Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Postcolonial grey hair

Photographer: Vanessa Mills. MUA: Tori Model: me
I was invited to have tea by my son and his girlfriend at their new flat. The conversation at the table took a nice turn. We were talking about body image, as this is what I am interested in at the moment, especially through my connection with All Walks. The Girlfriend told me that by Korean standards - she is from Korea -  I would be a plus size and that my white hair would be 'abhorred'. After a moment of slight discomfort, during which I instinctively pushed the plate with the gorgeous slice of chocolate cake well away from me, lest I took a mouthful too many, I began to process the statement.
I could not get my head around it. Not the plus size - I know Asian women tend to be very slender and petite and on these terms, I am a plus size -  but the white hair bit. Surely going grey affects all ethnicities. Why this horror of grey? I was puzzled.
Later at home I came across an article by Mary Crescenzo in the Huffington Post and that held some of the answers.
Yes, I tend to take for granted that silver hair is beautiful, partly because many of my friends are  involved in  the 'Embrace your Silver' movement.  But a great many people truly do not think grey hair is beautiful. Definitely not. And that goes for both men and women. Here I am referring to our western culture and society and the views that prevail.
My son, for example, is twenty seven and having inherited my genes, is going grey. He hates it and has confessed to plucking his grey hair out - big mistake by the way, because it grows stronger and it multiplies (been there, done that). 'Why?', I asked him. 'Just because' he says, his favourite answer since his teens, meaning 'none of your business'.  But now, having read  Crescenzo's piece I can guess. 'Want to rise in the corporate world? ' writes Crescenzo 'White hair will get you nowhere' - Crescenzo uses 'grey' (in its American spelling 'gray') and 'white' interchangeably and refers to both men and women.
So for educated, go getter women living in Asia, aspiring to go up the corporate ladder, going grey is associated with being a granny and with living in the village. Who wants that image?
Out of curiosity, I scoured the internet for pictures of Asian women with grey hair and the only one I was able to track down, amongst a myriad of "old toothless white haired woman from x village" part of ethnological collections, was  a picture of the incredibly beautiful and elegant Aung San Suu Kyi, sporting some grey at the temples.  Of course Aung San Suu Kyi is a formidable role model, but in a different way. She is a freedom fighter, an intellectual and a martyr. A heroine, willing to sacrifice personal family ties to stand up for democracy. She is definitely not an average woman, by any standard. She also stands up for tradition, so it suits her to have delicately greying temples, wearing traditional Burmese attire.

Aung San Suu Kyi. Google images
Crescenzo reminds us that in our western society 'when men in ads have gray hair, the women beside them do not. Unless you're Mrs. Santa, the mean witch or a kind Grandma with an apron and a tray of cookies, you are cast on your way to the grave...When female stars date younger men, they make sure their hair is anything but white."
And these are the images that are touted globally. So it is no surprise that Asian women not planning to emulate Aung San Suu Kyi, women who feel less heroic perhaps, much prefer to reach for the dye bottle, caught up as they are in the just fight to be perceived as independent, working women of today, equal to men, working in male dominated environments. It's a case of internalising western aesthetic values.
I occasionally worry that the 'Embrace your Silver' movement may remain the preserve of a few middle class Caucasian women,  rather like feminism when it began. However, as Crescenzo reminds us, ageing cuts across social, racial and, to some extent, cultural barriers - even though it remains a cultural construct.  Perhaps it is time to subject 'the Going Gray Movement'  to some postcolonial rethinking.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Lets talk about ...Julien Blanc

