Amber Rose v. Michelle Obama: The Problem with the Respectability Meme

It was just a few weekends ago that Amber Rose became the umpteenth person to attempt to “break the internet” with her balcony bikini shot. But this past weekend I saw this:

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A man posted this on Instagram along with the caption, “My mother always told me there are only two types of women in the world…Those you marry and those you ‘date.'” Needless to say, I was mad for Amber Rose and tired of comments like this.

For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about respectability down to what it means for a woman to wear a certain color suit to an interview and risk not being respected because of it. I realized that respectability is largely in the eyes of the beholder and for women that beholder is usually men–but also sometimes other women. In this instance, the beholder is a black man–although quite a few black women chimed in to affirm the message of this image and his caption and, of course, his mother is the origin of this thinking. But there are so many problems with this respectability meme.

Amber Rose at the VH1 Movie Awards (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Is she respectable marriage material now or nah? (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

First, to juxtapose Amber Rose in her bathing suit with Michelle Obama in a dress on two clearly different occasions and imply that one deserves respect while the other doesn’t is not logical. This was Amber Rose relaxing on vacation not Amber Rose in the supermarket or at a formal event. It’s comparing apples to oranges. How about using an image of them both in similar situations and seeing where you land then? (Although it’s pretty hard to find a picture of Michelle Obama in a bathing suit.) Making the case that Amber Rose doesn’t deserve respect because of what she is wearing here–and what she wears on the regular–is no different from claiming that a woman is asking to be raped or otherwise violated because of what she chooses to wear. (Yes I made that connection and I don’t think it’s a stretch because we have evidence to affirm that some use what a woman wears for the “She was asking for it” argument.)

Yes Amber Rose’s livelihood comes from posting pictures such as her balcony bikini and for being a public figure who makes people clutch their pearls, but I don’t regard her as less worthy of my respect than Michelle Obama. If anything, I must constantly remind myself that my respect for her and women like her shouldn’t be based on what they wear but on who they are on a fundamental level–there’s a quote from a theologian or philosopher about loving human beings as ends and means but I can’t find it. And yes, I will address my “women like her” classification because I acknowledge the problematic nature of that statement. Who Amber Rose is, on a fundamental level, is a woman and a human being who deserves respect and regard before she puts a thread of clothing on. She is more than her body.

I hate that man’s IG post and caption because it relies on the thought that a woman’s worth is in her presentation rather than other defining characteristics. It is dependent on making the body the primary site of respectability and for Amber Rose, being as endowed as she is, whether she wears clothes or not, her respectability will always be in question. Is Amber Rose not more than her body–even if all she shows us is her body? And that’s another issue, as people we struggle with issues of embodiment and women such as Amber Rose end up bearing the brunt of the struggle.

I’ve long struggled with body issues related to what it means to grow into being a “shapely” or “curvy” woman–as I’ve heard people call me–and being such as a woman of faith who has lived under a special type of politics of respectability. I’ve watched myself go from being fairly thin to developing larger thighs, hips, and a noticeable backside. I didn’t start wearing figure-flattering clothes until my mid-to-late 20s when I realized that I didn’t have the problem, it was the world around me that made me afraid of my body. Yet, I’m still sometimes weary of what I wear to certain places because I don’t want to draw attention to myself or have someone think I’m “that kind of girl.” That there is even a “that kind of girl” in my mind is all thanks to a society that likes to judge a book by its cover. Bodily comportment matters in our culture and should you choose to put something on your body that is figure-flattering or just revealing, you risk being ostracized or considered a “fast-tailed girl,” a “THOT,” and whatever else they are calling women nowadays whose presentation doesn’t conform to the norm. Or it doesn’t help men flee temptation–because let’s be honest, a part of the problem is that some men project their lack of self-control on women and make us feel bad for dressing a certain way, but we are not the problem. As Jessica Williams from the Daily Show said, “Get some impulse control!”

