Friday, February 28, 2014

Completely Missing the Point -The Misaimed Fandom of The Doll Project

My so-called diet: Thinspiration, 1994
My so-called diet: Thinspiration, 1994

"Satire doesn't stand a chance against reality anymore."
— Jules Feiffer

"The core idea of Poe's law is that a parody of something extreme can be mistaken for the real thing, and if a real thing sounds extreme enough, it can be mistaken for a parody."
— TV Tropes

When you consider Poe's Law, it was inevitable that, with The Doll Project having satirical elements, that it would be misinterpreted by some people. But what saddens me is that some of those people happen to be anorexic and bulimic, and look to my images as a source of "thinspiration." I know this because of what I discover when I find out what sites are referring people to mine. And it breaks my heart. So in this post, I want to speak directly to the legion of pro-Ana and pro-Mia readers who are out there.

It was never my intention to create material that would "trigger" people to starve themselves, though satirizing and exaggerating the kinds of images put forth in fashion magazines, catalogs, and ads could have that effect, unintentionally. It saddens me that my images are being shared for such destructive reasons. I use dolls with skeleton bodies to symbolize the absurdity of the fashion industry's fetish for extreme thinness. The skeletons also symbolize the fact that eating disorders are a slow suicide. It's a reminder and a warning, not another ideal to aspire to. Yes, bones are beautiful, but you shouldn't be able to see yours so easily. And if you care anything about them, don't starve yourself. Do you really want to have to start taking osteoporosis medicine in your 20's?

Your refusal to seek help also saddens me. To use an example not related to eating disorders, it reminds me of Amy Winehouse's song, "Rehab." Every time I listen to it now, I get chills. If she hadn't been so defiant in her refusal to get treatment for her alcoholism, she might still be alive today. I also think about Ned Vizzini, whose book and film It's Kind of A Funny Story recount his brief hospitalization for depression as a teenager. He tried to downplay the seriousness of his condition. And then last year, over a decade after the events in his story took place, he took his own life. Eating disorders are just as deadly, if not more so.

I'd like to close this blog post with the dedication from the Doll Project book:

This project is for all the real Anas, Mias, and Edies out there. I pray that you will someday learn to give yourselves the nourishment you deserve, that you will stop using food (or the lack thereof) as the tool of your own self-destruction, that you will find the strength that only comes from cherishing yourselves, and that you will come to see the beauty within yourselves, which is the beauty that truly matters.

Also, here are a few links where there are people who can actually encourage you to get better instead of getting worse:

National Eating Disorders Association
Something Fishy
About Face
Beauty Redifined

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Before The Doll Project, there was "Superstar"

Exquisite Corpse: Death of a Supermodel

Exquisite Corpse: Death of A Supermodel - from the Doll Project book

I had heard about Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story when I was taking film classes as an undergraduate, though I had never seen it. It was an underground thing, a legend, very hard to find. Until YouTube, of course. As an artist, it's hard to decide sometimes whether it's best to view work that is similar to mine, or if it would somehow distract me or even derail my process altogether. But the comparisons between what I am doing with Barbie dolls in The Doll Project and what Todd Haynes did with Barbie dolls in Superstar are inevitable.

I finally watched this film for the first time a few months ago and was very moved by it. I had my doubts about a film dramatized with Barbies. But I shouldn't have doubted at all. It was a moving a powerful story that stayed with me for weeks after my first viewing. If you want to see it too, watch the video below. It's only 43 minutes, but if you like experimental films, it's 43 minutes well spent.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This video could break your heart

"How come you only brought water for lunch, Ana?"

Check out this powerful video made by a group of girls, their own public service announcement for their peers.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Shrinking Women" by Lily Myers - a poem for NEDA awareness week

"Inheritance is accidental." --"Shrinking Women" by Lily Myers

I came across this poem several months ago, but wanted to save it for this week. It makes me something I wrote for the forthcoming Doll Project book, "Why is no one asking why, as women become more visible in the world, we must also take up less space?"

Monday, February 24, 2014

Myths and Unicorns

"Do any of you know someone who likes to take food from the cafeteria and hide it?" Asked the woman giving the presentation in the school auditorium.

My friends all looked at me and laughed. The woman at the microphone noticed, tried to get them to point me out, but they wouldn't give me up. And I had the wonderful thrill you can only get as a teenager who has gotten away with something.

