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January 20, 2012 / Anna Louie Sussman

Fashion, Feminism and Food

I recently went suit-shopping. What a horrible experience, and not just because I don’t like wearing suits and I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on one. Spending hours in a department store, surrounded my literally thousands and thousands of garments, all priced in the hundreds and thousands (yes, really) of dollars, and not finding the one garment I needed to purchase, was totally depressing.

One thing I noticed, though, was that everything I saw seemed really cheaply made. Whether the dress cost $200 or $2,000, an inspection of the tags inevitably revealed humble provenances behind the designer label: “Made in China/Bangladesh/Laos/Vietnam/some sweatshop somewhere that’s too far away for you to contemplate too deeply.”

In the middle of my renewed relationship with retail (I didn’t have any spare time last semester to go to any stores), this new post on the Ms. blog entitled “If the Clothes Fit: A Feminist Takes on Fashion” came out. The title is somewhat misleading. I’m not sure what counts as “taking on” fashion, but while it provided some interesting history and made some obvious points about fashion being a signifier, I think the post failed to confront some of the more central issues about the fashion industry, and in particular, questions about labor practices, sourcing of materials, supply chains, etc. (I’m not going to even delve into the body image issue here. That’s another post entirely.)

First of all, it helps to define what “fashion” is (the Ms. post doesn’t.) For the purposes of discussion, I’ll go with Merriam-Webster definition 3b:

(1) : the prevailing style (as in dress) during a particular time (2) : a garment in such a style <always wears the latest fashions>

This definition, with the word “prevailing,” implies notions of mass adoption, fleetingness (“during a particular time”), and to me, a certain coerciveness to either conform or be “out of fashion.”

I make a distinction between “clothing,” which I like, and “fashion,” with its insistence on consumption and staying up-to-date. I like to sew (although I rarely make time for it), I love textiles, and I like getting dressed up for nice things. I like buying new things every now and then, and I like to buy things I think are nice – cozy sweaters, comfortable flip-flops, warm boots, pretty dresses, etc. In general, I buy something originally pretty expensive, at a drastically reduced sale price, a few times a year, and then I wear those items for years. It’s been a long time – probably eight or nine years – since I bought something at a chain store like H&M or J. Crew.

I recently started thinking harder about my consumption practices as I reported my most recent story for Women in the World about three entrepreneurs who are making global trade work for women and artisans, two groups who have, particularly of late, not always benefited from the rise of free trade. One of the business owners I spoke to, Kavita Parmar, left the fashion houses she was designing for (I think DKNY or Donna Karan was one) in order to start a fair-trade clothing company that works closely with artisans in India and Italy and documents their faces and names so that each piece of clothing is attached to the person who makes them. Another, Farah Malik, seeks out disappearing craft traditions and preserves them by paying high-prices for extremely high-quality scarves that are woven, knitted or embroidered by skilled artisans in different post-conflict zones in eight countries.

Farah and I discussed the concept of “Slow Fashion,” analogous to Slow Food, and why there was so much resistance to it within the fashion industry. Is it antithetical to an industry based on newness, on constant pressure to conform (to certain body types, say), on constant pressure to create, to knock off, to buy? Or is it, as Farah pointed out, that there is much less consumer awareness of supply chains, of labor practices, of sourcing within the fashion industry?

After our interview, I stopped by the farmer’s market in Union Square to get some groceries. As I sorted through some produce, I chatted with the farmer about his growing practices, whether and when he sprayed his vegetables, etc. This kind of discussion is at the heart of conscious consumption, and while I find it perfectly normal within a food context, I realized I never have these conversations in stores. There are obvious reasons for that: unlike the farmer, who did the spraying himself, the salesperson at a New York branch of J. Crew likely won’t know which exact dodgy Guangzhou factory that $39 shirt was made in. But I’m surprised there is very little discussion of this outside of the anti-sweatshop movement. Is it because we don’t ingest our clothing, so we assume it’s not important to know where it came from? Why demand a little more transparency? Why not put questions to a clothing brand about its manufacturing process? Aren’t you curious?

Or do we not want to know?

December 20, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

From the Department of Oh No He Didn’t

If you’ve been hiking in the woods or your power got cut this past week, you may have missed the Gene Marks/If I Was a Poor Black Kid uproar. I’m not even going to get into the substance of the, er, “debate,” such as it were, but suffice to say this is a big case for the DoONHD.