But Amber Rose is not the only victim of the politics of respectability, even Michelle Obama, our current icon of black female respectability, has been criticized for wearing clothes that are too figure-flattering, revealing, or that are just too glamorous. So maybe we can’t win for trying. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case because there is still more room in the annals of respectability for Michelle Obama than there is for the Amber Roses of the world.

I commend Amber Rose for deciding, day after day, to live out who she is in this moment and obey her truth instead of conforming. I commend her for her expression of her womanhood because that is just what this is, one woman’s expression of her womanhood. I want more people, not just men, to get in the habit of thinking about what is at stake when we judge the Amber Roses of the world. Or anyone else whose lifestyle leads them in a different direction than what we were taught is the respectable way–and I wish we could do away with respectability altogether.

It will always be troubling to me that men, who have fewer options with which to present themselves, have the audacity to judge a woman who chooses to present and express herself in one way over the other. It is also troubling to me that a woman could tell her son that there are only two types of women in the world, the ones you marry and the ones you date. If I have a son I will never reduce women to an either/or. If I have a daughter, I will encourage her to find ways to express her womanhood however that feels natural to her–when she comes of age of course. She may grow up to be like Michelle Obama or like Amber Rose or like another woman who isn’t on the limited spectrum of women who represent respectability and non-respectability that the meme proposes. There are a lot of women between and beyond Amber Rose and Michelle Obama that a little girl could grow up to be like and all of them are worthy of the same respect and love.

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The Issues with the Abercrombie & Fitch Brand Readjustment

Yesterday many Facebook feeds lit up with filmmaker Greg Farber’s campaign against clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. Karber’s contention against A&F begins with his problem with CEO Mike Jeffries who intentionally doesn’t sell plus size clothing because he doesn’t want people who wear plus-sized clothing to wear his clothes. Jeffries says, “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” he told Salon.com in 2006. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” This landed Jeffries on Farber’s shit list, but the impetus behind his campaign is the fact that combined with not wanting to sell clothes to a particular type of person of a particular size, A&F burns all damaged and unsold clothes instead of donating them. So Farber has set out to find A&F clothes by any means necessary–save for going into a store to buy it–and give those clothes to people who are homeless. At once this seems like an admirable task because people who are homeless are getting clothes which equals them getting help in some people’s minds, but there is something else here, issues that only appear if people stop cheering for homeless people getting “shitty clothes”–as one of my friends put it.

#1: The Exploitation Issue: Karber’s primary interest in this campaign is to rebrand A&F by giving their clothes to people who are homeless, thus the people who are homeless become a means to an end and not an end in themselves. It is rather hard to tell if Karber would have started a campaign to provide people who are homeless with clothes if it wasn’t for his labor of love to shame Jeffries and A&F at large. And, what does it mean that he filmed these people who are homeless for his benefit and not theirs? It’s difficult to praise this because after the cameras stop rolling those people are still homeless just with different clothing and Farber goes back to his house and gets to edit their lives and get us all in on his campaign.

#2: The “Does this Mean Homeless People are Uncool?” Issue

Jeffries believes that certain people aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes, namely people who are plus-sized, but Karber ventures to guess there are other people who aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes. People who are poor or homeless are the other target audience because they aren’t popular nor do they have shiny, happy faces like your average A&F model. So Farber goes to find uncool people who are homeless to give A&F clothing to. In a way, Karber’s video can be interpreted as his subscribing to the very notion he is trying to reject. Is his giving clothing to people who are homeless playing a part in the ascription of the label “uncool”? Or is he saying that homeless people are cool enough to wear Abercrombie because of their intrinsic value as people? Furthermore, why spend so much time trying to get people who are homeless into clothing from A&F when you can just get them clothes, period? Or, better yet, get them into opportunities.

