Formation

Dear Sherina,

You know as well as I do that I’m not really a sports person. I did, however, tune into the Superbowl halftime show last week. I thought that Beyonce’s performance was pretty standard for what you can usually expect from her. It seems some people thought otherwise. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani dismissed it as being anti-law enforcement. While I did notice the definite black empowerment theme of her performance, I certainly didn’t find it to be anti-police.

I was intrigued by his comments and by the comments of others who thought Beyonce took things too far, so I decided to watch the music video for the song behind the controversy, ‘Formation’. As a Beyonce fan I may be a little biased, but I thought the video was phenomenal. At first glance, the viewer definitely takes note of the subtle themes being explored while she sings “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making”. After watching it several times, I had a page full of notes on what I took from the video. She managed to get several themes across; let me explore a few.

The video opens with her standing atop a New Orleans police cruiser sinking in a flood of water, while a voice says “what happened after New Orleans?” The video further explores treatment of African-Americans, black culture and police brutality. Beyonce’s own southern ancestry is explored through an African-American lens – something we don’t often see. Afros are celebrated as well; the vast majority of the women shown have one.

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At the end of the video we see a young African-American boy in a hoodie dancing in front of police officers. This could be interpreted as a reference to the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. If there were any doubts about one of the themes of the video, a shot of a graffitied wall which reads “STOP SHOOTING US” pretty much clears them up. The video ends with a shot of Beyonce drowning on top of the same New Orleans police cruiser shown at the beginning.

A lot of folks were upset that Beyonce chose the Superbowl, which is a “family show” to share her message. Many are upset that she even released the video at all. “Why does everything have to be so political?” They ask. I urge those people to keep this in mind; according to The Guardian, unarmed black people are twice as likely to be killed by law enforcement as unarmed white people in the U.S.

No one is saying that all law enforcement officials are bad, because they aren’t. They are the ones who put their lives on the line to keep us safe and we are eternally grateful for it. However, the fact that black people are disproportionately affected by police brutality still needs to be addressed and an event that was watched by an average of 111.9 million people seems to be a good place to start.

There were many who felt uncomfortable after hearing this song and watching the video. In my opinion, that’s a good thing. Change is never comfortable.

What were your thoughts after watching ‘Formation’?

Ceanray

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Dear Ceanray,

I am also not a sports person. In fact, a day after the Superbowl, one of my friends mentioned the Denver Broncos and I said that they weren’t in the superbowl at all (when they actually won it). I digress… I did not watch the Superbowl, nor the halftime performances. I did, however, hear quite a bit about the show – specifically, Beyonce’s performance.

Many people praised her performance, pulling out the crown emoji because she is #QueenBey; but many others, as you said, thought she took things too far. People who believed her performance was racist protested outside the NFL headquarters, and took to social media to share their disdain for Beyonce. Was their disdain justified? I, like you, don’t believe it was.

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I watched Beyonce’s performance on YouTube and read through the lyrics of Formation, and I couldn’t see what came across as “racist” or “anti-police”. The song is about a serious issue, and that many people choose to remain ignorant of that issue is frightening. There are, as you mention, a disproportionate number of black people killed by police officers. I don’t know how anyone could look at the statistics and evidence and not come to the conclusion that something needs to change.

Part of the problem, I think, is that too often people equate fighting for black rights to being against white people. Some people try to change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter. All lives do matter, but that’s not the point of the hashtag. The point is that black people have been seriously oppressed throughout history and still face inequities today.

I completely agree with you: change is not comfortable. People are entitled to their opinions – and when the topic is Beyonce, there are lots. However, I believe it is important to look not at what is a comfortable, convenient opinion but what is actually a truthful reflection of the dire needs of a marginalized group in society.

I applaud Beyonce for using the platform of the Superbowl (and her signature dance moves) to speak out about police brutality and black culture. On behalf of Beyonce fans everywhere, let’s get in formation and take a stand.

