrimination in the workplace”. Influencing women of color to style their hair in a sleek, more Eurocentric manner is just one more means of oppression, and we can add it to the long list of impossible beauty standards for women. In this essay, I will attempt to deconstruct the ideas of what people find so “offensive” about natural black hair, how these ideas construct societies perceptions of what is “professional” in the workplace and the consequences this has on employment. I will delve into the (not so) secret agenda of the media and beauty/fashion industries that aid in the vendetta against natural black hairstyles. However, before I begin my analysis, I would like to provide you with some insight into my gaze as a narrator. I, myself, am a 20 year-old middle class white woman of European descent. I have zero personal narratives surrounding oppression and discrimination based on my race, and yet these ideas repulse me to my very core. Although I have not personally experienced the plight of embracing a natural hairstyle in a Eurocentric obsessed society, I have been victim to the vitriol that comes with impossible beauty standards that women are subjected to. So even though I may not be able to empathize with these women, I can certainly sympathize with them. And although I may not be the most qualified woman to speak on this subject, it is important for me as a white woman to acknowledge my white privilege and recognize that even though these issues are not my own, it does not make them any less important. With this in mind, let us dive into this toxic pool of oppression, and emerge enlightened, angered, and demanding change.

            Let’s play a game. Open any mainstream magazine you have laying around and flip to the first page with a woman present. 5 points if the woman is white. 10 points if she is of color. 3 points if her hair is straight. 5 points if her hair is wavy (not curly). 7 points if she is donning an ethnic hairdo. Any of you with 17 points? The probability is slim to none. Lets not kid ourselves into thinking that the media and advertisements do not influence society’s perceptions of what is and is not acceptable. We are conditioned by these images to believe that smooth, sleek hair is sexy, professional, and beautiful. Thus, when one does not meet these standards they are in direct incongruence to society’s perceptions of acceptability. This makes for an interesting paradox for women of color, since they are conditioned to believe that in their natural state, they are not beautiful, professional, or sexy. So, in order to be perceived as professional/sexy/beautiful, women of color believe that they have to chemically alter their hair from its natural state to reflect the more acceptable style: long, sleek, and Eurocentric. In my mind, it seems absurd (and morally/ethically wrong) that the media would waste time convincing women they aren’t good enough the way they are born, but when there is a market to capitalize on, you can bet that corporations will do anything to exploit it. People of color make up less than 20% of the population in the United States, but they purchase 80% of the hair products sold (Good Hair). On top of that, either Whites or Asians own most of the companies in the beauty industry, neither of which have a vested interest in the quality of black hair products (Good Hair). In turn, products that focus on managing frizz, creating healthy hair, or enhancing natural qualities for black hair are usually the most expensive (Good Hair). So, it literally pays to conform and chemically straighten your hair instead of spending the money and exerting the effort to maintain a healthy head of natural hair. For those of you unfamiliar with chemical straightening process, let me give you a very brief overview of how it works. Sodium hydroxide, also known as relaxer, “creamy crack”, or chemical straightener, is the agent used to permanently straighten ethnic hair. This process breaks down the proteins present in the hair thus altering its texture, supposedly making the hair more manageable (Gonzalez). The potentially dangerous nature of sodium hydroxide leaves many women with chemical burns on their scalps (to illustrate this, please note that sodium hydroxide can disintegrate an aluminum can in a mere 4 hours – clearly this explains its popularity as a common beauty treatment), which can leave also women with permanent damage to the hair follicle resulting in bald patches (Good Hair). I do not take issue with the fact that there are some women of color who feel more beautiful/professional/sexy having relaxed hair independent of societies influence, and there is nothing wrong with these women asserting their own wants and needs.  However, I do begin to take issue when society conditions women of color to believe that their natural selves are not beautiful, professional, or sexy and pressure them to conform to the mainstream sleek, straight Eurocentric definition of beauty. When we as a society deem the trend of chemically altered hair as a more professional, beautiful, or sexy look, it is not a stretch to see how these ideas of professionalism and beauty can permeate into the workplace.

In Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair” black comedian Paul Mooney jokes, “If your hair is relaxed, white people are relaxed. If your hair is nappy, white people aren’t happy.” Although Mooney is obviously kidding he isn’t too far off the mark. In 2001, a leadership course at Hampton University banned natural hairstyles such as dreadlocks and cornrows, with the belief that those types of hairstyles would prevent students from receiving corporate jobs (note that most corporations are headed by white men) (Wilson, “Hampton”). Also, as I mentioned before, during a 2007 “Do’s and Don’ts of Corporate Fashion” slideshow held at a New York law firm, a white female editor of Glamour magazine stated that dreadlocks were “truly dreadful,” and expressed shock and disgust that people of color believed it was still appropriate to wear these hairstyles (Moe). Furthermore, in another segment of “Good Hair”, Chris Rock asks a group of black high school girls whether or not they believe that having a natural hairstyle will jeopardize their chances of getting a good job. The girls admit that “an afro and a suit is a contradiction,” and that “executives won’t take you seriously because you don’t look put together.” Although it is difficult to find statistical proof that says women of color are discriminated against when they sport natural hairstyles, there is no shortage of anecdotal proof. For example, Dana Harrell, an education and sociology major at Claflin University, was told during an interview for an internship that if she wanted to have a shot at a position within the company that she would have to straighten her hair (Hill). Harrell says “The lady told me that (if) I wanted to work for her company, I couldn’t wear my hair in its natural state, not even braids. She said ‘nappy isn’t happy here.’” We can also see examples of judgment being passed on women of color based on their hairstyles in pop culture influences such as the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black.” Although this example does not directly link to the workplace, it is still a comment on women of color’s perceived professionalism. In Episode 7 of the first season, an inmate, Taystee, is appealing her conviction. Beforehand, Taystee and her fellow inmates discuss how she should style her hair, because clearly her abundance of natural black curls has got to go. The group comes up with “white-friendly” suggestions like “Michelle Obama” or “Mo’Nique from Essence magazine 2008” – to which one inmate replies “Please, ain’t enough relaxer in the world for that bullshit!” The group finally agrees that the look Taystee should strive for is “the black best friend in the white girl movie” such as “Regina King in Miss Congeniality”, “Alicia Keys in The Nanny Diaries”, “Regina King in Legally Blonde”, or “Viola Davis [in] Eat, Pray, Love” (Kohan). I admit that this scene is hilarious, but it does bring up the very problematic issue that women of color must constantly operate within the realm of what white people are most “comfortable” with. This modus operandi is inherently oppressive to people of color. Ultimately, these examples merely shed light on the tip of the iceberg that is the systematic oppression and discrimination of women of color in the workplace and their daily lives. Hopefully, by focusing on this specific type of discrimination and oppression, it will put forth actions that will culminate in the permanent eradication of all forms of discrimination based on differences in appearance and the stereotypes that accompany them.

So, what is so offensive about natural, ethnic hair in the first place? To tell the truth, I haven’t the faintest idea why people are so concerned and fascinated with ethnic hair. However, I can say arguments that natural hair is a reflection of professionalism is a viewpoint wrought with racism. Dreadlocks, cornrows, afros, braids, etc. are all historically black hairstyles, so to say that these styles display a sense of unkemptness, a lack of professionalism, or a lack of intellect, is akin to saying that being a person of color in general reflects these notions as well. In my opinion, these assertions all stem from society’s epistemic ideas surrounding people of color. To be clear, epistemology is the study of knowledge, specifically how we determine what we “know” and whether or not we can test the validity of what we believe we “know” (“Epistemology”). I put “know” in quotes to illustrate that there is almost nothing we can know for certain. Knowledge is based on our perceptions and our beliefs surrounding the validity of those perceptions. This deeply philosophical theory is hard to wrap one’s brain around, but if we can be critical of what we believe we “know”, we can begin to deconstruct stereotypes and perceptions that are false, but that are widely held up as “common knowledge” or truth. To apply this to the topic at hand, I will play devil’s advocate in the following scenario. Picture this: I am waiting for a woman to arrive for her interview at my business. I have her application sitting in front of me and I know by looking at it beforehand that she is exceptionally qualified for the position: good grades, excellent letters of recommendation, and substantial previous experience. However, upon her walking into my office, I notice that not only is she a woman of color but she also wears her hair in a natural afro. Society has conditioned me to believe that people with afros are inherently not as qualified, competent, or intelligent because people with afros subscribe to an unkempt style that oozes a sense of laziness, a lack of intellect, and an unprofessional demeanor. Even though I know that on paper she is qualified for the job, in person I know that she is not because of her appearance. Thus, I dismiss her for the job based on her lack of perceived professionalism, not her actual, quantifiable experience and qualities that make her a candidate for the job. This example also provides a framework for the idea of visibility vs. invisibility. This contradictory binary sets up people of color in a way that is both highly visible and inherently invisible. These visible aspects are what make people of color “stand out in a crowd”, essentially how they are defined and identified as a minority, i.e. the color of their skin, the style of their hair, etc., which is usually how we construct our opinions on people of color (think racial profiling). The invisible, internal aspects that construct people of color on a unique basis are obviously overshadowed by the visible aspects of how society defines the race as a whole, via stereotypes such as lazy, uneducated, unprofessional, etc. These “visible” aspects are rarely substantiated, and they are also the only aspects taken into consideration when stereotypically defining people of color. With all of these ideas in mind, we can begin to understand how society’s influence over our perceptions can twist what we know to be true into a false idea of what we perceive to be true.

