I regularly cringe when watching the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, gala fundraisers and any other red carpet event that draws the A-List celebrities, when time and time again, the almost exclusive focus of the media is on the choice of dress, shoes and jewelry. And so it was when even traditional news sources, like CNN, joined in the debate about Michelle Obama’s choice of outfit and designer for the Inauguration and Inaugural Balls.
Of course Americans love fashion as an art form in and of itself, and of course we are attracted to and inspired by our national icons that embody our conceptions of beauty and femininity. I further honor Mrs. Obama for choosing to support a 26 year-old up and coming designer, Jason Wu, which echoes our new President’s embrace of the capacity of the young generation.
However, we – especially we women – have taken our obsession with fashion and beauty to the point where we eclipse the substance of character that we have fought to define us as women above physical image. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that fashion is anti-feminine or that beauty and brains are mutually exclusive. But our pursuit and fascination with the former has been at the expense of a celebration of the latter.
At a time when we still fight for equal wages for women in this country and where women globally, for the most part, exist as second-class citizens, we simultaneously, albeit unintentionally, participate in sabotaging our legitimacy as a gender. This also extends to every day choices. I wonder how many women would buy that expensive dress, suit or slacks if they knew that women between the ages of 15 and 22 are said to represent 90 percent of sweatshop workers, and that human trafficking, child labor and meager wages of pennies per hour for 12 hour shifts still plague the garment industry worldwide. In part, our choices as the most privileged and intensive consumers in the West drive the market that allows for the oppression of the most vulnerable women in the East. Are we okay with that?
On the other hand, New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, for whom I have the deepest respect, challenges us to think beyond the sweatshop issue in addressing global poverty, in his article, “Where Sweatshops are a Dream”, on Jan. 15. He describes the choices facing Cambodia’s poorest, where working inside a sweatshop for pennies is the ambition of many whose other job choices include prostitution and scavenging through garbage dumps in the hot sun for food and items they can sell. Kristof says: “Nhep Chanda averages 75 cents a day for her efforts. For her, the idea of being exploited in a garment factory — working only six days a week, inside, instead of in the broiling sun, for up to $2 a day — is a dream.” Instead of launching global campaigns against sweatshops in pursuit of labor standards, our focus should be on investing in the manufacturing industries of poor countries, he argues.
So what are we and our new administration to do? Make conscious, informed choices with an understanding of both our individual and collective impact on the world in a larger, more comprehensive context. Advance policy that does not arbitrarily impose American values in ways that constrict and impair the developing world from achieving the steps necessary to rise out of poverty. Design corporate codes of conduct and trade policy that in partnership with foreign countries and development agencies proactively support responsible and sustainable economic growth.
But it would also help if consumers made conscious fashion choices, where possible, that advanced the rights and opportunity of women on a global scale. If we, as women, could feel more connected to each other globally based on our gender, rather than nationality or economic class. And if the media, stopping a celebrity on the red carpet chose to ask, “What is your cause?” instead of “Who are you wearing?”