Sherina

Religious Representation Online

Dear Sherina,

On this blog, you and I have previously discussed Youtubers and their influence. Recently, I’ve discovered a new favourite. A half-English, half-Egyptian fashion designer and blogger by the name of  Dina Torkia. With a sizeable online following which includes 316,000 Youtube subscribers, she has made quite a name for herself in the Muslim fashion and beauty world.  Her channel is filled with videos ranging from hijab/turban tutorials, lookbooks, makeup tutorials to DIY clothing tutorials. As a devout Muslim woman, there are certain guidelines she follows when it comes to dress. She is a ‘hijabi’, which means that she does not show her hair and often wears a headscarf in a traditional or turban style. As she explains it, the concept of ‘hijab’ is not simply putting a scarf on your head. Rather, it guides how interact with others and how you represent yourself to the world.

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Dina is such an upbeat, outspoken and downright hilarious individual that it’s hard to imagine that she would be on the receiving end of negativity. The majority of the comments on her Youtube videos are positive, however it’s hard not to notice the amount of criticism she gets. The criticism doesn’t often come from non-Muslims, but from others within her faith community. They claim that she is  ‘misrepresenting’ Islam and that she ought to be ashamed of herself for wearing makeup – among other things.

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I would argue the contrary. As someone who is not well-educated on religion, I admit that before I started watching her I knew very little about Islam. Her channel is not a religious education channel, but because her faith is such a big part of her life you do learn a few things. Since I started following her Youtube and Instagram, I feel as though I’ve learned more about modest clothing guidelines, Muslim holidays, religious practices and everyday Islamic terms. To give you an example, when she’s on her channel discussing a future project, she might say “inshallah it all goes well”. I was curious as to what inshallah meant, so I looked it up and translated roughly it means “if God wills it” or “God willing”.

I feel like with all of the misconceptions that surround Muslim people and the Islamic faith, it’s so important to have people like Dina out there to shatter them. She, in my humble opinion, does a fantastic job of representing the diversity within her religion.

What are your thoughts?

Ceanray

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Dear Ceanray,

After reading your letter I watched some of Dina’s videos, and I completely agree with you; it’s so hard to imagine how she could receive negative comments. I found Dina’s channel incredibly enlightening, as I, like you, knew very little about Islam before watching her videos. Even from watching a Q&A video, I became more educated. I think it’s amazing that we are able to learn more about a religion through YouTube!

I also agree with you that Dina’s channel is all the more important not just because it provides education, but because it shatters some of the negative myths that surround Muslim people. I’m sure you remember the recent controversy in Canada about women wearing the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. The issue blossomed into a debate not just about wearing the niqab when becoming a Canadian citizen, but in general.

Stephen Harper, our then Prime Minister, said with regards to the debate about the niqab that “[the Muslim] culture is anti-women”. Many Canadians protested this statement, because we knew it was a lie which was simply feeding the culture of fear that has been created around people of a certain faith. Some people, however, agreed with Harper’s sediment. Likely, those people didn’t know any Muslim women, or Muslim people, so they accepted his statement at face value.

We shouldn’t need proof that the Muslim culture is not anti-women – we should be able to realize such generalizing statements are ludicrous and inaccurate – but unfortunately we do. Fortunately, we have amazing people like Dina Torkia who help to set the record straight.

Sherina

Youtubers and Their Influence

Dear Ceanray,

To begin my letter, I wanted to thank you for a lot of things: for always being there for me, for fueling my interest in politics and feminism… and for introducing me to Zoella, AKA my favourite YouTuber ever. I don’t think you meant to introduce me to her, in a formal sense. I just remember you texted me saying to check out one of her videos, so I did. And then I became obsessed with her channel.

As of this month, Zoella has over 9 million subscribers. She also has one book published, another set to come out next month, and a line of bath and beauty products; both of which debuted to record-breaking sales. Zoella’s success is a testament to her own talent and character; and it is also a testament to the platform that led to her success: YouTube.

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The website has over 1 billion users, and 300 hours of video are uploaded every minute. According to an article on Variety.com, a survey found that “YouTube stars scored significantly higher than traditional celebrities across a range of characteristics considered to have the highest correlation to influencing purchasing among teens.”