Photo by Nagib. Model : me 

Back from a great ballet class,  I sat myself on the sofa and began to read The Guardian on my iPad while lunch was cooking  and came across Ms Hyde's piece for Comment is Free in which she argues that Julien Blanc, the American pick up artist who encourages men to be abusive, should be allowed in. According to Hyde immigration control is worthless,  because his ideas, thanks to the internet, have a global remit. Yes, he should be allowed in, she says, because if he has truly committed any crime he should be investigated, but denying him entry makes no sense, because liberty as a principle is at stake: "the trade-off between liberty and security, in which so-called security has too often prevailed in recent years" should be avoided.
Excuse me?
It's good I had not eaten lunch yet when I read this piece, I was actually about to, but I felt sick in the stomach and had to delay it. I like the French word 'bouleversé' it really conveys how I felt.
No, I truly think that Julien Blanc should not be allowed into Britain. I am so glad Australia curtailed his stay and threw him out. Well done! I have signed the online petition  and I urge you, male or female, to sign it too.
Blanc is racist. He has said in Japan that 'white men can do as they please' so they can force any Japanese girl to suck their cock. The seduction techniques he teaches are abusive and entail forcing women to have sex and endorsing domestic violence, both physical and emotional.
Sorry Ms Hyde, I really cannot condone this. Far too many women have had experience of abuse and even if you have not, please spare a thought for those who have. Some of your closest friends may be among them, only you may not know, because women who have been subjected to domestic violence are loath to talk about it in public. That's my experience.
It is not up to the UK government to investigate Blanc's alleged crimes. He should be denied entry precisely because there are such allegations - with videos and social media statements to prove them.
Even if what he says is meant to be humorous, as someone has noted, this is still unacceptable in the same way that racist jokes are unacceptable. Why is it that when women are concerned there is such a lax attitude?
This is Julien Blanc' s adaptation of a Domestic Abuse Intervention Project chart. Does it not make you sick?

If it is a joke, it is unbelievably crass. If it is real, this man deserves to be given a taste of his own medicine.
But what beats me is that so many men are willing to part with good money to be taught this rubbish. Is this what men believe they have to do to find themselves partners? Is it a believable proposition?

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Plus size, normal size

Myla Dalbesio Photo: Lachlan Bailey for Calvin Klein.

There has been a lot of talk about model Myla Dalbesio who appears in a new Calvin Klein campaign. At 5'11 (180.34 cm) she is US size 10 (UK size 14). Compared to other agency models of the same or similar height who wear a US size 4 or less  she has a fuller figure, so she is being slotted in the 'plus size'. The plus size category is rather fluid and it goes up to 18 and 20.
Of course thousands of people have commented that Dalbesio is normal size and absolutely gorgeous. She definitely is. And yes, for her height, her size is perfect. She may be 'plus' in comparison to the slighter models, but she is perfectly proportioned, and her body is toned and athletic. So far so good. If being aspirational is part of what being a model is about, Myla Dalbesio is aspirational in the best possible way.
I am just slightly concerned however that the whole debate on size hardly ever takes height and musculature into account. At 5'11 being size 14 (I am now using British sizes so that no one gets confused, I am writing from the UK) is absolutely in proportion, normal, if you are fond of that very overused word. At 5'1 (154.94 cm) size 14 is not quite in proportion, it is definitely an indication of being somewhat  overweight, especially if the bone structure is light.
What I am trying to say is that being of this or that size is pretty meaningless. It is the relationship between body type, weight and height that matters. Being very overweight is as unhealthy as being severely underweight. If a 5'3 woman says she is size 18 and loves her curves, good for her, but technically she is overweight, with all the disadvantages that being overweight entails, from a medical viewpoint.

