“The woman’s body, no longer private property but rather fetishized commodity, circulates inexorably and vertiginously through the modern marketplace, frantically purchasing that which it can never own.” Hetrick, Bethany 2006.
As a young visual artist and a black woman who has a “plus size” body type, the issue of fitting into certain normative categories has always been a question for me, and many people like me. “Fighting to Fit” is a project inspired by my second-year graduate courses at the Alle School of Fine Arts and my readings in critical theory while pursuing my MFA. Specifically, after reading books, journals and articles focused on critical cultural theories based on gender, race and others topics. I began to realize the dominant power structures that could be studied and analyzed for the benefit of the global citizen. But these dominant power structures (i.e. patriarchy, racism, classism, sexism) and the challenges they present are not abstract or invisible. I face them in my everyday life as a woman born and raised in the capital city of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa. Some of these challenges have been around ideas of female beauty and the tension of being seen as a subject and object. As I completed the readings and observed changes in the city, I began to analyze and question why, how and where Ethiopians consume female beauty and fashion and how it is presented to public spectators.
Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is currently known for its drastic changes in architectural and urban development. Alongside the transformation of the city from the horizontal to vertical, there are other elements that indicate how this idea of western development is reflected throughout society; in the economy, interests, desires and the public imagination.
It is very important to mention the country’s interest in western development and globalization. These factors have brought substantial changes that have transformed Ethiopian society. Information technology and exchange became one of the factors in this push towards globalization. For instance, receiving global information through satellite became a way of readily accessing western information, news, entertainment and educational programs. Perhaps the most influential of these was the introduction of Hollywood movies and mainstream music videos to Ethiopia. Today, Ethiopian imagination and fantasy reflects, if not mimics, the ideals portrayed in the Hollywood mainstream. This includes privileging images of women who are thin, light-skinned, and have European features as the ideal. The trend is apparent in Ethiopian fashion, ideas of what/who is beautiful, popular television shows, cinema, and fantasies displayed in Ethiopian advertisements (e.g. recent Coca Cola ads, Ethiopian airlines ads, and Ethiopian television ads are of special note.). The result is a cultural conflict and identity crisis.
The long and deep-rooted culture that was Ethiopia is now mixed with white, foreign cultures. As the great writer and cultural theorist Frantz Fanon points out in his chapter The Negro and Psychopathology, this is a contemporary example of “colonized black people” and their inability to fit into social and cultural norms that a racist white society has established. Indeed, Ethiopians have been westernized in the name of globalization and modernization when in reality, we are being marginalized and held to a white standard that we can never attain. This, of course, is particularly true for women, and is reflected in the unrealistic Ethiopian female beauty standards today. It also helps to explain how Ethiopians of all genders consume female beauty and fashion in public space.
- Description of the concept and body of work
In my work I question the importance and meaning of having skinny, unrealistically proportioned, white mannequins publicly displayed in almost every boutique and clothing store in Addis Ababa. The following are questions I consider in my art: How does this public visual affect us? What has it come to represent? Why do we choose to use thin , white mannequins to appeal to Ethiopian consumers? What impact does this have on the average Ethiopian woman who is unlikely to share the same size, proportions or color?
As previously mentioned, two of the major influences targeting Ethiopian women are the western visual digital world and in turn, the fashion world. These two influences force us to follow a deliberately designated way of presenting our bodies in accordance with the ideals of white supremacy. This ideal, while already absurd for white women, is completely unattainable for black women. Consider the history of the mannequin:
The introduction of mannequins as a way to display clothing has been a part of clothing display in brick-and-mortar stores for centuries. In 1997, Schneider documented the history of the mannequin and its use in today’s retail stores. According to Schneider, the first form originated in the mid-eighteenth century when dressmakers would use a steel replication of a customer’s measurements to fit clothing. However, it wasn’t until the late 1940’s to early 1950’s when mannequins began to take their modern form as the development of plastics made it possible for detailed body sculpting (Schneider, 1997). At this time, female mannequins had tightly pinched waists, full hips, and large busts, while male mannequins had an athletic build, a v-shaped silhouette, and hair combed back. When Christian Dior introduced his “New Look” collection featuring an ultra-feminine, full-skirted runway shows took on the image of a typical mannequin of the 1950’s with small waists, full hips, and large busts, but critics of this look stated the models looked unrealistic (Schneider, 1997).