Looking at survey comments and feedback, teens enjoy an intimate and authentic experience with YouTube celebrities, who aren’t subject to image strategies carefully orchestrated by PR pros. Teens also say they appreciate YouTube stars’ more candid sense of humor, lack of filter and risk-taking spirit, behaviors often curbed by Hollywood handlers.

I know that I find YouTube stars, like Zoella, more candid and genuine than celebrities. Many YouTubers post blogs – video blogs about their everyday lives – so viewers feel like they really get to know the stars. Variety’s survey findings are significant to me not because of purchasing influence, but because it demonstrates that young people can find good role models in YouTubers.

Many YouTube stars are open about their struggles; Zoella vlogs often about her anxiety, and fans flock to the comments to share their own stories of living with anxiety. YouTube stars are real people showing us their real lives and real struggles, and I think this is amazing.

Who are your favourite people to watch online? And what do you think about the influence YouTubers have on our generation?

Sherina

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Dear Sherina,

In junior high, one of my friends at the time introduced me to a channel called ‘danisnotonfire’ run by a young British man by the name of Dan Howell. I was going through a tough time when his channel was shown to me, and his humorous videos provided a welcome reprieve. I began exploring other British youtubers like Louise Pentland, Marcus Butler,Tanya Burr and Zoe Sugg (zoella!) – to name a few.

When it comes to things like makeup tutorials, people are perhaps more inclined to listen to the advice of a person who they can see and interact with – someone who is just like you and me. This can be a more preferable way of consuming, say, information on the best foundation brands to use rather than a faceless article on a magazine website or blog.

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As you mentioned, Youtubers have huge fan followings and widespread influence as a result of their online popularity. Companies have started to take notice; Tanya Burr has her own cosmetics range available online and Louise Pentland has just announced the release of her new plus-size clothing line for women. These are all remarkable feats considering the fact that few of these Youtubers started out intending to have books published and cosmetics and clothing lines released.

It’s so great to see that books like Zoe Sugg’s ‘Girl Online’ have surged in sales, encouraging young people to pick up a book and read! It should also be noted that the majority of Youtubers are relatively young, and have created lucrative online careers for themselves. In a day and age where young people are constantly told that they have no hope of ever getting a job unless they attend university, an ‘online career’ provides an interesting alternative to the message that we are constantly being fed.

Ceanray

Fabletters on Beauty

Dear Ceanray,

We live in a society where our own personal definitions of beauty are constantly challenged. Sadly, they are also constantly changed. Commercials tell us that we need certain products to be beautiful, and we see recurring images in media that show us “ideals” of beauty. This is damaging for so many reasons.

We are all born with our individual thoughts, opinions, and reasons that we are beautiful. As we grow older and are exposed to more forms of media, our definitions of beauty slowly start to change. If we don’t see ourselves represented, be it on advertisements or on our favourite TV show, then we are sent the message that we are not important. And, because we see other people represented, we start to value their traits more than our own.

Norman Cousins once said, “the true tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.” I really like the way this quote is worded, because it says “what we let die.” It can be really difficult to not let the media influence our definitions of beauty, but if we can accomplish it it is ultimately worth it.

What did the word ‘beautiful’ mean to you – before anyone tried to change your definition?

Sherina

Dear Sherina,

I thought I would begin my response to your letter with one of my favourite Audrey Hepburn quotes; “the beauty of a woman is not in a facial mode but the true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It is the caring that she lovingly gives the passion that she shows. The beauty of a woman grows with the passing years.”

Before anyone tried to change my definition of beauty, I had an abstract concept of what the word meant. It meant very little to me until society began to shape my definition of the word “beauty” not as a word in itself, but as a set of ideals as to how we must look in order to be pleasing to the eye.

It is my firm belief that beauty is how you feel about yourself on the inside, which is subsequently reflected on the outside – not vice versa. We must teach ourselves that our uniqueness and what we have to offer is what makes us beautiful, not our ability or inability to fit into the mold that society has created.

Ceanray

Fabletters on Body Image: Part Two

Dear Ceanray,

Thank you for sharing your story! You are completely correct in saying “the scary part is that my story is not unique.” Another thing that is scary is that this is an issue that affects everyone; both men and women, and people of all body types and sizes. Some people think there is an ideal body type – but really you can never win.