#3 The Bigger Picture Issue

What struck me about this entire situation is not what Karber is doing but what Jeffries and many other clothing retailers are probably doing in burning damaged or unsold clothes. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t there be a law against this or some legislation passed that requires retailers to donate unsold or damaged clothes?” It makes no sense to me that clothes–including the damaged clothing–are burned when millions are going without. Resolving this issue might put clothes on the back of many people who are poor or homeless. But “might” is the operative word because the reality of the situation is, people who are poor or homeless don’t need more clothes, they need opportunities. So what about fighting for them to get jobs at places like A&F–notice I said “like” and not “such as”. There are bigger battles to wage in the fight against poverty and homelessness.

Finding all the A&F clothing that isn’t already on the backs of attractive, All-American kids and giving them away to people who are homeless is nice and admirable, but it is just a drop in the bucket of the homelessness issue. And what I’m offering here are some of the issues I saw with Karber’s concept. I think it’s close but no cigar, but maybe I am being too critical. What do you think?

Black Girl Fashion Strike

I have described myself as an intellectual wallflower and a social butterfly, but you should also know that I am something of a “single black female addicted to retail.” Maybe that is an extreme title because I don’t really spend my spare time shopping as much as do sleeping or eating, but I do love clothes. I am particular about what I wear and who it comes from, yet I am far from a label whore, just very label conscious. I don’t own any Louis, Gucci, or Prada but I can spot them from a mile away and I would be lying if I said I didn’t hope to own at least one item from each of these and other designers. But I read something today that makes me want to defer my dreams, indefinitely.

“Chanel Iman Still Hears, ‘We Already Have One Black Girl, We Don’t Need You Anymore'”

This headline from an article published in Jezebel.com focused on an interview that supermodel Chanel Iman did with the Times of London. Chanel Iman, one of the most beautiful models in the business–not “one of the most beautiful models who is black” but beautiful, period–told the Times that she still gets excused by designers because they have reached their black girl quota. For obvious reasons this is upsetting to her because the designers getting their one black model looks like a filling of a race quota instead of looking for beautiful women to wear beautiful clothing. The article goes on to document the dearth of black models in runway and print advertisements of some of the most popular fashion houses and shares word from some of the best casting agents in the business. From the latter we hear that some fashion houses–like Gucci–are looking to cast a particular type of beauty and it just so happens that that beauty is always white. Advertisers stand behind the business fact that “black models don’t sell.” At runway shows, people are lucky if they see one black model. The one black model has become the standard at some shows such as Calvin Klein who features one every other season. Of course designers themselves contrive excuses for why there aren’t more models of color based on the fact that black woman, non-white Hispanic women, or Asian women all have different body types (translation: we aren’t trying to make clothes that fit real women with shape of any kind). But none of this is new. Black models have complained about their treatment for years and their change hasn’t come.

I read the article and wondered, “What could make these designers, advertisers, casting agents, and anyone involved in the industry change their ways? And it hit me, “What if black women who, statistically speaking, are big spenders when it comes to apparel, accessories, and other non-essentials, stopped buying products from all of these designers who fail to represent them?” You vote with your money and to continue giving it to the people who don’t think enough of your beauty as a black woman is to vote “Yes” to a system of oppression–yes I went there. How is this a system of oppression? Consider it this way, the majority of black women spending their hard-earned money on Louis, Gucci, and Prada can barely afford it. And the ones who can afford it seem more interested in acquiring something that is a status symbol which proves to themselves and everybody else that they’ve “arrived.” In both cases, women are coming up off of millions of dollars to buy into a system that doesn’t see their intrinsic beauty as women, let alone as black women. Instead these designers are more than willing to profit off of the big-spending black woman and thriving off of tokenism. These women buy their designer goods, but the money in no way, shape, or form put back into their communities. The “one black girl is enough” response is not acceptable and as long as they have a quota for how many black women they put in a show, or continue to look for a particular kind of beauty that just happens to be white, we can’t continue to give them our money. Until every woman is able to see herself in a Burberry ad or on the runway of Calvin Klein–every season, or on the runways of Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, etc, consistently, she should guard her wallet fiercely and take her business to someone else.