Schneider contends that it was at this point in history that the idealized body form for the Western-world woman was created: taller than average, thinner than average and yet still evenly proportioned. Martha Landau, a popular designer in 1973 tried to persuade Wolf & Vine, a manufacturer of mannequins, to make larger mannequins resembling real women; the response from the manufacturer was, “Inside every fat woman is a thin woman trying to get out, our mannequins are what every large girl would like to be: beautifully proportioned, and clothes simply look better on taller, thinner figures” (Schneider, 1997, p. 11). (Cohen, 2014, 1)
Decades later, mannequins are still the most symbolic and representational elements in creating a highly fashionable and ideal body represented on the global stage.
This exploration of mannequins in Addis Ababa was prompted by the fact that they exist on every corner of the city’s boutiques, shops and merchandise stores. These mannequins are supposedly shaped in the manner of universal body specifications, which creates confusion and a dilemma for all Ethiopian and non-Western consumers with regards to accepting which body size and color they should aspire to be. Note that mannequins of color are still relatively new, and the longstanding prototype of the white mannequin remains in the highest circulation. Mannequins of color are virtually non-existent in the Addis Ababa commercial landscape. Nor do mannequins of color address the issues of non-Western body size and shape which varies significantly from the white ideal. While mannequins could easily reflect different cultures, meanings and influences, instead they currently represent a single white cultural ideal. In Ethiopia this has a profound effect on our understanding of self-representation. Questioning deeply the representation of the mannequin in relation to the real-life human figure can lead us to this core issue. It also serves as a productive metaphor, namely that the world is increasingly transforming into a plastic one, from traditional Ethiopian clay water jugs being replaced by plastic bottles, to people represented in plastic form as mannequins, to modifying human bodies using “plastic” to enhance their sexual appeal. I find that mannequins embody this change and are the ultimate representation of our increasingly plastic world and the tensions that exist within it.
As mentioned earlier, the standard of beauty represented by the mannequin is completely unrealistic for the most human beings and especially unattainable for the black female body. As summarized by XYZ, “we can ultimately situate the department store in terms of a dialectic of feminine seduction and exploitation, the circulation of goods and money played out on the female body alternately as sexual activation, self-fetishization, drive toward destruction, and disease. Arguably quite far from being a ladies’ paradise, the department store welcomes the woman into the public commercial sphere with the promise of a kind of self-purchase that paradoxically only drives her further from self-possession (CITATION OF SOURCE).” In Addis Ababa, the urban marketplace, much like the department store, can easily become a site of dislocation where black women are seduced by ideas of white beauty that they can never achieve. The act of purchasing deviously suggests a type of possession or attainment, when in fact, these women are only participating in the process of their own alienation. When considering the fact that much of this economy is owned by men, we add yet another layer of complicated power dynamics to the Ethiopian commercial context. As Peter Brooks argues in Body Work:“While this [sale of woman’s body to woman] might seem to suggest a primal narcissism of women, or an invitation to them to possess their own bodies, there is rather an alienation of women from their bodies, which have been taken over by the (male-owned and –managed) market economy, defined and fetishized by that economy, and offered back to women in piecemeal form, through the cash nexus.” (154) (Hetrick, 2006)
Part of what is offered in that piecemeal form is the body image of what the archetypal Ethiopian women is and/or should be. Body image involves our perception, imagination, emotions and physical sensations. It is not static but ever changing; sensitive to changes in mood, environment, physical experience, and of course, the commercial market as well. In other words, it is how you feel others perceive you, what you believe about your physical appearance, how you feel about your body, how you feel in your body, and most importantly if you need to change it. Critical questions that stem from body image include for whom a woman is changing and why , and if she is changing to fulfill the sexual desires of men?
