The Feministing Five: Norma Kamali

Norma flexing her arm with the quote "Fitness, Health & Wellness is my Power" in frontNorma Kamali is trying to do something radical: stop the objectification of women. And considering the industry she works in, it’s pretty remarkable.

Norma Kamali has worked in the fashion industry for over 20 years. Known for her transformative designs such as her sleeping bag coat, parachute collection and swimwear line, she’s now pioneering a campaign to empower women and stop the objectification experienced everyday on the streets.

Her campaign “Stop Objectification” includes a short film titled “Hey Baby” in which Norma re-appropriates the male gaze, highlighting the accomplishments unseen by objectifying eyes. Her effort also includes the website Stop Objectification, in which she seeks to foster dialogue by having women upload photos of themselves with a quote that celebrates their favorite body part. (Make sure to upload a photo of your own too!)

Displaying her tremendous passion for this cause, Norma made the time to answer my questions despite the travails of Hurricane Sandy. And, of course, I couldn’t resist asking a question that has always nagged me as a feminist who loves fashion: is it possible to be a feminist fashionista? Read below to find out her thoughts!

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Norma Kamali.

Anna Sterling: What prompted you to start this campaign?

Norma Kamali: I have been working with women since 1967 and no matter how beautiful, accomplished, or celebrated they are (including myself) we are all suffering from self esteem and image issues. I wanted to try to change this, find out why this happens, and then do all I can to empower women.

The overall goal is to empower women. To recognize that this accepted exchange is not acceptable. That we must bring awareness to the men in our lives who love us and when these men know the effect of objectification on our psyche, plus the embarrassment and humiliation, then I believe our men will be the force that creates the change. First we have to recognize what we have been turning a blind eye to and what we have been keeping a secret for so long.

AS: How can we take this movement past the internet and bring this empowering transformation to our everyday lives?

NK: We need to tell our stories, bring awareness, and inspire our friends and sisters to do the same. Then in face-to-face important moments, tell the stories to our men.

AS: Where do you see feminism and fashion colliding? Can someone be a feminist fashionista?

NK: Feminism to me means empowerment. Fashion also can mean empowerment. If you feel like you look good, this can literally make you feel invincible. Women understand that we have been judged since the beginning of time by the way we look. Some reasons were simply for procreation. “Do they have strong bodies to bear a child?” and “Will the child be handsome to some?” are the more abstract questions we know of today. Feminism has had more militant times that I feel weakened rather than empowered, and fashion does the same.

Fashion makes women feel not as thin, pretty, or rich enough to be fashionable. That in itself is unrealistic since even the women in the fashion ads are photo-shopped and airbrushed to such perverse perfection. Women are best when they are strong. We are better role models for children. We are more productive citizens of the world and we are better partners when we are secure and truly equal in our worth.

Fashion can empower, but many times it sends the wrong message and needs to make changes. Feminism and the movement need to become part of the greater empowerment movement and use empowerment tools to create opportunities for women to make the changes. I believe the “Hey Baby, We are More” Campaign can stop objectification, bring awareness, inspire, and make change. I think all women who understand the power of presentation and image as well as a strong self esteem are feminist fashionistas. There is a word between both of those that will describe this successfully…but we need to find it.

AS: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

NK: There are so many… more than we all know because they are nameless and behind the scenes and have been since the beginning of time. They are women like Mother Teresa, and all the women who selflessly raise children and most often do so instead of pursuing a dream they might have wanted to come true. I think men are just beginning to understand the extraordinary experience of raising children by providing love and nurturing and enriching every life experience to the utmost for their children. I am truly in awe of all the women who do this and even have careers and are involved in their communities.

AS: You’re going to a desert island and get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you pick?

NK: I would be very happy on a desert island since I have been mostly living a raw diet for the last few years. I would have coconut water and fruit and vegetables and be just fine. My mother was light years ahead of her time… I would bring her back and we could figure out how to use the surroundings for practical use and fantasy. That was what she was best at.

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