The most unfair thing that ever happened to me, took place on May 7th, 1977 at 3.31. I was born. Here, well not exactly here, but in the Netherlands. Not in for instance Bangladesh. I arrived in this wealthy part of the world by coincidence, with a healthy economy, a good climate, human rights, women’s rights, democracy. I didn’t do anything to earn all that, I simply had it handed to me. And so I don’t have any more right to it than anyone else, I don’t deserve it more. I just as well could have ended up in an Asian village, and be sewing our shirts, producing our sneakers or packaging our shampoo.
I happen to know a few of the people who actually do these things. They are crucial for our lives, I for one am quite happy clothes exist at this particular moment. Without them, we wouldn’t even be able to walk out of our door. I’ve been working in sustainable fashion and lifestyle for over fifteen years, and have been lucky enough to travel to countries such as Thailand, Turkey, Bulgaria, to visit factories and meet with workers.
I spoke for instance with Rumana, a single mum of a 5 year-old daughter, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. She makes jeans for the Western market, and has to work extremely long hours for an extremely low wage. We spoke about love, and life and also about what she would do if she ever were to earn a good salary. Her number one wish was for her daughter to go to school and become a doctor, to break the cycle of uneducated, low-income jobs. I of course fully understood, but pressed on, as I really wanted to know what her dreams were. What would she choose for herself? I could sense she knew, but was hesitant to say it. Go on, it’s only the two of us, I prompted… She leaned forward slightly, her eyes gleaming… Earrings, she said. Earrings? I immediately felt some judgement – surely there must be something more important? But I quickly understood. She is exactly the same as I am. We are all similar, we all want the same things, but just live in vastly different circumstances. We here don’t think twice about instantly buying earrings we like; for her, this is her idea of freedom.
The people who make our clothes really exist, and every seam connects their hands and your skin. You wear their stories around, everywhere, all the time. Like now.
How is it possible that these people are being exploited to facilitate our lifestyle? For our jeans and earrings? Unbelievable that we allow our stuff to be produced elsewhere, in a way that would be completely unacceptable here. Why is that okay for them, but not for us? Why is it even legal to exploit people and the planet, for profit? And why can we choose in a store between products that were made through abuse, and ones that weren’t?
We feel rich when we can afford lots of cheap products, but actually it makes us poorer. That something’s cheap doesn’t mean it doesn’t cost much, but that someone other than you is paying the price.
We all suffer from this: pollution, lesser quality and… a negative self-image.
Because really, we are being used just as well. When I was born, I was also born in a society that commercialises our body and soul.
We are all perfect, just the way we are. There is nothing to be ashamed of. We are all human, we all have a shape, a colour, and we all have flaws. Nothing we buy, can increase our self-worth and self-love. That is entirely ours. The regular fashion, accessories, beauty, gadgets, sports and diet industries beg to differ.
We are not good enough. You are not beautiful enough, your skin isn’t smooth, glowing or the right shade. You are not skinny enough, don’t wear the right clothes and are not on trend. You don’t look like the model, which is impossible anyway, as they’re almost without exception very young, slim, tall and white. The ideal we have to live up to in the lifestyle business is ridiculously limited. In short: you don’t look like you’re supposed to look, only when you buy, will you belong. Much of the messaging is specifically intended to make us feel bad about ourselves, to then offer the solution: their products. We know it doesn’t work, and yet we keep trying. And thus, we are not only talked into having a problem, and given a solution that doesn’t work – we are also tricked into incessantly buying more and more, which makes it nearly impossible to become truly sustainable. People are getting rich thanks to our low self-esteem, doubts and insecurities, and the world suffers. This commercialisation of our body image lies at the heart of our struggle to change our behaviour. As long as you don’t like yourself, it’s okay, because then you remain vulnerable for the idea that you can fix this by shopping. We need to actively recognise and resist the way the industry makes us feel, to save both ourselves and the planet. The pressure on our looks doesn’t only affect our happiness, and our mental well-being, but also how sustainably we can act.
I try to fight this. 90% of the time, I only use lipstick. Because I like the way it brightens up my face. But no blusher, corrector, primer, eyeshadow, eyebrow pencil. Or it-bag or stiletto heels. I try to accept myself as I am. But it’s not easy. It can be hard, actually.
Luckily I’ve got amazing examples. Alicia Keys, for instance, a hero. A while ago she decided to stop using make-up. Because she no longer wants to be insecure, and hide behind a mask. She now feels more liberated and powerful than ever. Of course, you can think: okay, but Alicia Keys is beautiful. And you’d be right. But without the products, she looks very different to the Alicia Keys you’re used to. Still beautiful. And you are beautiful too. And so am I.
Even if I don’t always shave my armpits. Because that doesn’t really feel right to me. That hair just grows there, it belongs there, why should it go? I even quite like the look of it if I’m honest, I find it rather sexy… But, maybe even more importantly, why should women remove it, and not men? Yet, every now and then I’ll put on a top with sleeves when I actually wanted to wear one without. Because I don’t want to be labelled an activist, I don’t want to embarrass my partner, or sometimes simply because I don’t dare. And then I’m not really free. Because that part of my body only needs to be erased, deleted, to sell hair removal products. Which by the way are often more expensive for women, than for men, because of the so-called pink tax: women are more expected to look a certain way, so we ‘have’ buy the products needed to achieve that – whatever the price.
Of course, the way we are being used cannot be compared with the way workers suffer. But don’t think you are being treated fairly. And if it made us feel good… But now everyone is unhappy. The people who make our products, and the people who purchase them – caught in a web of as much as possible, as fast as possible for as little as possible. Only to gain. But we lose. Fairness, freedom, inclusiveness, self-esteem.
We probably aren’t here for the sole purpose of a six pack, a thigh gap or a perfect outfit. Or to be skinny, or curvy, or fit or white. Historically the ever-changing ideal was mostly aimed at women – but increasingly men face this burden too. It’s time to win back our beauty, our independence, and to demand diversity.
The sustainable movement has a huge opportunity to take this lead. When I was compiling images from brands for my sustainable handbook, I aimed to make it as diverse as possible – whilst still looking amazing, of course. That wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I got sent quite a few photoshoots with models from different backgrounds, (which was great) but in terms of body size, there’s still little variety. So my own book doesn’t really represent myself, as my own shape isn’t in there. I fully understand that sustainable brands want to prove they offer the same as regular ones, that it’s not less in any way. But here, it’s actually a good thing to be different – and to show how stylish all sizes, ages and colours can be. And there are some great examples of this already. The time has come to change, and the sustainable brands can direct us towards a new system. Where we are all celebrated, included instead of excluded, and where products are offered to buy when we actually need them, and that’ll make us feel better.
We, customers can do a lot ourselves as well of course. If you buy something, you actually say to the label or store, I love what you’re doing, here, please take my money to continue. Choose brands that prosper from treating us all, from the worker to the wearer, with respect. Small steps and actions can have huge effect, especially if we all do it together. You can have as much impact as one drop of ink transforming the colour of an entire jug of water. We made this world, so we can also change it. Who else?
Let’s try and be less tempted to keep wanting more, faster, newer, different, improved. Be aware of the message, and how it makes you feel. Let your voice be heard, and take back your freedom. You are ok. Being able to be you, to not suffer from oppression, exploitation or a limiting ideal picture should apply to everyone – here or there, we are all one. This is the new green wave. Doing good, looking good and feeling great at the same time.