The normalized racial and physical standards of mannequins in Ethiopia are well promoted through the Hollywood movie industry, western fashion industry, modeling industry and so on. These industries with powerful financial backing are highly visible, and controlled by what womanist theorist bell hooks calls imperialist, patriarchal, white supremacies. This externally deployed hegemony has a major role in defining and representing the black body and specifically, the black female body in the Ethiopian context. The influence of mannequins, particularly thin white female mannequins, in Addis Ababa has become a defining factor in dictating the appropriate size of the Ethiopian female body – an ideal which is very different from the past. Culturally, being thin was previously associated with illness or low social status. From a historical standpoint as well, the ideal body image for Ethiopian women, was in fact, a woman who was fuller and curvier.
As Frantz Fanon stated in a final prayer “O my body, make of me always a man who questions!” (Fanon, 1967, 232). Reflecting upon my “plus size” body in particular, made me question the representation of the female body in Ethiopian society through mannequins in my art. . The project idea was constructed by questioning why and how Ethiopian women struggle to fit into unattainable categories. More specifically, my art strives to address the reaction of Ethiopian society, and especially the reactions of women, who are being objectified by varying influences. Considering the average Ethiopian woman’s body size, I try to show how the white female mannequin can become a counterpoint to challenge our perception regarding ideal beauty or femininity. As a self-identified black feminist with “plus size” body I ask myself, three very important questions through my artwork: Who gets to decide the way I present myself? Who gets to decide to whom my body belongs to? And, who gets to claim my way of living in my body, space, world, and reality? I believe that I have the responsibility and agency to claim my body, my space and myself. Related questions I have struggled with and raise in my work include: How have Ethiopians come to keep our voices silent when confronted with a foreign culture which seeks to compromise female subjectivity? How can Ethiopians glorify and reclaim our female bodies? If I claim my body, my space, and myself, does that free me from the trappings of white supremacy and a patriarchal world?
In a lecture at the New School, feminist theorist bell hooks, filmmaker Shala Lynch, author Marci Blackman and transgender activist and author Janet Mock, suggest that self-glorification is very important and “prettifying”, can be a healthy way to boost black female confidence, and can be used as a source of power against “symbolic annihilation” or self hatred and denigration. It is important to revisit the concept of symbolic annihilation and women’s representation in media. First discussed by Gaye Tuchman in the late 1970s, symbolic annihilation is, in Shola Lynch’s words:
“Two things: 1) Not seeing yourself, and 2) it’s also seeing yourself only denigrated, victimized, and what that does to you. We can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze and look for the images, people, and places that feed me. The more we create our culture—the books you write, the film I made: the alternatives. These are artifacts that live and they speak to people whether we are there or not.
The writer Janet Mock adds,
“To pretty myself up in whatever way I want to, to don a hot purple lip and to wear these heels, and to walk out and to claim my body and to prettify it in the way that I want to prettify, I think that there’s power in claiming that space, this little space that I have in this world is mine! And so I feel, especially in a world that tells me that I shouldn’t exist, that I should remain silent, that I’m not attractive, that this little, white woman, skinny body is what’s the ideal. I think that I will, I will don all the glamour and the glitter that I want, but I will do that for myself, not necessarily in the way that I was trained to do it, which was to do it in the pleasure or the gaze of a man, and so that is the shift I think that has happened in my own life, just in the last seven years, I think just through my own experience of saying, who is this for, it’s for me” (lecture from The New School)
I believe self-glorification can be a means of representing oneself in the way it is positive, unforced way that subverts patriarchy. I deeply relate the idea of self-glorification to my artistic work. For instance, as part of my visual art, I created a mind mapping wall in the studio. Audience members could reflect on the art and its relation to their perceptions of their own bodies. Then, they were invited to write what they felt on the white wall within just a single word or a few words. While words and phrases expressing negative senses of body image were certainly written on the wall, they were also balanced and countered by positive words and phrases about body image as well. What was certainly apparent though, was for those who chose self-glorifying language, that it was an act of their minds and bodies claiming “belongingness” to themselves.