With all of these points in mind, it is easy to conclude that racism, oppression, and discrimination are all currently thriving in our society. However, I do remain hopeful that one day we will be able to eliminate all of these problematic frameworks that operate in the United States. The first step in doing so is education. When I first discussed the topic of this essay with my peers who are not of color, many had never given a second thought to the idea of perceived professionalism; but once they were allowed a moment for analysis and self reflection, they agreed how problematic it is as a means of oppression and discrimination in our society. The next step is action. At first, as a white woman, I felt that I had no business placing myself into this conversation that deals almost exclusively with women of color; but upon further reflection, I saw how wrong I was in this assumption. These women are dealing with a symptom of oppression that almost all women know too well: the pressure to be something you are not, or cannot be. Like most women, I have been subjected to the media’s impossible beauty standards, self-consciousness surrounding my weight, my height, and even my femininity. Although my experiences are very different and arguably less oppressive than those that women of color face, there is no reason that I cannot channel my inner anger, frustration, and disappointment with society to help fuel their agenda for equality. There is no “rule” of feminism (or at least, there shouldn’t be) that maintains a hierarchy that determines which issues are more important to attain and in what order we should address them. So, although solidarity across racial lines can present some problems, I truly believe if we do not merely “set aside” our differences, but embrace our diverse backgrounds, experiences, and methods of oppression, we can connect with a much greater audience, unify a much greater community, and yell a much louder message. For all of these reasons, I encourage women of all backgrounds to proudly support one another regardless of skin color, hairstyle, or origin because if we do our “One day….” dreamy description of equality may not be so far into the future after all.

Works Cited

“Epistemology.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Gonzalez, Susonnah. “Hair Relaxers: The Facts.” Hair Relaxers: The Facts. NaturallyCurly.com, 15 Nov. 2010. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Good Hair. Dir. Jeff Stilson and Jenny Hunter. By Lance Crouther and Chris Rock. Prod. Nelson George. Perf. Chris Rock, Maya Angelou, Al Sharpton. Madman, 2009. DVD.

Hill, India. “Viewpoint: How Is Natural, African-American Hair Viewed in the Workplace? | USA TODAY College.” Web log post. USA Today Educate. Redd Lipstick Blog, 1 July 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Kohan, Jenji. “Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 7, “Blood Donut”” Netflix. Lionsgate Television. 11 July 2013. Television.

Moe. “‘Glamour’ Editor To Lady Lawyers: Being Black Is Kinda A Corporate “Don’t”” Jezebel. Jezebel, 14 Aug. 2007. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Wilson, Julee. “Black Women Worry That Their Natural Hair Could Affect Job Employment Or Retention.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 05 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Wilson, Julee. “Hampton University’s Cornrows And Dreadlock Ban: Is It Right?” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Aug. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

Wilson, Julee. “Rhonda Lee Fired: TV Station Responds To Meteorologist’s Claim She Was Fired For Facebook Comments About Her Natural Hair.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 29 Oct. 2013.

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