Here’s a link to the piece, and an excerpt to give you the gist:

President Obama was right in his speech last week.  The division between rich and poor is a national problem.  But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality.   It’s ignorance.  So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.  Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

And here are some links that Forbes’ editors have dutifully posted, explaining why each and every one of the preceding words is an embarrassment to the publication and implicitly promising to never let something like this happen again (well, that’s not how they define it, but that’s the sentiment I picked up):

Editor’s note — This post has generated an enormous amount of feedback here on Forbes and across the web. Here are a few of those responses:

Kashmir HillForbes: Trolling The Internet With ‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic: A Muscular Empathy

Kelly Virella, Dominion of New York: If I Were The Middle Class White Guy Gene Marks

Cord Jefferson, GOODAn Ode To A ‘Poor Black Kid’ I Never Knew: How Forbes Gets Poverty Wrong

This evening, listening to Tell Me More as I unpacked my groceries, I caught Baratunde Thurston on the program, and was reminded of why sometimes it takes something this bad to inspire something this good. From the Department of Oh Yes He Did (and thank goodness he did):

Dear Mr. Gene Marks,

I am a poor black kid. I don’t have great parental or educational resources. I’m not as smart as your kids. These are facts. In 2011.

The one smart thing I do everyday is read Forbes. It’s what all us poor black kids do. Forbes is constantly reporting on issues of relevance to me and my community. This week, I found your article “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” printed out and slid under my door like all Forbes articles.

I didn’t know any of these opportunities existed. My parents and I were too tired. We were all ignorant, and quite frankly, I could have figured it out sooner on my own if I’d had the brains to do so. Your article provided those brains. It wasn’t about my parents or ways to improve the school system or how to empower the community. It had nothing to do with history or accumulated privilege or social psychology. No, I simply needed to want success more and combine that with technology. You taught me that I can do all this by myself, and I have!

With that one article, you solved the problems of millions. Imagine the good you could do with three or four articles! Please don’t stop with poor black kids! What about children trapped in sex trafficking? How about undocumented migrant workers? And of course, there’s women. Have you ever wondered why there aren’t more women CEOs? I’m sure you have. You’ve thought about everything and figured everything out. You are a great man. Thanks again for teaching me about technology.

There’s also Baratunde’s website, PoorBlackKid.com, where you get to submit questions to a real Poor Black Kid who thinks just like Gene Marks, and another great Tumblr site, IfIWasaPoorBlackKid.com, which (trigger warning) features Gene Marks’ face so many times you may have nightmares. Episodes like this make me profoundly grateful for the humorists among us. Thank you, Baratunde, and others who have conspired to turn this example of hideous bad taste into endless good times (and important lessons) for the rest of us.

I leave you with a taste of Poor Black Kid’s advice to whet your appetite:

Can Poor Black Kids armed with Technical skills save Poor Mexican Kids? Would Mr. Marks even want that?

Mr. Marks believes in the simple power of individual human will combined with TED talks and CliffsNotes to solve income inequality. The question is not “can Poor Black Kids can save Poor Mexican Kids?” The question is: do Poor Mexican Kids want to save themselves?

This TED talk (in Spanish for easier Mexican consumption) should help. Buena suerte!

December 20, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

I made a video.

And it is the third one I’ve made this year! Every time I am editing, I feel like a Lumiere brother all over again. Images? Moving?!? It all feels so very…mmm…okay, I guess it’s not that exciting. But for a longtime print-only reporter whose nickname is Old Lady Sussman, it is pretty exciting.

Here is the thing: the hardest part about doing video is trying not to feel like a gigantic poseur walking around with all the pro-looking equipment when you know you are about to pull some Amateur Night at the Apollo s**t.

Holding a tripod signals to the world that I know what to do with a tripod; same with the little clip-on mic, and the videocamera itself. Until this semester, I didn’t know what to do with any of those things. I’m still not sure “know” is the right word, but here’s the cool part: the companies who manufacture them have made using them virtually fool-proof. Even the editing gets easier with a bit of practice, and now I can even export movies from Final Cut Pro without having to sit through the “how to export movies from Final Cut Pro” tutorial on Vimeo. My friend Casey Neistat is a big proponent of this “anyone can do it” approach. I’m inclined, finally, to believe him.