The society I grew up in did not tell me I should glorify myself for myself, but rather rather that I do so in a way that complied with male desire, for male pleasure. . “All over the world, girls are raised to be make themselves likeable, to twist themselves into shapes that suit other people,” says Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In Ethiopia’s cultural and commercial landscape, mannequins are a part of this construct that Adichie mentions, and self-glorification allows for a useful, albeit limited, form of everyday resistance to everyday oppression.
2.1. The process of changing the concept to a body of work
As part of my research, I conducted interviews with Ethiopians who frequently shop for clothing and beauty products. I diversified the sample group for the interviews to include female and male product consumers, boutique owners, mannequin producers and importers. The diversified group made the interview process very dynamic and interactive. All interviews began by discussing the effects of mannequins on defining a specific, idealized body size for that individual. What came to light was the unprecedented influence that the mannequins have in making individuals feel that their bodies are not ideal and could not fit the mannequin’s standard.
Like the construction boom mushrooming in Addis Ababa, many streets of the capital city have seen a proliferation of mannequins. These mannequins are a product of the western imagination focused on defining the female body in such a way that it can please the eyes of consumers. The erasure of the black human body from that fantasy is significant, and especially so when considering an African context like Ethiopia.
In order to engage the Ethiopian public on this issue, I staged a live public performance in one of the most visited commercial districts of Addis Ababa, called haya hullet (22). The public performance brought together a group of men and women who could perform as mannequins at the front of a clothing boutique. Lined up in a single row, these participants were positioned as mannequins to display clothing and other goods for sale. The simple act of real black people effectively replacing white mannequins in the consumer fantasy was profound. The result was a very visible and visually appealing performance that made many passersby raise questions.
The Haya Hulet area was chosen for this performance because of the large number of boutiques, many of which use mannequins to prominent and visible effect. A common practice for businesses in Haya Hulet is to display a row of mannequins on the street and in shop windows to promote clothing, including Ethiopian traditional clothing, being sold by boutiques and stores. Whether on the sidewalk or driving on the main road that cuts through Haya Hulet, it is impossible to be in the area without being forced to confront white mannequins.
From my interviews with shop owners, I learned that mannequins are instrumental tools for Ethiopian boutiques and shops to display and sell mass-produced items imported from abroad. Cheap items mass produced in and imported from China fill the African market. However, the products prices are marked up significantly when sold in Ethiopia. As several shop owners explained, displaying these imported products on the mannequins make the accessories look high-end to appeal to a certain class of consumer. What shop owners did not immediately realize though is that they were promoting an elusive western fantasy that many Ethiopians aspire to but can never fit.
The intention of the performance was to create a platform for the public to participate in the discourse. It created understanding and non-verbal communication between the performers who acted as mannequins and the spectators who watched the performance. The live art was also meant to engage the shop owners and prompt them to think more about their complicity in promoting white beauty ideals. To me, the mannequin as object was also a useful frame to analyze the way in which the female body has been objectified and considered as male property. This performance offered an opportunity for Ethiopian women to reclaim their bodies and its belongingness publically, beyond fulfilling the desires of the men.
- Material or Medium
After the public performance, I decided to change the working environment from the public sphere to the White Cube. Here, I had the chance to experiment with the multiple ideas I gathered during the research process. I also dialogued with Ethiopian art colleagues and international visual artists as well. The versatility of the discussions helped me to understand the cause and effects of “fighting to fit” from local and global perspectives.
The next step was to illustrate a mind map on the wall located in the wider interior space. The mind mapping helped me to visualize the body of work through all the key concepts and visual ideas translated on the wall surface. I began to collect discarded X-Ray and MRI printouts in Addis Ababa with the intention of exploring medical imaging as a way to expose human identity by translating the throw-away medical images into an artistic intervention. This medical imagery tells a story of pain in the body without disclosing the patients’ identity. Medical X-rays and MRIs do not show more besides the body part exposed through the frame. Using these images in my project anonymizes the subject but still shows the silhouette of the human figure that defines the outside shape of the body. X-rays represent an inner identity, even though society largely ignores that internal identity to define who we are. We are taught to elevate the external and the body’s ability to provide pleasure and gratification, as evidenced in the standard embodied by the mannequins.