Advertisements bombard us with images of slender women. Stick figure mannequins in stores inadvertently send the message that to be beautiful is to be thin. Of course, we all know that this isn’t true; and this is where the movement of body acceptance emerged from. I fully support this movement, because I think it is so important to create a society of people who love who they are. However sometimes in the process of trying to support people and help them to love their bodies, we unintentionally shame other body types.

Do you remember when you came to visit in the summer, and to pass the time on a long car ride, you, my sister, and I were jamming out to Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass? We had so much fun trying to recreate the dances and singing it. I thought it was permanently stuck in my head!

We sung along to lyrics with great messages like “every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” But lost in all of our fun were lyrics such as “you know I won’t be no stick-figure, silicone Barbie doll, so if that’s what you’re into then go ahead and move along.”

Um, what?

All About That Bass was one of the top songs of 2014, and with its catchy beat it’s not hard to see why. To most people, the song enthuses the fact that everyone is beautiful. To me, it is a backhanded compliment. Yeah, every inch of you is perfect; but naturally thin people resemble stick-figures and if you are naturally thin or associate with people who are, you can “go ahead and move along.”

The lyric following this slam is “No I’m just playing.” So, okay, Meghan Trainor made a joke. Ha. Ha. But wait a second; the lyric following that is “I know you think you’re fat.”

To me this suggests that if you are thin, you are expected to “think you’re fat” and desire to be even thinner than you already are; again, even if you are naturally thin and don’t have a problem with it. What happened to enforcing the message of loving your body and promoting that every inch of us is perfect?

You mention that your positive image of yourself began when you realized the potential your body has and that it isn’t “purely superficial.” We can’t always look to music or media to help us love our bodies. We must look inside ourselves, just as you did.

Every inch of you is perfect, Ceanray and readers – don’t forget it!

Sherina

Fabletters on Body Image: Part One

Dear Sherina,

As young women, you and I are both well aware of the pressure that is placed on us to look a certain way. Body image is an integral part of our lives and how we view ourselves. We live in a consumer culture that wants us to be insecure about our looks, so we’re enticed to purchase products that will supposedly help us feel better about ourselves.

This is a topic that hits close to home for me, as I have struggled with body image and disordered eating since I was ten years old. Growing up, I was similar in size and shape compared to most of my friends. However around the age of thirteen,  I grew five inches in the span of six months and began to notice changes in my body that were scary albeit completely natural for someone my age. I became extraordinarily self conscious when I had to start wearing women’s sizes because kid’s clothes no longer fit me.

The girls I watched religiously on television all seemed to look the same way – petite and slender, and I thought there was something wrong with me because my body looked nothing like theirs. A toxic cycle of not eating enough/ eating far too much consumed my preteen and early teenage years.

It took me awhile to realize I was not the only one who felt this way about my body. One of my close friends revealed to me that she was also suffering from an eating disorder. I was shocked — how could this skinny fit friend of mine possibly hate how she looked?

“My hips are too wide”, she told me “I can pinch the fat on my arms and stomach”.

Although we bared little physical resemblance, we had both been trapped in a seemingly endless web of self-hatred and guilt.

The first time I began to form a positive image of myself was about a year ago — and it didn’t come from losing weight. I joined a gym and started exercising regularly, it wasn’t until I started conquering my fitness goals that I realised my body had a purpose that wasn’t purely superficial.

I soon realized that everyone looks different and is built in different ways. If we all looked the same, that would be dreadfully boring and ultimately unfulfilling. Once I stopped comparing myself to others, I became my own biggest competitor in a positive and life changing way.

The scary part is that my story is not unique. A recent study conducted by Dove noted that 40% of girls between first and third grade wish to be thinner. I fear that I may one day have a daughter who feels the way I once did (and still sometimes do). Young girls should be worried about who they’re going to play with after school – not how much they weigh.

What do you think?