Knowing me, I probably had my favorite plain bagels in a Ziploc bag in my backpack. If you're counting calories as religiously as I was, every single one of them had better be delicious. The food I liked was hard to come by, so when the cafeteria had it, I had to save it. My parents gave me money for food, but I would rather spend it on clothes that showed off how skinny I was. I was thrilled to find a pair of button-fly flares on the clearance rack at Express that had been marked a size 1/2. They may have actually been mislabeled, but to me, to be able to fit into that special pair of jeans was a requirement for my own self-worth and happiness. Being able to wear them meant that I was in control of something. My grades weren't as high as everyone thought they should be, but my jeans size was as low as I wanted it to be. And when I got a printout from my P.E. class that said my BMI was 17 and I was underweight, I was ecstatic.

Yes, that's right. I had an eating disorder for 9 years. But I am only just now talking about it on this blog, although I have told people who have asked about it in person when they've seen The Doll Project. Though I never reached the point of needing to be hospitalized, though I could "fly under the radar," though I found ways to hide it, I starved myself and submitted myself to punishing exercise regimes from the time I was 14 until I was 23. But I was embarrassed to talk about it because Black girls don't get eating disorders, right?

That's what some people say when they see the Black dolls in the pictures from The Doll Project. But that's why I chose to include them. Bulimia, not anorexia, is actually more common in Black girls as far as eating disorders go, statistically, but there are Black girls who restrict their food intake, too. I've been there, and along the way I even met other African-American girls who were doing the same thing, too.

This is my first post for National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2014. All week long, I will be posting new images from The Doll Project and some videos I've been saving. Think of it as food for thought, as they are scheduled to be published around lunchtime, at 12 noon central time. I wanted to start out with this food for thought because it's something I have never shared before, and I wanted to. I'm planning to self-publish the Doll Project book this spring, but felt like I needed to say this here first. I want people to know that recovery is possible, and that there are Black folks who have had eating disorders. We aren't unicorns.

My First Diet, 1989


please don't feed me 14-web

I want to end this post with a quote from an excellent article. And also, there's a great video from Black Folk Don't that I think you should see.

"As women of color, we often have two conflicts: trying to hold on to the traditions and expectations of our distinct cultures while trying to fit in with mainstream society, especially if the United States is not the country we were born in. When it comes to eating disorders, conflicting cultural standards for beauty and acceptance are the culprits. Your culture of origin may hold one set of standards for beauty; but when you are met with another set of standards altogether, this can complicate your personal experiences with trying to be a woman, a youth, as well as a person of color. You may have been fine with your full-figured body, which may be mostly desired in your culture. However, in mainstream society, you may find that being thin is better, while being curvy is bad. In an attempt to fit in more with mainstream society, you may consider changing your body shape by vomiting after every meal, over exercising, or even starving yourself, putting yourself into the misunderstood and often deadly world of eating disorders. You may be aware that what you are doing is not only unhealthy and is going against your cultural values, but you are conflicted because you want to 'fit in.'”
from Breaking it Down: Eating Disorders and Young Women of Color

Black Folk Don't: Have Eating Disorders from NBPC on Vimeo.

related links:
Black girls have body issues too by Lola Adesioye
It’s Not Just White Girls by Jessica Bennett

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Post-Consumerism in CounterPunch Magazine

You never know who's watching when you get on TV. A writer named Lee Ballinger saw me last December when I was on Jeopardy! It turns out that he works for CounterPunch Magazine, a publication that "tells the facts and names the names." He purchased a copy of Post-Consumerism and decided to write an article about it. And I really like what he had to say about me. In fact, I was honored. Here's a brief excerpt:

Yet against all odds, Tiffany Gholar has managed to create an excellent body of work, much of which is presented in her book Post-Consumerism.  For her, post-consumerism means making use of the “cultural residue” of our manic drive to consume. She takes boxes, packing materials, strips of cardboard and puts them on canvases and then emblazons them with paint. She calls it “building a painting.”

I felt like he truly understood what I was trying to say. You can read more inside the magazine itself.

I'm on page 25!

The hard copy edition is $6 and you can order it at this link. Once the online edition is available, I will let you know. But in the meantime, I encourage you to support independent journalism by getting a copy. And if reading this makes you want to get your own copy of Post-Consumerism, click here for the paper and iPad editions, and here for the PDF version.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Another Mattel misstep?

At my latest open studio, a lot of people were asking me what I thought about Mattel's latest venture, putting Barbie in the 50th anniversary of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. I'm still trying to figure it out. For now, I feel ambivalent about it, as I do about a lot of the things Mattel does with Barbie.

The first Mattel controversy I remember surrounded Teen Talk Barbie. She had a lot to say and she voiced her opinions on various things, including her math class, which was tough. And she said so, too.

"Math class is tough!" Exclaimed the frustrated Barbies in their polka-dotted Blossom hats.


I didn't play with Barbies anymore by the time these dolls came out, but as a 12-year-old girl struggling with pre-algebra and algebra, I could relate. My math classes were tough! I was in the gifted program. Everything we did was difficult. And the math teacher I had at the time didn't explain things in a way that I understood and I ended up needing a tutor.