Photographer: Jeremy Howitt. Model: me

I love this ad because it does not distinguish between 'normal' and 'skinny'. All the models appear together and the caption under Dalbesio's picture is 'Perfect Fit'. What could be more complimentary than that?
Some model agencies  still put pressure on the girls to lose weight, unnecessarily. A model friend, 5'11, size 8, 60 Kg in weight was told by her former agency she should shed at least five kilos to be a 'regular' model. She quit the agency and found another almost immediately: with her look, still in her early twenties, she can find modelling work quite easily, without losing any weight.
We need to rethink the whole issue of sizes without fixating on the actual number. The whole discourse on body shape and body size should shift to considering the health factor rather than just the aesthetics. The latter is transient and can change, as the Calvin Klein new campaign shows.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Licence to rape

Jutting under arrest. Google images

The terrible news about Rurik Jutting's alleged killing in Hong Kong of two Indonesian call girls brought home to me that we still have a long way to go before violence against women can  end.  There are so many issues that this horrendous murder throws up. I will not concern myself here with Jutting and his possible mental illness, though I am taken aback that no one ever spotted any sign of instability in his behaviour - or perhaps they did not wish to concern themselves?  I really want to spare a thought for  the two women that have died in such a  horrific way. They were from rural Indonesia and they were trying to support their families by sending money back home. Prostitution was a choice  but one forced upon them by their lack of  prospects and precarious living conditions as immigrants with no work permits. I was once told by a woman I met at a bar, who ran a call girl agency and was very open about it, always on the lookout for new 'girls' of any age, that the only reason why her 'girls' were involved was money, no matter what they would say to their clients (I love sex, it is what  makes me really happy, they would invariably have on their internet profiles, with photos showing them pouting and emphasising their enhanced curves).
I used to think that prostitution could be a choice and that the women that did it had agency. I was persuaded by 1970s calls by activists to find ways to give back dignity to the women that engaged in prostitution, by calling them sex workers, for example, to remove the stigma attached to the 'profession' and by emphasising that they provided a service for which they were remunerated.

Dr Brooke Magnanti. Google images

I was persuaded by the eloquence of Dr Brooke Magnanti, former call girl, anthropologist and scientist, now university professor and author of the blog that went viral, Belle de Jour: diary of a London call girl, later published as a paperback, that prostitution could be a fun choice and a way of expressing one's sexuality.
When author Sheila Jeffreys published her book Ideas of Prostitution in 1997 (but I read it in 2008) I found her arguments somewhat extreme. But today I am reconsidering what she  said. The problem with prostitution is that no matter how the women may see themselves, no matter how  totally certain they are of doing it by choice and that sex work is a service they sell, the men who use them see them only as sex objects, and automatically regard themselves as being granted a licence to rape and commit acts of violence on their bodies because they are paying them. And these men find that very exciting. Not every punter or 'john' ends up killing the prostitute they use, but among prostitutes stories of violence on their person abound.
Rape is not a sexual act, though it masquerades as one. Prostitution gives men a licence to rape. How can it be a choice?

Monday, 3 November 2014

Is it really paedophilia?

I am very aware of the fact that sexual abuse is rampant, children are trafficked around the world for sex and subjected to the most horrific tortures for sexual gratification. I am also very aware that children in our culture are sexualised from a very early age, they learn in school about being 'sexy' well before reaching puberty and sometimes people very flippantly would describe a cute outfit for a child as 'a sexy number', forgetting that children should not be seen by adults as sexy, it is the wrong mind set.
But I am at a loss for words to describe how I feel about what happened in Paris a couple of days ago. Photographer Diane Ducruet, an established artist whose work has received much acclaim, saw her work removed from the Gallery that had invited her to exhibit because of some anonymous online accusations of paedophilia and some threats.
This is Ducruet's offending photograph, showing a mother and daughter intertwined, yet the piece is abstract because it is a composite so what you think you might  be seeing  is not necessarily what  it is

Apparently even more offending was the invite where again you see the mother kissing the daughter:

