Tea Talk is the feature where ITF editors and various inspiring women have a candid discussion about what’s it’s like to be a woman today. Camilla Ackley speaks with writer and model, Rosalind Jana, about body image, modelling and the empowering nature of creativity…
Camilla: I think we should start with a very general question, what does feminism mean to you? I know it’s not easy, it’s become such a loaded question recently but I find it interesting how different women perceive the movement.
Rosalind: I was actually thinking about this the other day as I was rewriting the section on feminism in my book, I think it is difficult because when people ask me I just want to say ‘equality is a good thing, and not just gender equality’. I think it’s about several things; it’s about trying to create a society where women, and men can make active choices that aren’t impinged my certain cultural or societal structures. It’s about being able to have a voice and listen to other people’s voices. One of the best definitions that I’ve come across is from Belle Hooks, ‘feminism is a movement to end sexist oppression’. Even if you haven’t personally experiences sexism, your experience isn’t the only valid one.
Camilla: Exactly; I’ve found lately that there is such a negative reaction to the word ‘feminism’. So when people ask me if I’m a feminist, I say that I believe in equality between men and women. I don’t believe anyone should have a privilege based on anything they’re born with; people are people. We should judge based on character, and if it’s more effective for me to get my point across by dropping the word ‘feminism’, then the important thing is getting that point across and achieving that equality. If someone can’t see past the word, I think it’s more about fighting for what the word means than the word itself. I do think it’s sad that the word has gained that negative connotation recently.
Rosalind: I entirely agree because I do feel quite conflicted; on the one hand I like doing practical feminism, showing it without using the label. Like when I’m talking about labour rights for women in the fashion industry, or body image, or representation of women in the media. I think those are all feminist issues, but you don’t have to couch them within an exclusively feminist framework by using that word. On the other side, I do think it’s an important word: it acknowledges such a long history that came before our generation. There’s always something to be said for the power behind a word: it is significant and I think it’s worth discussing why we should keep using it.
Camilla: So in creative industries like writing, blogging and modelling, which you have experience with directly, do you think that there is more of an equality? Are there still certain issues faced specifically by women?
Rosalind: I think I’ve been incredibly fortunate with the experiences that I’ve had because in terms of inequality, the only things I’ve experienced have been to do with my age rather than my gender.
Camilla: I’ve had the same problems.
Rosalind: Yeah, so people think that you’re very young and inexperienced, so you’re worth patronising. Having said that, with something like modelling I know enough other people and stories to say that, although it’s an industry where women are the top earners, it’s still an industry that has a long way to go in terms of how models are treated, in terms of making sure they aren’t exploited by photographers. I think we need to talk about the fact that there are still some difficult things faced particularly by women in modelling. Blogging is different; it’s quite a separate category.
Camilla: I agree; blogging doesn’t fall under the same category as modelling. It is quite a female dominated industry though, still. Do you think that there’s a conflict in endorsing the fashion industry and having a more feminist viewpoint?
Rosalind: No: although it is something I’ve given an awful lot of thought to, and wrangled with in many ways. I think that style can be something that is empowering, joyful, playful; anything that can make you feel like that is a good thing, regardless of your gender. That being said, I feel like the fashion industry as a business has a lot to answer for; I’d rather engage intelligently with fashion and modelling in a way that means I could also critique and subvert stuff from the inside out. So for example, with modelling; even though this sounds ridiculous, I’m a size 10 and I can’t do mainstream modelling work. I can do other work; I write and I blog alongside that. It’s more about taking the good elements and utilising them, and criticising the problematic elements and looking to change those.
Camilla: I think that’s a good approach; it seems irrational to completely slam an entire industry, picking it apart is so much more useful and so much more progressive. I also think, there was that Calvin Klein advert with a ‘plus sized model’; you look her up and she’s actually, what? A UK12? I just think for someone who is sometimes a UK12, to look at that and be told you’re plus sized…
Rosalind: It’s ridiculous.
Camilla: It’s such a conflict because you look in the mirror in the morning and think you’re perfectly healthy, I’m probably on the better side of healthy. But then this industry that you love being a part of and that you think is wonderful in so many ways, to have that tell you that you are not perfect. It’s a twisted idea of perfect; it isn’t based on anything real. It’s hard to put myself in someone’s shoes who isn’t so interested with the industry, do they face the same conflict?
Rosalind: Even if you’re not actively involved within it, not creating stuff for it, the fashion industry manifests itself in so many ways. People read magazines, they read fashion blogs even if they’re not running them, they see advertising; I think it does breed a lot of insecurity, particularly female insecurity. The sadly quite relentless message is that women are the sum of their looks, and that’s in most creative industries; in film, in fashion, in modelling, in music. It ignores this huge sway of other skills and achievements that women can and do have. I find that intensely frustrating.
Camilla: What kind of women can you think of, maybe in writing or modelling, that for you are pioneering a new way of looking at these kinds of problems?
Rosalind: So many!
Camilla: Such a long list.
Rosalind: One of my favourites is a model called Naomi Shimada. She is a plus sized model, but she embodies this really wonderful and happy way of living, which is about loving food and having a good life and looking absolutely beautiful while doing it. She does it in a really earthy way. In terms of writing, I’m not sure: I do still really admire people like Tavi [Gevinson]. She has been pioneering by doing something with Rookie in giving a platform to so many different young voices. She’s given those voices validity. She has an honesty in what she does.
Camilla: Exactly! So often young girls are told their opinions don’t matter, or they’re silly or frivolous. I actually think sometimes the voice of the slightly naive, not ignorant, person can tell you a lot more about a situation; there is an honesty. You have such a different point of view; older generations can be more bitter and jaded by past experiences. I wonder if young voices open up a new way of thinking.
Rosalind: I think it allows for an optimist that is so necessary right now; it may change over time, but right now it’s important to have that for our generation. You don’t have to believe you can change the world, but it is important to feel like you can make a difference and that your voice is heard. I think there’s something to be said for the energy and excitement of female youth, and using that while we can.
Camilla: I feel a little bit like the internet has given young women a new platform, a way of creatively expressing their opinions and struggles.
Rosalind: Absolutely; blogging and twitter have given space to so many things. Voices of marginalised women; creative women. It gives them a way to connect, I mean that’s certainly what it did for me. I think the downside is that to be a woman on the internet is still to be in a slightly more dangerous position, especially if you’re speaking about feminism.
Camilla: It’s simultaneously exciting and scary.
Rosalind: We need to have a discussion about why the internet and hate is still gendered. Creative industries give women a place to decide whether they want to subvert or follow conventions, what kind of person they want to be and how they want to communicate. There’s something so radical in the way that creativity and style allows you to be your own person, and be proud of that.
Rosalind Jana’s book, ‘Notes on Being Teen’, is out next summer.
Content and discussion points for Tea Talk are conceptualised by Camilla Ackley and Yasmin Moeladi.
Follow Rosalind on twitter: @RosalindJana
Follow Yasmin on instagram: @Yasminmoeladi
Follow Camilla on twitter: @CamillaAckley