Without further ado, I present my latest masterpiece, informally titled “A Random Walk Down Atlantic Avenue with Sandy Balboza who has Lived There for 41 years (going on 42) and Who Was the President of the Atlantic Avenue Betterment Association for 17 years, but May Not Be for Much Longer, Because Atlantic Avenue is Getting a BID.”

Untitled from Anna Sussman on Vimeo.

The BID (Business Improvement District) designation is the topic of a forthcoming story, to be posted soon.

Also: special mega big shout-out to Professor Jason Maloney, whose patience and fortitude in teaching me video skillz this semester have been epic.

December 20, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

Single mothers, their kids, and the big American holidays

This week, Leslie Bennetts crafted an ode to American moms, who are doing the best they can in this lousy economy.

The latest Census data revealed that 42 percent more women than men now live in poverty—and among those over 65, twice as many women live in poverty, compared with men. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable; more than 40 percent of their families are poor, and more than half of all poor children live in female-headed households.

My father passed away when I was seven, so for most of my life, it’s been just me and Big Mama, kicking it live. She is a SuperMom if there ever was one, working at nights and weekends writing books to supplement her income as “the assistant to the editor of the Home section” (her official title) at the New York Times.

Single motherhood is associated with all kinds of negative life outcomes for the next generation. I’d argue that the outcomes are correlated with many of the other factors that, in turn, correlate with single motherhood — poverty, lack of access to or education about reproductive health services, etc. Those factors, in my case, were not present.

Both of my parents were writers and had high expectations for me. We lived in a safe, low-crime neighborhood in Manhattan. When my father passed away, we weren’t well-off, and we weren’t even financially “comfortable” (that’s not how I’d ever describe my mom while I was growing up), but we were definitely not poor by either the federal definition nor in our day-to-day life, which was rich with love, with learning, museums, books, basketball, and friends. So I was fortunate in my circumstances to avoid the negative life outcomes (lower school achievement, lower lifetime earnings, etc). In my more rebellious phases, I went out of my way to date a drug dealer and stay out really late, but that was a phase. In my family, by which I mean “in my mom’s eyes,” there was no question that I would go to college, do well at college, and go on to work. My friend with whom I regularly debate this says I am the exception, not the rule. If that is the case, I do not think the mothers nor the fact of their singleness are to blame.

One thing that never bugged me was what to do over the holidays while everyone else was getting together with their greater-than-binomial families. We always had places to go, loving family friends who took us in, a large table to sit at with many people around it, many plates of food on it, and two seats saved for my mom and I.

My dear friend Cara Hoffman reminded me of this today when she sent me this little essay, “How do Atheists and Families of Two Celebrate Christmas?” Good families are about quality, not quantity. And to her and my mom and all the other single mothers, I dedicate this song:

December 19, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

Hitchens, Mentors and Muses

When Christopher Hitchens died last week, writers and thinkers and anyone who’s ever picked up a copy of Vanity Fair or, less commonly, the Nation, lit the internet on fire with songs of praise and adulation. The first thing I read by him was his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. A solidly argued book that made a deep impression on me morally, it did not stand out for its writing. I fell for his writing later on, in 2005, as an intern for the Nation. Tasked with photocopying the entirety of Katha Pollitt’s oeuvre for a compilation of her essays, I found my gaze wandering over to his column, which lay just across the staples, facing hers. There, standing next to the photocopy machine, I realized what a truly tremendous wit he had, and how spectacularly effectively he could deploy it.

In the fall of 2005, “Christopher Hitchens” was a dirty word around that office. He had left the magazine over his pro-Iraq War position, and a green stench like a cartoon fart trailed behind the mere mention of his name. So, I enjoyed his verbal prowess privately, in a dingy corridor, piles of back issues around my ankles.

Then, he lost me. It wasn’t just the Iraq war stuff: his Islamophobia, his relentless sexism, and the way he handled a question at the Hay Festival, where he was touring with “God is Not Great,” that really put me off. Nevermind that he totally dismissed my question (“Could you describe what a secular morality would look like and on what principles it would be founded?”) with an incoherent ramble on blood donation. What upset me was how disrespectful he was to another audience member who, admittedly, perhaps shouldn’t have opened with “I’m an Episcopalian.” I don’t remember the substance of her question, but I do remember that he attacked her intelligence on the basis of her being a person of faith, and thinking that his attitude was arrogant, inappropriate, and most of all, intellectually cowardly.