I don't know about you, but I do remember playing a game with my son when he was a toddler - way back, does time not fly? I would pretend to eat him and he would do the same to me, have you never played this game with your children?  I would not put myself in the category of paedophiles for doing that nor would anyone else (I hope!). The point I am making is that  the picture on the invite reminds me of that game.
I can see that what some people may find disturbing is the nudity, real or imagined.  Actually we don't know whether they are naked and here the fact that Diane is an artist does kick in  because art often rests on ambiguities and it's meant to be provocative. It should make you think about what you see.
I do not think there is anything untoward in any of these representations and I personally find the embrace very moving. When mothers are with their very young children they may at times be naked with them. They might take a bath with their toddlers. They might hug their young children while wearing just a bra and knickers or even topless. Nudity should not always be construed as indicative of sexual activity.
The people who objected to these pictures are probably the same kind of people who object to breastfeeding in public. Enough said.
You can read about Diane Ducruet here and also visit her website to see her body of work

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Renee Zellweger, youthfulness and identity

Photographer: Hugh Gilbert. Model: me

Oh no, I hear you say, not her again. Not Renee Zellweger. We have been swamped with news and detailed discussions of her appearance. Who cares if she has had 'work' done to her face? I totally agree, it IS a most trivial matter. But Zellweger's appearance has become an issue because of the way the media and the public have reacted and because what underpins it is the issue of ageing.  So I feel compelled  to comment, as this concerns me, as an older woman and an older model.
Briefly, in case you were away on Mars and further afield for the past week or so: Renee Zellweger, best known for her interpretation of Bridget Jones, for which in order to portray the character she had to pile up the pounds, only to lose the extra weight  immediately after filming,  recently made a public appearance and  sent the media in a frenzy because she looked 'different'.  How different? Well, she is 45 and is a Hollywood actor, struggling to get roles because by Hollywood standards she is somewhat past it.  Like many women in her position and tinsel town dwellers, she has allegedly had botox and cosmetic surgery to ensure she looks youthful. But somehow the surgery, according to observers, seems to be obvious and her eyes seem to be somewhat rounded, in comparison to what they were  before - when she was younger. The result is that people decry she is no longer the Renee audiences fell in love with, the Bridget Jones that stole our hearts, and all this because apparently the eyes look different, now that her face is more angular.

Renee Zellweger. Google images

This is quite bizarre. Even if she had not had any work done to her face - and we do not know for sure -, even if she looked CONSIDERABLY older, which she does not, she still would not have looked they way she did when she was Bridget Jones. Everyone changes. I certainly do not look like I did at twenty or twenty five. And yes, eyes do change! Look at mine in this photo of me at three.

I recently met a woman I had not seen in years. I did not recognise her at all, she was larger, her face was not  as I remembered, she had to remind me of her name and the occasion of our meeting  before I could recollect who she was and truly, she looked nothing like her former self. Not worse, just different and older. Like I do too, to anyone who meets me after a long gap.
Zellweger looks amazing, a very well preserved 45 year old, great figure, great face. So why are people suddenly saying she does not look like herself? What is it that makes you who you are? Your hair, your eyes, your legs? Or is it something else altogether, such as your personality?
This twisted notion of having to look youthtful at all costs really bothers me. It is really warped. According to it one should be youthful but  at the same time it should not be obvious that the youthful look has been achieved through an external intervention. Zellweger's 'sin' is that she does not look ageless, she looks merely youthful, yet different from what she used to be.
I am very troubled by this idea of 'effortless agelessness', apparently women should aspire to have  a 'classic ageless' look, whatever that may be. In practice this means showing some very minor sign of ageing - perhaps a touch of  grey hair, if the hair is beautiful, but definitely an unlined or only mildly lined complexion, blemish free, and a toned, slim body, are de riguer. If you have cosmetic surgery, it should be subtle. By all means remove thread veins, and any other 'unsightly' blemish but do not let it be guessed.
It's fine to be ageless, less so to be youthful with evident help. The problem with either looks is that neither bears any resemblance to your younger self, no matter.
I will not address here the strain of unwarranted comments by those who feel entitled to a 'holier than thou attitude' and find faults with the fact that some women do have recourse to cosmetic surgery, as they grow older, claiming that this is anti-feminist. I will discuss this in a different post. All I will say is that these are personal choices, like that of dying one's hair or shaving one's armpits. Sure, they are often taken because there is pressure to look youthful, especially in the entertainment industry, but I think that  pitching one celebrity against another, claiming that one is more feminist than the other only because the 'work' she has had done is less visible as to appear non-existent, is complete nonsense.
The good thing for Zellweger is that she has received so much attention, it cannot be to her detriment in the long run. Perhaps an unplanned yet very effective PR exercise?
As we ponder on which part of our body is likely to encapsulate our 'identity', a notion the media seems to have embraced in connection with the Zellweger case, I invite you to view the inimitable Russell Brand and his comments on the case. Enjoy! (click here if you are using a mobile device)

