No One Type of Leader
“I’ll do whatever I can to use my voice to tell the truth about leadership, to tell the truth about the human experience. To tell the truth, and to sit with it too.”
It’s 9:55 am. I walk into the busy coffee shop and look around. Amongst a crowd full of people eating, laughing, and working on their laptops, I see a familiar face. Quietly sipping her coffee, looking out at the streets of Downtown San Diego, is Skylar. I walk over and introduce myself and she immediately lights up. She greets me and insists that I get some coffee before the interview starts. As we sip out lattes together, we chat a bit about the day and the details of the interview. Even though I had only met her about five minutes prior to this interview, it was impossible not to love and admire her radiant energy and boldness. From the way she speaks out her thoughts, to the big, bright earrings she wears, Skylar is not afraid to go against the grain in society if it means fighting for what is right.
“What I want to do is give my clients permission to be who they are. And I say that you don’t have to emulate a man to be a successful female.”
Skylar is an African American personal stylist currently residing in San Diego, California. She is known for her start up company, Le Red Balloon, that emphasizes the importance of self love and confidence through what people wear. She doesn’t “want [her] clients worried about what they look like when they have to go do that work that they’re called to do.” So while women are busy running an entire company, she’s there to make sure they look professional and confident during those lengthy conferences and business meetings. Her main goal is to not let the media or stereotypes define or affect how an individual views him or herself. Instead, she hosts workshops for young girls and professional women about the portrayals of women through the media and how to move past these images that society forces people to try and accept as “normal.” Over the course of my interview with her, we spoke about representation, the importance of listening to others, and the struggle that women face in the workplace.
“I work with women in leadership, so a lot of them are the only female, the only person of color, the youngest or oldest person at their levels, sometimes in the entire organizations.”
Skylar’s company normally works with women who are in leadership positions. In most cases, they are in a company filled with men. This isn’t just something of their particular company either; in the film Miss Representation, they state that “as you go up the ranks in media, fewer and fewer women and people of color exist at every rung of the ladder.” Therefore, most of the time, Skylar works with women who are one of the few, or only, female representation(s) on the board. Due to them being the only female on board, they often face discrimination from their male co-workers who underestimate their abilities.
In Patricia Hill Collins’ chapter Towards A New Vision, she states that “gender oppression is structured along three main dimensions- the institutional, the symbolic, and the individual.” She then goes on to describe institutional dimension of oppression as places such as schools, businesses, government agencies and the workplace claiming that there is an equality of opportunity, when really minorities and women are discriminated against.
The women that Skylar deal with normally are a part of this institutionalized dimension of oppression. The women that are in businesses or agencies are normally seen as not fit, or not qualified to work in high ranking positions. They face oppression in these male dominated areas. While equal opportunity in the workplace sounds great on paper, it’s a lot more difficult to actually put into action when CEOs are hiring staff who are similar to them. In a story she tells, she explains how a friend of hers wins a pitch contest for an app she is trying to fund. Not only does she win, she is the only woman and non white person in the entire room. After the contest, a man comes up to her and said she only won because of her dress. This situation caused Skylar’s friend to think about this every time she won something, therefore undermining her achievements by reducing her to just her appearance. Skylar recognizes that her friend is much more qualified and earned to win that contest due to her hard work, yet the men in the room dismiss her intelligence and view her as an object.
“When women sit in leadership, the world changes for the better, and so I want to do whatever is possible to remove all that bullshit that they have to worry about so they can sit their ass in that seat and they can do the amazing work they’ve been called to do.”
Collins also goes on to describe the symbolic dimension of oppression. She states that it is “widespread, societally-sanctioned ideologies used to justify relations of domination and subordination…central to this process is the use of stereotypical or controlling images of diverse race, class, and gender groups.” This symbolic dimension also is a concrete reason that women, especially women of color, face discrimination in various fields of the workplace are are normally not taken are proper leaders. When looking at hegemonic views of femininity, it’s easy to classify women into lower roles. Women are seen as weaker than men, more emotional, and therefore are qualified as unfit for leadership positions. While this is not true in reality, its due to the symbolic dimension of oppression that women are viewed this way.