Was he drunk? Perhaps. That, to me, is another form of disrespect for his audience.

I’ve written before on his utterly unconvincing “Women aren’t funny” stance, and in retrospect, should have noted that in that loathsome Vanity Fair article, his writing falters, as though he can’t even bring himself to fully unsheathe the wit and rhetoric required to defend the indefensible. But nobody takes on sexism better than Katha Pollitt. In “Regarding Christopher,” her column for the Nation this week, she bids him farewell in her own way, with an evaluation more honest and, in its own way, more respectful, than many of the other verbal shrines that have been built over the past few days. Here’s my favorite part:

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.

This leads me to another thing that disappoints me about him. While journalism is by and large a meritocratic field, a great deal of success (as in many other fields) depends on connections, friendships, and mentorship. My understanding was that Hitchens mentored very few women journalists; instead, he focused his attention on young male journalists, including Jacob Weisberg, the chairman and editor of Slate.com, whose column describes how “nothing was headier” than grabbing a drink with Hitchens in DC. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few journalism mentors, one of whom, whether she knows it or not, is Katha. I also know that Katha looks out for other young women writers, since it was through her citations of their ideas and writings that I got to know the work of Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing, and Dana Goldstein, who now specializes (and how!) in education reporting.

But mentorship is not easy to come by, as Kathryn Minshew, founder of the Daily Muse, discovered as a consultant working at McKinsey. I wrote up the site, which is targeted at young, ambitious women who want to know how to kick heinie at work.

The Daily Muse is an online magazine that provides content geared towards career-focused women. Minshew’s own experience as a consultant at McKinsey, which she joined after graduating from Duke University in 2008, inspired her to launch the Daily Muse. She realized very quickly that, as a woman, “the workplace experience was different.” Take mentoring, for instance. Minshew cited research showing that senior male executives are uncomfortable mentoring younger women because of concerns about appearances, which may leave women at a disadvantage.

“It’s hard to find a mentor if you work with a boss of a different gender,” she said. The Daily Muse offers the kind of career advice and feedback that ambitious young women like her need, often written by ambitious young women like herself.

Read the rest here.

December 19, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

The Daily Muse: A new kind of women’s magazine

Author’s note: I was assigned to cover a start-up for class, and having just come off the heels of an interview with Hanna Rosin, was feeling very End-of-Men-y. Her thesis – that patriarchy is on the wane, at least in America – sure rings true when you’re in the company of the women behind The Daily Muse. I’m not convinced that patriarchy is giving up without a fight, but as someone who finds mainstream women’s magazines very problematic, it’s great to see content that’s geared towards getting women ahead, instead of making us feel fat or inadequate. 

With Professional Women on the Rise, New Startup Hopes to Link its Readership with Hungry Employers

NEW YORK CITY – On a Friday evening at 5 pm, the elevator at 33 West 17th Street discharged half a dozen young women into an unseasonably warm New York City evening. On the ninth floor, Alexandra Cavoulacos and Kathryn Minshew, co-founders of the Daily Muse, were still huddled over a table in their bright white Silicon Alley office, documents in hand, preparing for a conference call.

Cavoulacos and Minshew, along with their co-founder Melissa McCreery, are banking on the idea that there are millions more women like the ones just spotted leaving work (whom they guessed worked for handbag designer Rebecca Minkoff, who has offices on the sixth floor) — young, ambitious and tired of traditional women’s magazines offerings – and that companies recognize their potential.

The Daily Muse is an online magazine that provides content geared towards career-focused women. Minshew’s own experience as a consultant at McKinsey, which she joined after graduating from Duke University in 2008, inspired her to launch the Daily Muse. She realized very quickly that, as a woman, “the workplace experience was different.” Take mentoring, for instance. Minshew cited research showing that senior male executives are uncomfortable mentoring younger women because of concerns about appearances, which may leave women at a disadvantage.

“It’s hard to find a mentor if you work with a boss of a different gender,” she said. The Daily Muse offers the kind of career advice and feedback that ambitious young women like her need, often written by ambitious young women like herself.

“For me, the person who is most qualified to give advice to a recent law school grad who’s experience a law office for the first time is another recent law school grad, or a group of recent law school grads, who are one to five years older,” she said. “Some of our most powerful articles have been by women in their late 20s and early 30s saying ‘Here are the five mistakes I made in my most recent job, and how you can avoid making them too.”

