Using the Systems

For years, until the paper it was typed on began to yellow and crumble, I had a quote from Alan Watts prominently displayed on my refrigerator. It said something about learning to use the system so that it doesn’t use you. Following that advice is what make me successful in a job where its bureaucratic governmental system was famous for regularly chewing up independent thinkers and spitting them out to look for less stressful ways to support themselves.
As I continue to mull over how to use this system that’s called “blogging” so that I’m not being used BY IT, I can’t help noticing all the ads on tv for the Victoria Secret’s fashion show that’s coming up in a few days, and I stop to read a piece about the show and model Tyra Banks that’s in my local TV listings.
Now, I don’t have anything against astoundingly gorgeous women. I wish I were one myself. I don’t have anything against wearing make-up and sexy clothes. I’ve been known to painstakingly apply them myself on myself.
I do hate the message about what’s important about being female that ads like Victoria’s Secret’s spread so enticingly. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.
This is about being smart about using a system that you’re in so that it doesn’t use you. And Tyra Banks seems to be doing that, not only doing well what she does and enjoying it, but using her initial success in that system to move up in the system. She formed her own modelling agency, actively produced “America’s Next Top Model” (which I actually watched a few times) and apparently produced the upcoming VS television fashion show. In her interview, she says
They thought that all was just going to come in, do my on-camera stuff, and just leave and take the producing credit. But I was there right through the budgeting and the lighting and the editing.
Even the music cues you hear on the show ere eeither approved or changed by me. If I say I want the girls to wear clown noses, everybody will look at me like I’m crazy, but they’ll do it.

Now maybe that’s just PR hype by her publicist, but it provides an example to younger females that smart and ambitious women, who also happen to be beautiful, can intelligently use the system in which they become famous to their ongoing professional advantage. And they it’s OK to have fun doing what you make money doing.
On the other hand (or maybe not), according to my favorite local Sunday newspaper columnist Diane Cameron, Vogue magazine has provided the front money, along with cosmetic manufacturing companies, to open a beauty school in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Cameron writes:
Does that seem a paradox? The burka comes off, but mascara, liner and lipstick replace it? It’s certainly a mixed blessing to have won the freedom to participate in the dominant culture’s pressure toward high standards of attractiveness and grooming. This seems a situation where women exchange one kind of social oppression for another. One woman’s constraint may be another’s liberation.
She also says:
There is another facet, though, to this beauty school endeavor. The beauty business is, after all, a business, and this program will teach work skills. Vogue’s Kabul salon project is a form of economic development. Beauty salons are a good option, because they can be started at home and they have needed flexibility for women who are supporting families.
But, as Cameron says at the end of her piece:
…we have to always remember the unspoken credo of the beauty industry: Make up, make over and make money.
That’s the delimma women face in trying to be successful in a world where the values — for beauty and sensuality; for financial success, for professional success, and even for personal success — are set and maintained largely by males (not all males, but certainly lots of them) and those females who have bought into that set of values. We have two choices: we can fight the system and refuse to “buy” into what really is a system based on valuing the superficial or we can use that system and, in the process, add substance and deeper human values. I’m not saying that one way works better than the other. I’t can work either way.
I’m not saying that Banks is doing that necessarily. But she could. And I don’t think that the Kabul beauty school will be doing that. But it could. It would mean creatively taking an existing skewed sexist system and transforming it, from within, to better the position that women are in within that system — to expand the choices that women have over how to live their lives, to affirm that we can enjoy enhancing our “femaleness” externally while still demonstating (and insisting on being treated respectfully for) our fundamental professional and intellectual strengths. One choice doesn’t have to preclude the other.
That’s what feminism has always been about for me — my choice to be externally female (make-up, stylish clothes and all) and still be acknowledged, respected, and rewarded for my fundamental knowledge, experience, accomplishments, and intellegence. And not just as a professional, but as a mother, grandmother, caregiver, and poet. (Heh. And also as a bitch, witch, harridan, and hag.)
Thanks, Shelley, for stirring up my ashes and getting my fire going again. I ain’t giving up on this, and I sure hope that you don’t.

5 thoughts on “Using the Systems

  1. Elaine, I enjoyed your spirited return to blogging and the way you are looking at how women can use the beauty business, rather than be used by it. I agree with you

  2. Yes, of course the cosmetic industry is investing there because they’re going to get something out of it. No for-profit enterprise is going to do something for nothing. The challenge is how to figure out how to use them. Maybe, for example, they might be willing to funnel some of their profits back into the community for education or health.
    Maybe there isn’t a way to make it a win-win situation; I don’t know. And yes, I’m sure that there are other business ventures that would better serve both the women and the larger community. But I don’t see any other money-making enterprises getting in line to ante up. As I said; it’s a dilemma. It’s also the reality. How do we make reality work for us? How can the women in Baghdad make Vogue’s reality work for them?

  3. Ooops. I meant Kabul not Baghdad.
    And, in a similar vein, how can the women webloggers who feel excluded from the central activities of this system change things? They seem to want to get into the male-dominated box. I’m saying that there must be a way to get everyone out of the box. Or to box in the box. Or to build a better box.
    Obviously, I have a thing about feeling boxed in.

  4. I am with you on that box-busting move, Elaine … and it would be great to see cosmetics as the way to change women’s lives in Kabul in ways undreamt of more traditional feminist approaches or even the cosmetics companies who are funding the venture … all of it which would really bust a few boxes, wouldn’t it?

  5. I am one of the founders and trainers at the kabul beauty school. When i read the comments about the beauty school in kabul i must say i am saddened. I am not sure if the people realize that so many of the women in afghanistan can not read and write. doing hairdressing keeps them from begging and will feed there family. I think also one thing that the people dont realize is that the beauty salons have alway played a large roll for the women of afghanistan. The women have always cared for there hair and makeup much more than we do in the states. THis is a proud profession for the women of kabul. Often the women who are hairdresser make more money than there husbands. We are doing much more than just teaching them hairdressing. We are giving them hope and giving them a chance to have a brighter future. We are not changing them. we are giving them the skills to do what they have always done. Now when they give a haircut or color or perm they have the knowledge to do it correct. we also teach them bussiness classes. but the most important thing we do is become there friend and there familys friend. kabul has changed my life for the better and it is the afghan women who through there courage and strenth i have been able to face things in my life that i could never face before. we are not going into kabul and trying to make them westeren. why spoil a beautiful culture. they are perfect just the way they are. we just want to help then any way we can. If i was a reading teacher i would teach them to read. but i am a hairdresser so i teach them hair.

Leave a Reply to Elaine Cancel reply