Yet despite this oppression Skylar believes that women must be in leadership roles. In order to grow in representing all different races and genders, it’s important to have a diverse leadership board. This is the exact thing that Skylar hopes to accomplish with her company. She wants to encourage women to not only take on these leadership positions, but to also not have to change themselves once they’re there. She understands that once women are in higher positions, they face more discrimination for their gender and race. Skylar personally loves working with these strong women, knowing that each day they have to constantly prove their worth at their job to people who view them with institutional and symbolic dimensions of oppression.
“Knowing that I get to work with women like that, that do things like that, that like, wake up and feel so scared to have to say what’s right at the table cause no one else is saying it but they do it anyways because they’re advocating- whoo! God damn. That’s why I do what I do. That’s why.”
“Read a story. Listen to a family tell their experience, just read one. Just listen and see what they have to say.”
During this part of the interview, Skylar begins to suggest the idea of listening to people and their stories. Before people fight about “all lives matter,” she invites them to first open themselves and ask to listen to the other side. This reminded me of AnaLouise Keating’s idea of “listening with raw openness” in her chapter titled Beyond Intersectionality. In this chapter, Keating expands on her idea of listening with raw openness. She states that “we need to engage in risky conversations- potentially transformational dialogues where listeners don’t jump to conclusions but just open our minds and listen, with the intention to learn from and, potentially, be changed by what we hear.” This definition means that before people cho0se sides and fight for something they might not believe, she encourages that they listen to the opposing side and gain information about what exactly their standpoint is.
Skylar elaborates on this by discussing how she is currently taking a class about Islam. She had the desire to learn more about this religion and the struggles that they face, so she decided to take a class and just learn more about it. Even though the topic can be a bit tough at times to discuss, Skylar stresses the importance of bringing those topics to light and let people share their stories. Allowing people to do this opens up a conversation and acknowledging the fact that there is problem.
“So a lot of the times we deny other people’s pain, like “racism not a thing”, “I don’t see color”, whatever, because it’s uncomfortable. But it’s like, you’re uncomfortable? I’ve been uncomfortable my whole life.”
“Beauty is not a privilege, not for people who are conventionally attractive. It’s not for the thin, it’s not for the young, you know, it’s inclusive. It’s like, which one of us can leave the house every fucking day feeling like Beyonce at the Super Bowl.”
Skylar’s mission on reshaping the way people view themselves through clothes all started when she began to work at Nordstrom’s in the swimsuit department. Many older women came looking for swimsuits that would just cover up their bodies, yet Skylar didn’t settle for them just to be content. She wanted them to be proud of who they are and how they look. They way that these women view themselves are most likely due to how the media portrays women as young and beautiful. They glorify young, thin women in bikinis on the beach and make jokes out of older women who try to do the same. This can be seen in the film Miss Representation, which states that women above 40 only make up only 26% of women on TV. Since media has such a large impact on the views of women, and everyone in general, this can be taken as older women not having a place in society anymore after they lose their youthful beauty. Skylar’s mission in her company challenges that notion of older women feeling out of place due to their body.
Skylar can relate to their feeling of insecurity towards their body, since as a college student felt hatred towards her body. Skylar developed an eating disorder when she first moved to LA, having the pressures of the city and college atmosphere overwhelm her. Her ambitions to be a model and to try and fit into the stereotypical ideals of beauty caused her to stray from who she is and instead conform into this “mold” that agencies wanted her to be. After the constant rejection from agencies and the pressure to fit in with everyone else, she finally had enough. When she was casted for the show Real World, a reality TV show on MTV, she had the courage and strength to tell them no. She was done being pushed around and giving into what everyone else wanted. Skylar is forever in debt to this revelation, stating that it was one of the “first decisions that [she] ever really had to make from this place of knowing and wisdom.”