Ceanray

Fabletters on Strong Female Role Models in the Media (Or Lack of)

Dear Sherina,

The media is part of our everyday lives, whether it be on television or social media. We are constantly being fed this idea of what a woman should look like and how she should act, which leaves me wondering where I’m expected to find myself among all the confusion. Finding strong female role models in the women in my family has never been challenging. My mom, my aunts and my grandmothers inspire me constantly to push myself and the limits of what I can accomplish. Finding strong female role models in the media is a completely different matter.

The media tells us to be fit – not too skinny, but not too heavy either. We should have shiny, bouncy hair as seen in shampoo commercials, flawless skin and our face should be blemish-free at all times. We must dress to impress men (and occasionally our female friends, but never ourselves). Our clothing must flatter our “womanly” bodies, but cannot be too revealing (or else you’re labeled a slut), but not too modest either (because we might get mistaken for our grandmothers).

All of these messages that we’re faced with on a daily basis leave me with questions that I fear may remain unanswered. How are young women like us supposed to form an idea as to what it means to be a woman, when the media presents womanhood as a mainly superficial quest?

These questions brought back the memory of a conversation I had with some friends in middle school. At the time we were discussing what we wanted to be when we grew up. Some of my friends had ambitions to become teachers, nurses, famous singers and so on. One friend spoke up and said “my mom told me to take care of my looks, because if I marry a rich man he can take care of me and I won’t have to work”. This statement shocked and saddened me on so many levels, 12 year old girls should know that the sky’s the limit in terms of what they can achieve. Men are nice but not necessary in the pursuit of a happy and fulfilled life.

A few days ago, I watched Emma Watson’s speech to the United Nations on achieving equal rights for girls and women all over the planet. I was inspired by her determination to help spread the message of equality while admitting that she was incredibly nervous to deliver her speech. Her ability to say, “hey! I’m a celebrity but that doesn’t mean that giving this speech doesn’t make me incredibly nervous!” stands out to me as someone who not only acknowledges her strength, but can recognize her weaknesses. This makes her someone who I would consider a strong female role model, among others.

What do you think?

Ceanray

Dear Ceanray,

I completely agree. I love your question “How are young women like us supposed to form an idea as to what it means to be a woman, when the media presents womanhood as a mainly superficial quest?”

As you know, I am a huge Taylor Swift fan (as evidenced by the fact that I am currently writing this while curled up in my Taylor Swift blanket, listening to her latest album 1989).

In an interview with Ellen a few years ago, Ellen was just dying to figure out who Taylor had dated. So, she put up a slideshow of men she had been linked to, gave her a bell, and told her to ring it whenever she saw someone she had dated. She was visibly uncomfortable with this, and it’s easy to see why. Plenty of other artists – for example, Tay’s friend Ed Sheeran – write and sing about romance; yet, Taylor Swift seems to be the only one ridiculed for it.

In October, Taylor made some headlines when she opened up about not wanting – or needing – a boyfriend. She said, “I just stopped dating people, because it meant a lot to me to set the record straight – that I do not need some guy around in order to get inspiration, in order to make a great record, in order to live my life, in order to feel okay about myself. I wanted to show my fans the same thing.”

Taylor Swift is a fantastic role model for young girls, and yet I feel like the media is trying to stop her from being this. It seems crazy, that they would discourage a strong female role model, but in a twisted way it kind of makes sense; their money comes from the superficial things they sell to us, the new mascara and the new shampoo that we need to purchase to make ourselves fit their idea of a women. Having a strong female role model means that girls feel more secure in who they are; and this means that they will not give in to what the media so desperately wants.

I believe there are two sides to every issue, and I think the problem here is that as teenage girls, we are only being shown one side of a role model. So, going back to your question: what can we do?

I think we have to create our own role models: you mentioned your mom, aunts, and grandmothers and they are great role models because they are not constructed by the media. They are real. I think it is incredibly important to value our own role models, and view the ones society presents to us with a critical eye (as we are doing now).

The Taylor Swift song I am currently listening to (New Romantics) has a lyric “life is just a classroom”. Life essentially is a classroom – we can learn so much. It just depends who we decide to learn from.

Let’s make the sky the limit,

Sherina