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Q&A: Why Fashion Designer Norma Kamali Thinks Objectification Is Still One Of Women’s Biggest Problems

“Every woman I’ve asked agreed that they had been objectified,” Kamali says.

This month fashion designer Norma Kamali launched her “Stop Objectification” campaign, to encourage women to share personal stories about being objectified. She’s asking women to upload photos of their most powerful body part to StopObjectification.com to raise awareness about the prevalence of female objectification. She spoke to BuzzFeed Shift about the campaign.

Why are you doing an objectification awareness campaign now?

As a fashion designer since 1967, I’ve been around a lot of women through a lot of decades and I am very much aware of the fact that all women have self-esteem issues and image issues — including me. All women, no matter what they’ve achieved — from a very early age to the last day of life — get judged by the way they look, and get judged in a way that men don’t. I kept thinking, where does this come from? Why is this happening? I know for a fact from the series of interviews that I’ve been doing [for this project], all women have food issues — some have eating disorders but we all have issues with food.

I remember Bridesmaids, the beginning of the film with Jon Hamm — he is clearly objectifying this woman [Kristen Wiig] who is mistaking objectification for love, or in her mind believing she can make a switch from objectification to love. I thought, I think I’ve been there. And then I thought, I’m going to ask other women, and every other women I’ve asked agreed that they had been objectified.

It finally occurred to me that it was in fact objectification that men don’t share with us. Not all women have children, not all women share the same life experience, but every single one of us, from the day we’re born to the day we die, are objectified. I thought, I need to find out what women think when they’re objectified. And I thought no one has ever talked about objectification. We’ve been keeping our humiliation and embarrassment a secret and because it is a secret, men are not aware of the power and the pain and the serious effect on our psyche that objectification has.

When you say “objectification,” what do you mean?

Objectification comes in lots of different packages. If you saw Hey Baby, the film we did, it’s about how you walk down the street and there seems to be a free license where anyone can say anything to a woman, whereas that same man wouldn’t talk to a woman that way on a date. In a workplace, there’s a myriad of situations where a man would never be spoken to or treated the same way as a woman in their office. And then there’s relationship ones that I believe women are the most sensitive to. We may participate in our own objectification there because we are wired to almost expect objectification as a way of life, and I think when that changes we will have a lot more presence and power.

Norma Kamali.

In Bridesmaids it sounds like what troubled you is that Hamm’s character just wanted to have sex with Wiig’s, and maybe she wanted something more from him. But women don’t necessarily want relationships with all the men they have sex with — sometimes we just want sex, too.

I think more women date for the possibility of meeting the guy they’re going to marry and I think guys just date to see how many girls they can date, and don’t think about the women they’re going to marry until they get tired of it. I’m a believer in women approaching sex in the way that men do. But I’m also realistic and I truly do know no matter how many times I may say that to people (we probably have 98 percent women here [at my label]), why not date the way you would go on a job interview, and not take every date as the guy you would possibly marry? And unfortunately that is exactly what happens with women — we are all under this time clock for a lot of reasons. It’s a biological one, but it’s also one that has a lot to do with image and self-esteem. Because we’re judged by the way we look, you figure this is the time I have to meet someone. Unfortunately it’s such a short window of opportunity that women never feel they have to date just for the sake of dating.

You’ve been a fashion designer for a long time, as you mentioned. Do you think the fashion industry objectifies women?

Absolutely. First of all the fact that my industry projects the image of a woman who is much thinner than a healthy woman should be, and is airbrushed in a way that no woman can be, who appears to be richer than we all are is in itself so objectifying that not one woman is ever going to feel good enough when they see an ad because it’s just impossible for us to reach this defined perfect woman. The beauty of being empowered is that you realize, why would you want to look like that girl? This model probably never said a word on the set, was probably never allowed to express an opinion, and she’s starving, she’s hungry, she’s going to go home and eat if she doesn’t have a job the next day because she probably hasn’t eaten as much for a few days before she’s gotten a really big job.

I try to use models who are more like people, they express themselves, they’re animated, they don’t look hungry, they look like they’re having a good time. You could say, well you’re known for doing bathing suits for Rihanna and Gaga and Beyoncé and all these other people and objectifying them. And there’s a truth about who’s wearing the swimsuit and if they in fact are wearing their swimsuit as empowered or objectified. I think Beyoncé is super-empowered, she’s fierce, she’s invincible, so there’s very little you could put on her in anyway that would make her look objectified. I think some of the women in the music industry who have done provocative things are very powerful. It’s a great way to show the difference between someone like that and someone who’s maybe had a lot of plastic surgery, who puts on a swimsuit to put herself in the image she believes a man will appreciate.

Beyoncé wearing a Norma Kamali swimsuit in Harper’s Bazaar.

Are you worried about slut-shaming?

You should be able to wear a mini-skirt. If you want to run with shorts on because you’re comfortable running wtih shorts on, why shouldn’t you? You shouldn’t have to dress a certain way so that you’re treated a certain way. However, my concern is especially with young girls who are a bit misguided and believe that attracting boys who may be looking at women through pornography may be misleading what their message really is. And I think what women are really looking for attention may also be looking for love and I don’t think anybody really wants to represent themselves in a slutty way but in a misguided way, they’re seeking out attention for love. If they want attention that may not be terrible, but I think women should not have to be forced to wear certain types of clothing because that will be appropriate in someone’s judgement in someone’s eyes.

One might say you’re ascribing a lot of power to men, by saying we have to make them aware of objectification in order for it to stop.

It’s not giving them the power. It’s what exists, and unfortunately women play into that too because of the way things have always been. We always wait for the man to ask us to marry him. There are exceptions, but we expect the man to take care of us. The man assumes his power because he’s had it. It’s again this imbalance that can get corrected once we have a better sense of ourselves. I’m always amazed at how many women are looking for this guy who’s going to give them a better lifestyle and just want to marry the prince. I’m still in awe at how many girls are waiting for an engagement ring and worry about the size of the ring and all of those things. As long as we have these standards, men have the power.

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