Zoe’s Interview with Amy Hall

Introduction:

Amy Hall is the mother of a friend I went to preschool with. Amy uses she/her/hers pronouns. She is in her late 50’s and identifies as mixed race (Asian-Caucasian). Her mother is white and from Oklahoma, and her father is Chinese American. Amy spent her early childhood living in a shoreline town in Connecticut which is predominantly white and where she she was bullied for being Asian. She then lived in Pennsylvania from eighth grade through high school. Amy is one of four children and majored in Chinese for her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University.

For many years, Amy has been employed by the clothing company, Eileen Fisher. She has worked as Eileen Fisher’s first Community Relations Manager as well as their Human Rights Manager. When she began work in socially sustainable business, it was a relatively new field. Amy is an expert in this field and has testified before Congress on multiple occasions. She now lives in New York with her partner and two daughters.

Analysis:

I asked Amy about how she thinks her Asian heritage affects her identity as a woman, or vice versa. After thinking for a moment, Amy explained that she has faced the most stereotypes and assumptions about her different identities in the dating scene, as opposed to other areas of her life (such as the workplace). However, this question sparked another thought for Amy as she thought about her experiences at work:

“Um, and also because I mentioned I do a lot of public speaking, it has happened frequently that young Asian women will come up to me afterwards, and thank me for, being a role model for them. And it’s just weird.

And, um, I appreciate it. And then, I don’t say this to them, but in the back of my head, I’m like, why, why does it matter? You know, like I have this face and I could look like anything, but because I look THIS WAY I’m your role model”.

I thought this situation was very interesting. After watching the Stacey Smith’s TedTalk about representation in Hollywood, I did not find it surprising that young Asian women look up to Amy. In her TedTalk, Smith exposes the lack of representation of different types of people in movies and TV shows. Main characters are often white men. When people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, or identities ARE shown in the media, they are regularly stereotyped. People in minority groups are often not able to see individuals who truly represent them in popular movies and TV shows. This connects to Amy’s situation, because many young Asian women are not able to see people who look like them in positions of power or authority, such the one that Amy is in.

Most people we see speaking to Congress or being sought for their knowledge or expertise are white men. Asian women are underrepresented in high positions, and seeing someone who looks like you as part of of this successful group is very impactful.

I did think it was interesting that Amy sometimes has a hard time understanding why these young women look up to her so much, and I think her thought processes make sense. She feels that although she looks Asian, she has not had the same life experiences or exposure to Asian culture that some other Asian people have. It is understandable that she feels conflicted about being the role model for people she does not completely identify with.

Personally I think it is incredible that an Asian American woman is able to use this unique platform to advocate for sustainable and fair workplace practices within Eileen Fisher, and even bringing this information to Congress.

I knew Amy worked at Eileen Fisher, so after watching, The Illusionists, by Elena Rossi, I knew I had to ask about the her experience in the fashion industry. The Illusionists highlights the fashion and beauty industries patterns of exploiting women’s insecurities for profit. If women felt comfortable and confident, these industries would lose money. Because of this, it is in the best interest of these companies to keep women insecure and wanting more and more products. Through advertising, these industries use models who look a certain way and promote products which promise to help women achieve these unrealistic, ideal body standards.

I asked Amy about her experience with the fashion industry as it capitalizes on women’s insecurities, and how she has observed this through her work at Eileen Fisher. Amy responded:

“Oh, very much so because the whole basis of the clothing idea, clothing concept at Eileen Fisher is to, is to simplify women’s dressing, like getting dressed in the morning and to make them feel good about themselves. So, and why is that? Like what’s behind that is the clothes are not structured. So they’re, they’re kind of camouflagey, you know, they’re kind of loose, loose, or like, not, not figure conforming, wouldn’t say they’re baggy, but they’re just, you know, kind of boxy and so that any kind of shape or any kind of, um, you know, whether you have a tummy or you have hips or you’re straight up and down, all of that, you can wear our clothes. So it’s really meant not to accentuate the things that you’re not happy about in your body. And basically just to make you feel good about yourself, no matter what you look like and how your body is. So it’s really meant to fit all body types and that’s really the essence of the clothing. So, um, the problem is, that the models we show in the clothes are all of a type. They’re all stick thin basically. And they’re multiracial and different ages, but it’s that same body type. And we have, I’ve been, that’s been a sore point for me and for many people, I think, in the company over the years”.

Eileen Fisher’s clothes are meant to fit all bodies (as opposed to brands such as Brandy Melville, that have “one size fits most” clothing), which is wonderful. However, even as a woman-owned business, which Amy thinks influences the whole culture of her workplace, Eileen Fisher falls into the same trap as many other fashion brands. They use very skinny models, which perpetuates the unrealistic body standards that women face. It is clear that while the company is owned by a woman and they hold certain values, they are still guilty of practices that take advantage of women.