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Christine Keeler astride a plywood chair: when images become iconic

Christine Keeler by Lewis Morley. Google Images

If there is an iconic image, it has to be that of Christine Keeler astride a plywood chair taken by Lewis Morley in 1963. Keeler is nude but the back of the chair covers her, so nothing can be seen.
I was visiting a photographer friend on Tuesday, with the idea of doing a shoot in his studio. He showed me an original print of Keeler's photograph taken by Morley and signed by Morley. It was so beautiful I practically begged him to photograph me in a similar pose, I really wanted to do my own version of this iconic image. I really wish to thank Hugh Gilbert for humouring me. You can see the image here.
Shoot ended and on the way back home, I could not help reflecting on why this image of Christine Keeler has become so famous and is so embedded in popular consciousness. The Victoria and Albert Museum has an entry on it in its online catalogue , as a gelatin silver print of Morley's endeavour is now part of its photographic collection.  Morley claims this was an accidental shot, the last exposure on the film he was using.
An exhibition of the photograph at the National Portrait Gallery in 2013 prompted Jonathan Jones to write in an article published by The Guardian that "Keeler was in a tradition of unrespectable women in the public eye that goes back to Restoration royal mistresses such as Nell Gwyn. Compare her with Charles II's lover" also at the National Portrait Gallery.
It is very hard to say why a particular image captures the imagination of millions and thus becomes iconic. Maybe it is that the image strikes us at a deep emotional level, maybe it is because it  perfectly captures an instant which cannot be replicated and has a ring of truth, no, authenticity, about it.
It is not just photographs that achieve this status of being instantly recognisable, of speaking directly to someone at an emotional level. Paintings do too. Or images like the wayang (Javanese shadow puppet theatre), replicated even on tees, which have become signifiers of Indonesian culture.
As author Martha Tedeschi states,  “Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture.”
I guess Christine Keeler's astride a chair has achieved this status, starting off as a popular image and making its way into repositories of high culture, such as museums and art galleries. 
 Martin Kemp  writes that truly iconic images accrue legends:  extraordinary images demand an extraordinary explanation. Morley's photograph of Keeler shares in this tradition, stories about it abound.
Why so? I am not sure. We all recognise iconic images but it becomes enormously difficult to say why they are so. This mystery makes them even more alluring, enhancing their iconicity.

A friend and member of deviantArt wrote the following comment (I usually  plug my blogposts on dA):
The nature of the "iconic" also interests me... how does an image become so? It's easier, I suppose when it directly captures a specific moment of triumph or trauma shared by millions... the moon landing, The crowd at Martin Luther King's death pointing toward the shooter, etc. In part that photo was associated with a moment in history, the Profumo Scandal, as well as a visual allusion to the newness and differentness of social mores of the time... it helps that Keeler was such a beautiful young woman... who better to be the face of such a moment? But even now that Cold War politics and the pretence of "respectability" amongst those in high places have washed away, the image remains and still has power. I sometimes liken it to parapsychologists' hypothesis of how a haunting works... a moment of such emotional energy occours that it leaves some kind of "print" on a place that some people can feel. Don't know if I truly believe in ghosts... but socially, the iconic image, the moment that leaves behind a symbolic impression that encapsulates an entire experience seems to work like that.

Very well said!