“So the work that I do is because I have felt awful my whole life. I felt like, ‘nah bitch you’re not good enough, you’re not enough. You need to do something with your hair, you need to look like what every human feels.’ But also when you’re a person of color you feel that in a way that is so different because you can’t change that.”
It was due to this surge in defiance that allowed Skylar to realize what the media had done to her. The glamour of Hollywood had made her lose herself. How many others had this city that thrived on stereotypes and appearance taken? This thought lead Skylar to create a mission for her company and to prevent this blindness from happening to other young women across the country. She draws from real experiences and emotions in order to share the message that no one should tell you who to be.
This aligns with a quote from Miss Representation that states “if the media is sending girls the message that their value lies in their bodies, this can only leave them feeling disempowered and distract them from making a difference and becoming leaders.” The impact that the media has on the views of generations is astonishing. If little girls are taught that the only value they have are in their bodies, then they won’t be motivated to pursue higher positions in government or businesses. With the workshops that Skylar does, she is putting enforcement and confidence back into girls and women who have become a victim to the mass media. She encourages them to take on leadership roles in organizations and to create role models out of women who are in strong positions.
“It’s all media vs. culture, culture vs. media, it’s really insidious and really quite powerful.”
In her workshops, she tells girls to pick popular songs off the radio. Then they deconstruct them and analyze the lyrics. After this, they then look at everything they are supporting when they purchase or stream this song. From the producer, the artist, and what message they are condoning when they decide to put money towards this song. This valuable lesson makes girls realize on a deeper level of what the media and entertainment industries are doing when advertising songs and artists. It also helps them understand and be aware more of what a song is telling someone and for them to start looking at who they are buying from and what that business supports. Skylar then helps them go through their social media and advises them to unfollow everyone that they use to compare themselves with. She emphasizes that social media is not suppose to be a place to lose self confidence.
Unfortunately, the lack of women of color in media is a stressing problem that in slowly being resolved. Its due to this lack of representation that women of color view themselves as lesser than white people. The media shapes our vision of beauty by showing audiences young, white, thin women and calling them “beautiful.” For women of color, who don’t see their skin tones or natural hair in advertisements, this can be a serious problem. When asked about representation, Skylar stated how when she was little, she would “cover up [her] hair with tee shirts, cause [she] wished so bad that [she] could have straight hair.” She then goes onto explain that this hateful relationship she had with her hair was due to the fact that she “never [saw] people’s natural hair anywhere.”
“I realized I was black and that my value was not the same as other people’s, I was three. I was three. You learn it, you hear stories of how people who look like you are treated, your family experiences it all the time. You never see anyone who looks like you anywhere.”
“I don’t want you to change yourself to be able to sit there. You come as you are. There’s no one type of leader, that’s for damn fucking sure.”
Upon the end of the interview, I held many emotions inside me. Simply hearing Skylar express her concerns about the future and the portrayal of women of color in the media broke my heart. Even after being exposed to this information through course readings over the semester, I felt a different emotion upon hearing it from someone who has been directly impacted by it. I could relate to parts of the interview describing women’s representation in media, but hearing the extension of women of color in media was very interesting to hear. My sister, who attended the interview with me and has never taken a Women’s Studies course, made a comment as we were walking out of the coffee shop.
“I feel so angry right now. I want to do something to help.” she stated.
Simply stated, this is what people need to do. Like Skylar stated earlier, just listen to a person’s story. Hear what they have to say. You could be inspired by their situation and decide to bring about change. Turn that rage into action. All women can relate to being corrupted by the media. From when girls are young, hegemonic views of femininity are implanted into their brains through movies and traditions. As girls grow older, their value is undermined and their body is sexualized by the patriarchy that rules over the corporate world. Yet women must rise above this. They are so much more than what the media portrays of them. Society needs to demand that Hollywood creates a reflection of real women, not ideals. While Hollywood is learning and expanding in including diverse, complex women of color characters, there is still a lot of work to be done in the future.