(Social Justice) Skeletons in My Closet

Shopping, specifically for clothes, is another awful guilty pleasure that I have given in to ever since high school, when the “shopping” switch got flipped in my head and I went from hating even thinking about clothes to getting excited about playing dress-up every day!

On one hand, this is a positive thing for me since my love of clothes stems from the hard-won acceptance of my body. On the other hand, my passion for clothing takes up a lot of time that I could spend doing more fulfilling things (like blogging or hanging out with friends or baking cupcakes), sucks up money (that I really could be spending better), and takes up way more space than I have. Beyond that, the way that I shop doesn’t currently fall in line with my passion for Social Justice.

I’d like to explore that last factor for a little while. The environmental harm of the inexpensive fast-fashion that I favor (because I don’t have the money to spend on “high-fashion”) has already been said much better than I can by other bloggers and journalists, ditto on the human-rights issues that come with these retailers. What I want to focus on is something that I haven’t seen as much said about… the racism (in the form of erasure) exhibited by many clothing retailers.

I was browsing the Forever21 website today (with no intent to spend money, I just wanted some mindless distraction) and all of a sudden I was just struck with how white every. single. model. on the site was. This inspired me to do a little quasi-experiment: I spent 5 minutes clicking randomly around the websites for stores I usually shop from, and keeping track of how many people of color I saw depicted on those sites, in larger fashion shots or modeling specific articles of clothing for sale.

Here are my results…

Forever21: 5 Images (all of the same model) in the Forever21 Plus Size Section.

Urban Outfitters: 15 Images dispersed throughout all Women’s sections, except for Intimates, and 0 Images in the Men’s section. (Approximately 3 different models.)

Modcloth: 15 Images (of the same model) all concentrated in the “Style Sealed with a Kiss” Special Feature. Since Modcloth photographs almost everything on a dress-form instead of a person, the numbers are skewed. The amount of diversity on the site varies depending on the model(s) chosen  for the special “feature” (where full outfits are shown on an actual person) in any given week. However, this site consistently tends to include a wide variety of models and often uses employees and bloggers as models, which encourages a much more diverse bunch of people showing up in their photo-shoots! Since they have hundreds less photos of people than sites like Forever21 and Urban Outfitters do a number like 15 makes up a MUCH larger percentage of the pictures on this site, thus, I consider them much better than Urban Outfitters even though the number is the same.

H&M: 11 Images (of two models) dispersed throughout all features. H&M doesn’t offer an online shopping option for the US, but they have a “Style Guide” and a few photo-shoots up on the site that all feature a variety of models. Again, the same points about volume of images as I made about Modcloth applies.

I think we get the point. Obviously this isn’t a very scientific study… for one, I was simply counting models based on a split-second assessment of their appearance, I very well may have missed a few images that should have been counted in my browsing. Furthermore, the entire concept of race is a social construct and there is no way to tell what a person identifies their own ethnicity as by looking at them (asking is the only way to do that).

There are without a doubt hard limits to what we can take from these observations, however thought experiments like this can reveal a company’s tendency to hire models that fit a certain mold (thin light-skinned women with stereotypically Caucasian features… you know, the dominant Western standard of beauty). Its fairly easy to see this when companies like Forever21 hire this type of model almost exclusivley and companies like Urban Outfitters only photograph a tiny fraction of their clothing on people of color.

Okay, so, lets assume that you’re on board with my conclusions about these hiring practices… why does this matter? On the surface it seems fairly superficial, I totally acknowledge this, but I also believe that once you start to scratch at that surface  it is easy to realize that this is a small piece of a much larger cultural initiative that impacts a great number of people in a powerful way.

First of all: this tendency, across the board, to hire a specific type of model keeps women of color from having a fair chance at being a model if that is what they want to do with their lives.

Deeper than that,  for all people (even those without modeling aspirations) constantly seeing only one type of beauty depicted over and over again everywhere you look can really take a toll on their self-esteem. This relentlessly pushed standard is a major factor in why hair relaxers, skin-whitening creams, and plastic surgery (especially on eyes and noses) are so profitable… when people feel so pressured to fit into this narrow definition of beauty (that matches up with the features that white women stereotypically possess) it follows that that they would be much more willing to spend a ton of money, and risk their health, to meet that  narrowly defined ideal as well as they can.

This video shows an example of the impact that these ubiquitous standards of beauty can have. Only one child involved with this experiment choose the black barbie as “prettiest” which says a lot to me. I wish this video had detailed all of the results but I choose it because it also highlighted two other older studies that came up with similar (if not more disheartening) results; I think it is important to see that this experiment comparatively indicates that things are getting a bit better, but we still have a long way to go.

I feel very strongly that it is time to push myself to spend money in a way that is more in line with my values, which has lead to the following personal commitment:

I will purchase clothing and other indulgences from a thrift store, an independent retailer (like Etsy!), or an awesomely ethical shop like People Tree whenever possible, and turn to the most ethically-sound companies I can find when this is not possible. When I am considering a purchase I will commit to donating half the cost of that purchase to a charity that I am passionate about, or put it towards a project that will benefit other people.

This works on two levels: the first resolution commits me to avoiding shops that have negative practices (be it in terms of labor, supplies, or the organizations that company supports) and the second allows me to decide if this is a purchase that I really need to make by upping the cost a bit, while also encouraging me to support my favorite organizations.

I challenge everyone who reads this to take a guilty pleasure in your life and try to figure out how to make it at least a little bit more ethical! If you do so feel free to let me know in the comments or write a blog post about it (and let me know so I can link you here)!

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