I wanted to use X-rays and MRIs to question what the medical world. Using medication to keep our body healthy is one thing that should be appreciated and supported. However, modes of medical beautification and body modification should be studied and analyzed more in relation to the quest of fulfilling fashion ideals promoted in media. The use of pharmaceuticals for rapid weight loss or skin lightening are two examples of medical treatments in the pursuit of purely aesthetic ideals. Plastic surgery though, is the primary specialty serving this function. Plastic surgery is used often to “beautify” body parts, and reshape anatomical structures. All of these changes are manifested in the body through surgical manipulation in order to fit an ideal dictated by western fashion trends. Those struggling to fit the ideal invest in the difficult process of modifying their body in order to be accepted into a category that fits few. This ideal category, created by patriarchal need and white supremacist hegemony, opposes the nature of self-identity and the physical reality and diversity of the human body. By using X-rays and MRIs, I can project this struggle, pain and hardship that our bodies have carried in the process of fighting to fit.
- Methods of Research
I conducted my research using different approaches and methodologies including interviews, performances, informal conversations and so on. I also prepared interview questions that were sensitive to the volunteer interviewees while cutting to the heart of the issues around race, gender, representation and the body as seen through the use of white mannequins in Ethiopia. I diversified the sample group by gender, age, education level and class. I also used open discussion methods to make the participants comfortable enough to speak their minds, openly and honestly. Even after the interviews, I found that I needed more information to answer some of the more complex questions I had. Through reading critical theory, books, articles, poems, and watching ritual performances, I was able to explore the project more deeply and address some of the difficult cultural and historical questions that came from the project. Upon further reflection, and taking into account my own personal experience as well, I decided to change the artistic concept to a visual body work
- Exhibition Setup
After a long period of experimentation and trial and error using different materials and found objects, I decided to have the final work come together as a large box. I created a large silhouette of my body in MD (wooden board) material in the center of the space, both sides of which were visible to the audience. The MDF was then covered in X-rays that I collected of different body parts. Together, the silhouette and the box told individual and collective stories, and connected my concepts and the physical work of art. Additionally, I displayed X-rays in the windows that connected the exterior and interior of the building to facilitate an immersive visitor experience. The studio wall was also used as a way for the audience to write about their own bodies. Over time, the white wall slowly transformed into a mind mapping exercise, reflecting the ways that people interpreted their bodies – both positive and negative – in relation to the artwork and its themes.
- Resources and References
This section lists a small segment of the historical and cultural theories, artists, art movements, databases, and interviews that have influenced my artwork. According to my project, my advisor [name your advisor] suggested books, articles and videos, which became important references. Those listed below were among some of the most foundational to the development of my project “Fighting to Fit”. They, along with the strong cohort of artists and intellectuals in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, have helped to inspire and inform my artistic process and this work.
- Cohen, A.(2014). Mannequin Size on Consumers’ Perception of Self and Satisfaction with Fit. (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/2634
- Hetrick, Bethany. “Mannequins, Mass-Consumption and modernity in au bonheur des dames : The Department Store as Ladies’ Paradise? .” Equinoxes 7 (2006): n. pag. Web. <https://www.brown.edu/Research/Equinoxes/journal/eqx7_index.html>.
- Art in the 21st Century. PBS. Arlington, Virginia, n.d. Television.
- hooks, bell. Bell hooks scholar-in-residence – Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body. N.d. The New School. Web.
- Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1968. Print.
- hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992. Print.
- hooks, bell. Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2000. Print.
- hooks, bell. All about Love: New Visions. New York: William Morrow, 2000. Print.
- Singh, Sunit. “Book Review: Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.” The Platypus Review 21 (2010): 1 . Http://platypus1917.org/. Web.
Martha Haile is an artist and writer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This essay was originally published in the anthology, Concerning Nuditude.