But all the adults on the news were freaking out about what Barbie said and saying that she was stereotypical. Maybe it was just my childish naivete or the fact that I spent my childhood going to school with super-smart girls, but I didn't know there was a stereotype about girls not being good at math. And that, as well as other news stories about girls and math, made me feel bad because I genuinely felt that my math class was tough, and it made me feel awkward about asking for help with it because now I was becoming a stereotype. (And that's what they call a stereotype threat.) Oddly enough, I ended up going to a math and science high school. Unsurprisingly, Teen Talk Barbie was discontinued and has now become a rare collectors' item.

Mattel made another mistake a few years later when they released this doll, co-branded with a popular Nabisco cookie:

That's right, Oreo Barbie. Obvisously, they were completely oblivious to what the term (along with other snack-based racial insults like apple and Twinkie) means to people of color. And so another doll got pulled from the market and became a sought-after eBay commodity.

But I think the most unfortunate controversy--which shouldn't have been a controversy at all, in my opinion--was what happened when Barbie's best friend Midge got pregnant. Instead of welcoming the new addition and possibilities of a married doll with a little baby, a minivan, friendly neighbors, and Barbie as a pediatrician specializing in infants, the family values people were angry about pregnant Midge's very existence. So they got rid of her, her baby, her husband, her neighbors, her minivan, her pediatrician, her elderly parents, and their beautiful home. Yes, in the name of family values, they destroyed an entire family, and community. All because of a plastic baby bump with a tiny newborn inside.

Midge and her mom, the two most expensive dolls of The Doll Project

Let me break this down another way: because of public outcry, (OMG! Now I have to tell my daughter where babies come from!) Mattel was forced to get rid of two dolls with the most realistic body types they ever made (and there were both Black and White versions), not to mention a diverse family (Midge's neighbors were Asian) and a Barbie with a high-level position in the medical field. And so once again, they became a coveted eBay item amongst collectors. I still don't have Black Grandma Barbie yet and I am so frustrated. I need her for The Doll Project.

So how do I feel about the latest controversy? I guess the best way to break it down is to dissect the second half of my first sentence in this post: "putting Barbie in the 50th anniversary of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition." Barbie is, you might remember from a previous post about self-objectification and fashion dolls, a clone of a doll based on a pinup girl comic strip character in a German men's magazine from the 50's. Her name was Lilli.

And now, in some ways, it seems like Barbara Millicent Roberts is getting back to her roots. She made her debut in a black and white striped bathing suit, a one piece that offers about as much coverage as the one she's wearing in Sports Illustrated. Because Barbie was so sexy, Mattel created Midge as the girl-next-door (whatever that means) best friend with freckles who wore less makeup. I read somewhere that by doing so, the company made it easier for mothers to buy the dolls for their daughters. Midge made the prospect of fashion dolls less threatening.

Which brings me to thoughts of the various waves of feminism. Should Barbie be condemned for being sexy? Should real women? Should we be forced to cover ourselves up because our bodies are too distracting? Does wearing makeup mean that we shouldn't be taken seriously? Does being interested in fashion make us shallow? Is it really so terrible to be considered beautiful? Is it wrong to get paid for it as a fashion model or to pose in a swimsuit? Must we all submit to the strictures of those who would have us all dress in shapeless clothing and not wear any jewelry or cosmetics? The academics who push for this sort of thing seem no better than adherents of various faiths who seem to believe in a sort of divine frumpiness, including some of the older members of the strict church I grew up in.

One commenter seemed upset with what I wrote about in my post about fashion dolls and self-objectification, and I felt bad about it. I was worried I may have come across as "slut-shaming" when really, that wasn't my intent. And I almost feel like I detect a hint of that in the latest Barbie controversy. I mean, it is a one piece bathing suit, after all. Not that wearing a bikini makes a woman a lesser human being, but what Barbie is wearing is what most people would call "tasteful," I think.

I think a big part of the real reason so many people are so upset about what Mattel has done has to do with how real women are portrayed in the media. If being a swimsuit model were just one of many roles women play in mainstream media, perhaps Barbie's Sports Illustrated appearance wouldn't be so big of an issue. But it isn't. And not only that, but it seems that in our society people cannot fathom the idea that a woman could be both conventionally attractive and accomplished. Beautiful women are often portrayed as stupid; smart women are often portrayed as unattractive. Notice how people's heads nearly explode at the revelation that certain glamorous women throughout history were also well-read, knowledgeable in mathematics or hard sciences, or majored in difficult subjects in college. Documentaries like Miss Representation have compiled a great deal of statistical information on the subject and it's definitely worth viewing in light of this current conflict.

