Norma Kamali on Her New Campaign to Empower Women

The 67-year-old fashion designer wants to be the catalyst for social change

by Lesley Kennedy • Reporter
norma kamali
Norma Kamali wants to stop the objectification of women.
Photograph: Courtesy of Norma Kamali

From the time we are born women are judged by our looks, but that doesn’t mean we should just accept objectification as a given, fashion designer Norma Kamali says.

In fact, she says, it’s time to challenge the universal behavior, and for women to be empowered by their experiences and begin to redefine the ideas of beauty. Kamali, 67, has created Hey, Baby, a short film calling for social change. She also has launched the website Stop Objectification, where women can upload photos, post empowering statements and share stories.

“This process will help cleanse and free yourself of the secrets you are keeping of humiliation and embarrassment as a result of objectification,” Kamali tells MORE. “When we read each other’s stories, we will uncover more of our own experiences that we have hidden in very deep emotional places, and then we can get men to read the stories and listen to the women in their lives tell their stories, and start to expand the awareness.”

MORE spoke with Kamali recently about her campaign, how it relates to fashion and self esteem and what she hopes awareness of objectification will accomplish. An edited version of the interview follows.

MORE: After spending all this time in fashion, what prompted you to take on the objectification of women as a social cause? Some would say the two are closely related.
Norma Kamali:
Fashion tells women we are not pretty enough, thin enough or rich enough to wear real fashion and that is only one type of objectification that impacts self-esteem and image for women. Sometimes, fashion can empower people and really enhance a woman, but fashion and the image of it can also make her feel less than she should. So, there’s this fine line for me because I am a part of the fashion industry and I am one of these people who tells women I want to empower them and make them feel better. But at the same time, there may be images that our industry projects that tell her you have to look a certain way or live a certain lifestyle to really be fashionable. The objectification part of that is what I’d like to get women to talk about so we can understand better what is causing these self-esteem issues.

MORE: Have you always had this concern?
NK: Since I began in 1967, I have been profoundly aware of the fact that all women suffer from self-esteem issues. We all can be thrown off by a bad hair day or feeling a little overweight. So where does this come from? I have deducted, after interviewing countless women around the world, that it is objectification. If we cleanse ourselves by sharing the stories, freeing ourselves of the secrets, we can heal ourselves and have a healthy, more vibrant self image. And, when we share the stories with friends and family, we encourage other women to do the same.

MORE: When does objectification start?
NK: From the time we’re little girls, almost at  birth, everyone is prompted to comment on how we look. So, as women, we’re always judged first by how we look, and our accomplishments are received in second place, but also are tempered by the way we look. I think profoundly of how Hilary Clinton, during her campaign for presidency, was often talked about how she looked first, and then what she was saying. … Women are objectified and men, in fact, are not. It’s specific to women, it’s universal. This is clearly one thing all women share. Not every woman has a child. Not every woman has the same lifestyle experiences. But every woman, from a very young age until the last day of her life, experiences objectification.

MORE: So, how do we start to stop it?
NK: I am telling stories now that I had held secret because I was humiliated and embarrassed, and thought, I just want this to go away. Well, it doesn’t go away. It’s an insidious little thing that piles up as more and more of these experiences exist for us and they affect who we are and how we behave.

MORE: Can you give an example of a time you were objectified?
NK: I graduated fromthe Fashion Institue of Technology. I was a fashion illustration major and I had worked very hard on my portfolio, I had an incredible instructor, I felt very confident about my work and thought going for a job was going to be an exciting opportunity for me to use my skills. Plus, my mother kept impressing upon me every day that I had to get a job. So, my first job interview: I walk into this office and there’s a guy and he’s got his feet up on the table, and he’s eating a tuna sandwich, and he says to me, “Young lady, why don’t you put your portfolio down there and turn around for me.” I was 18, and, quite frankly, I was frozen. I didn’t know what to do. I heard my mother’s voice saying get a job, and so I turned around. And as I was turning around, I was sick to my stomach. I was embarrassed and humiliated. I was so upset and I stayed absolutely quiet. I can’t tell you a word the guy said or what happened, except that I knew as I was in tears leaving that office and that I was never going to go back into a situation like that again.

I did not tell that story until six months ago, but by getting my stories out, I’m positive it will help me and other women. I really believe the more conversations we have with each other, the more we’ll help each other. And what could be better than women who are more and more empowered every day? We’ll make better wives, better partners, we’ll be much stronger. We will be more invincible because we won’t be able to be taken down so easily by things that are really not important. … If we want to buy $2,500 bags it will be because we just made partner and got a big bonus, not because we feel less in ourselves and our bag is going to give us more credibility than we deserve.

MORE: Have you found commonalities in the stories being shared?
NK: Every woman I’ve interviewed and I speak to has issues with food. Every woman. There’s something wrong with that. … I’ve learned in last few years that the way I looked at food and the way I measured my happiness was controlling how I felt about myself, and it wasn’t until I understood that if I ate healthier, I wouldn’t be as addicted to food. I would be able to eat whenever I was hungry, rather than whenever I was anxious. I discovered that the better the food was, the more I could eat and feel good, versus the more I ate, the more I felt bad about myself. That took a lot of time for me. I was 65 when I figured it out.

MORE: How does the way we dress affect our empowerment?
NK: Clothing can help self-esteem, but it is temporary because sooner or later we take off our clothing. The way we dress says a lot about what we think of ourselves -- therefore, what we want others to think of us. But, ultimately, our actions and accomplishments affect our empowerment.

MORE: What ares some actions women can take to improve their body image?
NK: Take positive action. Start with the emotional release of the stories, then take another action to cleanse the body, as well. Remove sugar and highly processed foods. Exercise every day if you can in some way and find a cause or community activity where you can help others. By helping others you fill your soul, and what a better place to put a full soul then a cleansed body.

MORE: What changes do you hope to see in our lifetime?
NK: If all men understand the effect of objectification we experience in relationships and dating, in the office and a simple walk down the street, they will be the force of change. We just need to let them know what we experience every day.

… What a wonderful opportunity it will be for young girls coming into the world to not have the same experiences we’ve had, to not have to deal with what Hillary Clinton has had to deal with. I don’t think men intend to hurt us, especially not if they have women they love, so it’s important for us to not be so polite and so embarrassed to let them know our stories. Big changes can happen. I’m very optimistic. … A world of emotionally healthier, empowered women will be a great addition to the well-being of the world.

Click here to visit Stop Objectification.

First Published Mon, 2012-10-01 12:23

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