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Norma Kamali Admits that Fashion Objectifies Women--But She Wants To Put an End To All That

We caught up with Norma Kamali to talk about her new project Stop Objectification, which aims to turn "objectification into empowerment," how the fashion industry contributes to the problem, and what you can do to help.

Normal Kamali was inspired to start her new project, Stop Objectification, by, of all things, the movie Bridesmaids. Kamali says that it was while she was watching the comedy--particularly the scenes between Kristin Wiig and Jon Hamm--that she was struck by how many women are still willing to put up with being objectified by men.

The epiphany reminded her of an experience of her own when, at just 18 years old, she walked into an office in the Garment District where a man was more interested in her body than her work. That experience, she says, shaped her life in a major way, even though she has never spoken about it before--and now she wants her experience to inspire others to share theirs, too.

Enter Stop Objectification. Kamali envisions the campaign as a sort of talk-therapy in the style of AA; by sharing our every day experiences with objectification, we can stamp it out. At the Stop Objectification website, women are invited to share their stories and support one another.

We met with Kamali at her Wellness Cafe in NYC to chat about what inspired her to start the campaign, the role she feels fashion plays in it, and what you can do to, well, stop objectification.

Fashionista: Tell us a bit about Stop Objectification. Norma Kamali: I think that self esteem issues are created by a life series of objectification. So I started to think about why nobody ever talks about it, it's so bizarre, it's such a big thing--why is it a secret?

I think the first step is, anytime you're objectified, talk about it to the first person you see. Don't wait, don't hold it for a second, don't let it infect you like a virus, just get it out. And the next thing is to make sure that the men you care about, and who care about you, are aware of it. The more men I speak to about this, the more I realize they do not have a clue. And it's easy to understand because we haven't been telling anybody. We've been so embarrassed about it we've been keeping it a secret. Some men don't know they're being objectifying when they say things.

I think as a group we can do tremendous good for the planet, for our country, for our families as role models. So the whole concept is really just part of the evolution of what I've been doing since I began [as a designer in 1967], which is to try to make women look and feel good.

As you said, you're a fashion designer and part of your job is making clothes that make women look good and feel good. A lot of people would probably argue that the industry contributes to the objectification of women. How do you feel about that? It's absolutely true. If you look at models, they're probably the most objectified women in any career, even more than film actresses. If a model goes on a go see, we just want to make sure she fits what we're looking for. We don't care about what she has to say. And then when we hire her, we make her over anyway, so she doesn't even look like what she looked like.

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Then when we finally pick a photograph, we airbrush it, so even she can't live up to this ideal. So our medium, our ads and our promotions say, "You're not thin enough, pretty enough, rich enough to buy this dress this girl's wearing." It's perverse. It's a really kind of a strange business we're in. I've really been making an effort to find girls who have a real sense of personality coming through. I want them to look like they eat and they like life, that they laugh and they enjoy the clothes they're wearing. That's a conscious effort on my part, and we go through a lot of girls. Many of them are so skinny that there's just no way, I want to feed them.

But it's not so much the clothes that objectify women, it's the perception of who they are and what they're doing and what they are achieving. So fashion has a responsibility but I don't think clothes objectify women. I think women can present themselves in objectifying ways or empowered ways and what they wear has nothing to do with it.

You spoke about models; within the past year or so there's been a lot of conversation in the industry--the Vogue initiative, banning models who are underweight, the Model Alliance--are these efforts moving in the right direction? What can the industry do as a whole? I think a lot of designers want very thin girls and feel their clothes look better on them, and it's going to take a lot to undo that mindset. So I think the change is going to happen from outside of the industry, I think people will force the industry to change and people will respond to models either positively or negatively.

The more voice there is, the more conversation from the outside, I think that will force people to change. If it's meant to--maybe there isn't a strong enough voice, and then it won't happen. But I don't think it's going to happen from the inside out--I'm positive it won't.

On the Stop Objectification website, there's a feature where you ask people to submit their favorite part of their body. What has impressed you the most about the response? The raw honesty. The response was unbelievable--the honesty and the ability to share really intimate information. The takeaway is how strong women are. It's shocking to hear the experiences we all go through, it is SHOCKING. But then to hear how, with support, the more we support each other, how strong we really are. There are a lot of women's groups coming together now, a lot of underground conversation groups, and I think enough of these groups are going to come together and say, "What's with the girl in that ad, she's airbrushed, nobody looks like that."

Not that you want real women that are not professional models, but models can be beautiful and healthy and a great example of individual beauty, and so I think we can force that change and demand it. That would really create an energy for people to rethink the way women are presented.

Find out more about Kamali's campaign at