Hi I am Mikaela Oosthuizen and I am a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. This is how I often introduce myself. Recently I have questioned why I feel the need to rattle off my CV when first meeting someone and the unfortunate reality is that if I do not, more often than not I am treated as a dumb blonde because I happen to be a model. I felt the need to validate my right to occupy a space in a conversation. This got me thinking about women and the spaces we occupy. My goal today is to lead a charge on these spaces of assault namely: the gym, our relationships and the issues of division within our very troops.
Looking back I was always a feminist – I just hadn’t labelled it. As a young girl I never knew that women were engaged in a war to be seen as equal to men – I just assumed we were. A quick update on the standing of our troops: There is a counter-assault on women’s rights, classified as a backlash due to the hostile nature of the attack being at its most acute stage. This pre-emptive strike has been set off, not by women’s achievement of full equality, but rather by the increased possibility that we might actually win it.
It is however important to note that this assault is not simply a case of male versus female-the battle being far more complex than that. This prohibits a direct confrontation, as the “enemy” cannot be clearly defined and subsequently, detected. The subtleties of sexism are omnipresent, yet camouflaged in “liberated spaces” which are in fact littered with landmines.
WITHIN THE GYM
One such example is the gym. If, in the 1950s, it was the home that was the source from which women’s “worth” was judged, in the new millennium, it is the body, with the gym as our battleground. Whereas women used to be seen to exist for her “family” as a mother in the past, the modern day emphasis has pivoted to her existence as based on the attainment and satisfaction of her partner.
A controlled figure is the primary source of women’s capital. This manifested at a young age when I, like many little girls was encouraged to play dress up-dress up, while boys were encouraged to build forts. This proves to be powerful ammunition as little girls are taught to view their bodies as projects to work on, while boys are taught to view their bodies as tools to master their environment.
I have been fortunate enough to appear on the cover of one or two magazines and on the day ones of these magazines came out I went to a store straight after gym to purchase a few copies of the magazine – as one does. And upon scanning my numerous copies of the magazine, the lovely cashier asked me why I am buying so many and I explained that it is actually me on the cover. I don’t know if it is because I looked especially good on the magazine, or especially bad after the gym, all I got was a very slow and sceptical “haibo!”… After much convincing and a few inputs from her fellow colleagues I was able to persuade her that it was indeed me. Not because the image was photoshopped in any way, but because it is often impossible to match the make-uped image on the cover, with the reality of the self we wake up to every morning.
In extreme cases the, disciplined, unnatural, silicon-enhanced body – is presented as “natural.” We are presented with a falsified perfection: the perfect eyes, hair, skin – none of which we have, but all which we apparently need. Cindy Crawford once famously said she wishes she looked like Cindy Crawford. This crafty tactic presents the idea that there is something unnatural about a women’s imperfections and in the pursuit of perfection, all flaws must be eliminated. These reminders of what can be “fixed” lead to women believing that there is indeed something “wrong” to begin with.
The deception of perfection is the deadly snare which has trapped women into feeling inadequate because what they are in reality does not live up to this ideal. The results are catastrophic as women will not fight against the attack of the backlash, if they believe that their natural body is not worth fighting for.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a great importance for looking after one’s health, as facilitated by the construct of the gym. However, the liberating feeling of asserting your strength on a punching bag, is lost in the irony that women should get strong – just not too strong where your muscles start to threaten that of the male gaze; have a taught stomach, but do not let your six-pack straighten out the hour-glass curve leading to your hips – this would make you, unwomanly – gasp. With every liberal physical assertion, there is a male-imposed limitation. It is a booby trap. The way that society has imposed exercise to women is often not about safeguarding their health, but rather about forcing their conformity. This strikes down countless victims.
And so my new recruits, as we prepare to face this onslaught, I want to debunk a myth: Women, you do not owe prettiness, sexiness or thinness to anyone. Not your mom, not your boyfriend, not your best friend. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked female.