But Barbie's appearance in Sports Illustrated also seems like a conceptual art piece to me, exploring the idea of the simulacrum. Simulacrum is a concept of post-modernism. It is a word for the phenomenon in which the copy of something is so close to the original that the original is no longer important. In some ways, Barbie is the simulacrum of the overly-Photoshopped fashion model. Her hair doesn't need to be bleached because it is already blonde, her teeth are already whitened, her face is perfectly symmetrical, and her eyes are disproportionately large. Her skin tone is perfectly even, and her body is the type modeling agencies are looking for. With the exception of her full head of hair (which never gets split ends) she is hairless. Her facial expression is molded into a smile. Her cosmetics are permanently painted on. So she doesn't need any Photoshopping. And because she is only 11.5 inches tall, dressing her doesn't require the use of a great deal of fabric. So she is the perfect model.

I was watching another documentary I highly recommend called America The Beautiful in which the director interviewed a fashion designer who claimed he needed the thinnest possible models so he wouldn't have to use so much expensive fabric for his designs. And I remember thinking, "then why don't you just use Barbies for your models?" And when I look at what Mattel did from that perspective, it almost seems satirical and brilliant. But this is a company that doesn't exactly have a track record of brilliance, so I know that's not what this is about.

It's about money, and the fact that I found out about Barbie's appearance in Sports Illustrated not via one of the collector blogs I frequent but on a radio show about money (NPR's Marketplace) is evidence of that. Bloomberg, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal are all over this story. It's a marketing move, plain and simple. They did it to impress financial analysts who might now be persuaded to add some Mattel stock to more mutual funds and index funds. They did it to pacify stockholders who probably weren't happy with the company's earnings last quarter. They did it in blatant disregard for their main customers, parents buying toys for their daughters. Ignoring everything that parents or feminists might say, they claim to be "unapologetic" about it.

And this isn't a toy that can be recalled from shelves. It's print and digital media that will be archived and reproduced. It will be remembered for a long time. In the interview I heard on Marketplace, they mentioned some vague notion of brand awareness amongst the women who will read the Swimsuit Edition. It almost sounded like they were trying to attract collectors. But as a collector, I can tell you that it doesn't excite me at all. And I am sure that a lot of my fellow collectors would agree. From what I've gathered from collector blogs, most of us do want more from Mattel, but we want more articulation (meaning dolls that can bend their elbows, wrists, and knees), more diversity (how about having Latino and Asian Ken dolls available all the time?), more dolls with heads of normal proportions (instead of giant cartoon heads). But this? None of us asked for this.

When I was in college, I applied unsuccessfully for internships, and then later for jobs at Mattel. Every once in a while, I think, "See, they should have hired me." This is another one of those times. I could think of so many more ways they could have made Barbie more interesting without upsetting so many people. For example, instead of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Swimsuit Edition, why not focus more on the 50th anniversary of Barbie's teenage sister Skipper, which is also this year? Why not reach out to children suffering with cancer and make some dolls who look like they've been through chemotherapy? People have been petitioning for years for that, but only Mattel's rival, MGA (maker of Bratz) has actually done it. Ultimately, what Mattel has done is just another sleazy example of corporate greed, which, as an occupier, does not surprise me. More than anything, I feel disappointed.

I don't plan to stop collecting Barbie dolls because of this, though. But for those who are so inclined but don't want to give up the fashion doll habit altogether, and also for people looking for other dolls they could buy for their kids, check these out:

Prettie Girls
Kuhrn and Yue-Sai WaWa
Lottie Dolls

And as a final note, I wanted to add that as I near completion of The Doll Project, I have sometimes worried about what Mattel might do if they saw the way in which I have photographed their product. I was worried about being sued, as some other artists have, for "compromising their brand integrity" or some such corporate nonsense. But after this, I don't think that's a legitimate argument anymore.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Behind the scenes of The Doll Project

Last month I sold all but five of the prints in The Doll Project solo show at The Adler School of Professional Psychology. I decided to use the money I earned to get everything I needed to finish the project. I had a very long wish list of dolls, clothing, and props I needed to take the photos I envisioned. So I went for it. And a whole lot of the things I ordered came this week.

This vintage Casey doll came packed in a box full popcorn. Yes, the kind you eat, not the Styrofoam variety.

I am always afraid that buying used items online will lead to insect infestations, and opening a box full of edible popcorn did nothing to allay my fears.

An eBay seller sent me a doll wrapped in a layer of Saran Wrap with what appeared to be a piece of vinyl wallpaper folded around it as a makeshift envelope. That was pretty weird, too.

Anyway, I am glad that I will soon be able to take the remaining pictures so that I can finish my Doll Project book.

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