The site, which soft-launched in early September of this year, comes at an auspicious time for working women, who are infiltrating the workforce at an impressive clip. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 51.4% of managerial and professional jobs are now held by women, versus 26.1% in 1980. A May 2011 BLS report on women’s employment during the recovery noted that “women college graduates are likely to outnumber male college graduates in the near future.”

In addition to career advice, the site features contributions from some of the most successful women in their respective industries, such as a contribution to the “Letters to My Younger Self” column by media mogul Arianna Huffington (her tip: get more sleep.) While the first four categories on the home page are Career, Job Search, Entrepreneurship and Education, there are regular contributors on beauty, fashion, hobbies, and technology, among other topics.

Minshew and her colleagues are not the only ones hoping to target this demographic. In recent years, the mainstream media have caught on to their potential Forbes magazine launched ForbesWoman in 2009; the Wall Street Journal hosted a Women in the Economy conference in 2010; Bloomberg has scaled up its coverage of women in the past year; and the Financial Times has maintained a “Women at the Top” blog for professional women since 2009. More specialized sites like Vivanista, dedicated to women in philanthropy, and Ladies Who Launch, focused on women entrepreneurs, as well as more general career-oriented sites like the Levo League and Hello Ladies!, are all hoping for a piece of the pie.

Unlike most mainstream media sites, whose large audiences appeal to advertisers, Minshew does not plan to rely on advertising for revenue. Instead, the Daily Muse will offer services like headhunting, professional development courses and other networking opportunities.

“We’ve been approached by employers who are excited, who tell us ‘Oh my goodness, you’ve got this pool of incredibly qualified, ambitious women who want to read about how to be good managers, and good employees and good speakers. How can we hire them? How can we work with you to share our job opportunities with them?’” Minshew said.

“Beyond that, the workplace is becoming more skill-based and less industry-based,” she said, noting that women may have an advantage in a new economy that prioritizes excellent verbal and written communications skills over the physical brawn that once-dominant industries like construction and manufacturing required.

Pattie Simone, a serial entrepreneur and founder of WomenCentric.net, a platform for women professionals, said the crowded field is both a blessing and a curse.

“As more people realize the buying power and overall influence of more women in the workforce, as well as the explosion of women-founded entrepreneurial ventures, the more content providers there will be, vying for the same audience,” she said. She encouraged them to think about finding multiple revenue streams, citing Ladies Who Launch and the Women’s Leadership Exchange as two other sites that have done this successfully.

Sarah Granger, a writer and new media innovator and strategist, advises them to keep refining their voice and their offerings over the next few years, and also predicted a redesign of the site in that time-frame, which she said is normal for media-based startups. While they have “a unique collection of content for the target audience they selected,” she said, “They’ll need to find a unique niche where they provide the best content or services in order to survive as a for-profit venture.”

The Daily Muse is currently self-funded, said co-founder and fellow McKinsey alum Alexandra Cavoulacos, but they hope to have their seed round of outside funding commitments finalized by the end of the year. In the two months since it’s been up, they have met their 30% month-on-month readership growth rate. They have already completed some revenue deals already, including helping an internet start-up fill a general manager position by announcing it to their readers and then filtering applications.

Jennifer L. Pozner, a media critic and founder and director of Women in Media and News (WIMN), applauded the Muse’s effort to seek alternative revenue streams.

“Advertisers are permeating our media content at a more extreme level than ever before,” she said. “Women deserve to be valued as media consumers, rather than simply traded for our eyeballs.”

December 7, 2011 / Anna Louie Sussman

What Would Christine Lagarde Do?

Do you ever wake up in the morning, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and wonder, “What Would Christine Lagarde Do?” To be honest, she would probably not put herself on a mug. But you know what? I did.

Some bits and pieces on her from around the web:

Old but ahead-of-the-curve Bloomberg profile, from June 2010, when Lagarde was still finance minister of France. NB that one of the authors, Lisa Kassenaar, is now Bloomberg’s Global Editor-at-Large for women’s coverage.

The New York Times profile from just after her appointment to head the IMF, “Mme. Lagarde Goes to Washington.”

A blog post by my friend Ken about her call this past August for European banks to raise capital. Prescient call on her part, prescient of Ken to notice that she is a terribly smart cookie.

 

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