Within battle, your allies are often your greatest asset. Our allies in this fight include both men and women. But men, there are some comrades among you who are seriously staining your reputation and as a result all women start to question whether you are friend or foe. I was out one night and a man I did not know came up to me and point black told me that he wished the straw I was drinking from was his… what I should have done is taken out the straw and …. What was most unsettling was that it was this guy’s group of friends who had egged him on to do this because apparently being dared to do something isn’t an activity reserved for only 13 year olds. So men, when you see a fellow male wandering into dangerous territory. Encourage him to retreat. Be our reinforcement in rescuing men from the cult of masculinity. As we proceed in this battle, let us be reminded that defeating patriarchy is not about attacking, but on educating men, one straw at a time.
Today’s sexism is insidious, casual, politically correct, even friendly in a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it, kind of way. It is never quite blatant sexism but manifests in implicit bias and micro insults which wear down even the most resilient soldier. Women often unknowingly do this to each other. In a series of media interviews with female journalists a consistent question that I was asked FIRST by journalists was whether I had any marriage plans. Yes, that was the first question. The follow up question was whether I was in a serious relationship. After the initial humour of that situation, given the fact that I am only 22, and the focus of the interview was supposed to be on my acclaimed scholarship as a top African leader, I realised how sad this obsession with relationships had become. I see it in young girls that I meet. Marriage and relationships are beautiful and cause of celebration in due season and some people’s come earlier than others. But in the meantime I refuse to feel like I’m “waiting” for anything or anyone. I’m building. I’m building myself into the woman I was destined to become. Being single means taking your time deciding how you want your life to be and who you want to spend it with. It means having self-restraint to wait for what you deserve.
Similarly there is no use having strong female rolemodels and then when they are in front of you, us women ask them about how they feel about turning 40 and not yet having kids. Motherhood is an extension of womanhood not the definition. Elizabeth Holland said that: “No one can do more mischief to a woman than another woman, perhaps one might reverse the maxim and say no one can do more good.” Within this battle both men and women need to be active duty officers in monitoring each other’s assaults, whether purposeful or accidental.
WITHIN OUR TROOPS
When it comes to taking up arms as feminists, some women have a private debate on claiming this title. The ambush is most powerful when it goes private, when it lodges itself inside a women’s mind and turns her vision inward until she begins to enforce the backlash on herself as well, when she starts to silence herself.
For example this TED talk. There are a million reasons why my opinion can be discredited. How can I be a feminist and be a model, isn’t that going against the industry itself? People say things like models are just vying for the right to be the shiniest object in the room, pageants are money making machines fuelled by female insecurity and submission – Tell us how you really feel. I don’t have time to talk about the merits of such truly empowering competitions or my personal journey of discovery, as aided by the very industry most criticise. But I will admit that for the longest time, speaking out on feminist issues, specifically in fashion and the media, seemed really hypocritical given that it is a space that I often directly profit from. I often make the argument that you cannot change an industry by sitting on the sidelines and that by being a part of the industry, I have more power in changing it. But in partaking in this industry am I not contributing to the casualties? By posting a swimwear photo on IG am I condoning my own objectification?
My angst was alleviated in a surprising way when I logged into my LinkedIn and one of the first message I received was this poetic piece: “hey sweety you fin.” Now I have always wanted to be “fin” because societally this is the mark of happiness, but I think this gentleman’s typo was in fact intending something else. This made me realise that modesty will not protect me from male interrogation, men will objectify your LinkedIn profile picture.
And so the question remains, can you be a feminist and still be a model. The industry in general is in many ways problematic. Authentic messy beauty cannot be scored or ranked. It isn’t tamed, posed, plucked, planned or rehearsed. Although the industry is problematic, so is the question: can you be a feminist and still… as if there are activities you can partake in where your feminist card can be revoked. The fact that this is even a question indicates an expectation of perfection from feminists. The feminist movement is an attempt to subvert the normative roles women were forced to confine to. We have just escaped the imposed shackles of what a perfect woman is supposed to look like. Let us not impose these rules on what a perfect feminist should be too. There is an innate danger in excluding people from a conversation that was formed on the inclusion of all who believe in the equal rights of both men and women. There has been much talk on inviting men to broaden their definition of manhood, I would like to propose that women broaden their definition of what feminist is. We need to maintain unity in our troops.
As I dare to reinvent the future, what is my rally cry?
My charge to you. Is that regardless of rank or standing, age or creed, you take up the button of feminism in the various spaces we women occupy, however you choose to define the term of feminism. In the fight for equality, surrender is a luxury us women cannot permit ourselves.