It is also interesting to me that Amy (and many of her colleagues) acknowledge that the company could be doing better in diversifying their models’ body types, but that this remains a problem. This is a perfect example of how the fashion industry continues to make women feel inadequate, even while they boast many other progressive elements in their mission as companies. This situation is so complicated, because Amy also told me about a program, The Girls Leadership Institute, that Eileen Fisher has had in place for many years. This program was developed by the company’s founder, Eileen, who felt that, as Amy puts it, there needs to be “a place for girls to preempt this, to deal, to develop positive self-image”. The company really emphasizes cultivating a more positive environment for women, but at the same time only hires skinny models, counteracting this environment they seem to be trying to create.

While discussing her work, Amy told me a story about a meeting she had at Eileen Fisher. There was a group of people coming to talk to her about a service they provide in supply chains. The oldest man in the group spoke the entire time, and did not let Amy get a word in.

“And then he finally stopped and he, after going on and on and on, and literally he was the only one talking and he said, so what do you think, do want to work with us? And this whole time he was talking and you know, I mentioned, I’m an introvert. You can’t tell because I’m talking so much right now, my anxiety was rising in my body and I could feel my, I was getting warmer and warmer. When he finished, and he said, so what do you think you want to work with us? I reached down into my bag that was at my feet. And then I pulled my iPhone out and I press the button to show, to look at the time.

And I said, I said to him, “I don’t, I I’m just going to say something to you that I’ve never said to anybody, to an outsider before coming into our company, you have just spent 30 minutes telling me why you are, why you and your firm have the perfect solution to my problems. You never once asked me how it is that I conduct my work or what my problems are. You made a whole range of assumptions about me and my work. And you didn’t give me a chance to speak and you didn’t even ask me anything”. And I said, “this is not how we do business”.

And, he just sat back and he looked completely stunned. And I have to say it was the first time I had spoken up to a man, an older man in the workplace like that, and it felt great. And, um, I was nervous as hell and I was shaking the whole time and he never, they never contacted me after that”.

This story made me think about a chapter we read in bell hook’s book, feminism is for everybody. Hooks writes, “there are many high-paid professional women, many rich women, who remain in relationships with men where male domination is the norm” (49). She goes on to write about how privileged women are able to speak up and leave these types of situations, but there are a lot of women who are simply not able to if they want to be able to feed their families. It is interesting to me that because Amy was running the meeting and held a position of power, she was able to stand up for herself. Many other women face situations like this daily, and have to stay silent if they want to be able to support themselves economically.

Many men use this dominance without thinking about it. Clearly, the man Amy confronted in this encounter was not expecting her to do so. It can be assumed that this is always how he runs meetings, and is almost never met with resistance. Our patriarchal society teaches men that acting dominant is simply the right way to act.

It is clear that male domination of the workplace is still prevalent, and Amy even faces it at a woman-owned business. She talks about the culture of Eileen Fisher as very nurturing and collaborative, which she thinks sets them apart from other companies. When I asked why that is, she responded that she is confident their workplace is so comfortable because it is woman-run and much of their staff identifies as female.

My perspective:

Something else that really stood out to me was the influence her mother had on her, and how I feel like I’ve had a similar type of influence from my own mother. However, our mothers seem to have different views of motherhood and what it means to be a woman.

Amy kept coming back to the idea of her mom being the “perfect mother” who did not work and did all the cooking and cleaning in the house. Amy has exemplified a lot of the same housekeeping habits as her mother, and she identifies these habits as what makes a “good mother”. I, on the other hand, have a mother who does almost no housework, so I do not think those traits are necessary to be a good mother. It is very interesting how social narratives continue to influence how we see motherhood and the duties of women.

I gained a lot of perspective and insight through my interview with Amy. While I have known her my whole life, I now have a deeper understanding of her different identities and roles, and how they intersect. As a white woman, I have never had to deal with the stereotypes or racism that Amy has as a mixed-race woman. Talking with Amy has helped me understand my privilege even more deeply as a white woman as opposed to a woman of color. I am able to relate to some of her life experiences as a woman, but there are many situations which I take for granted as a white person.

As part of a different generation, I also learned a lot through hearing her stories from before I was born. I have a lot of admiration for her, and I had a great time talking with her about different experiences she has navigated through her life. I am so appreciative that she took the time to talk with me.

Watch my full interview with Amy here:

Sources:

Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody. Routledge, 2015.

Rossini, Elena, director. The Illusionists, 2015, lmu.kanopy.com/video/illusionists.

Smith, Stacey. “The Data behind Hollywood’s Sexism | Stacy Smith.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kkRkhAXZGg.