Norma Kamali Is On A Mission To Make Us All Rethink "Hey Baby"

Norma Kamali is such a strong, opinionated, and unique voice in the American fashion scene that it is difficult to imagine the successful designer as anything other than brimming with confidence. Yet, for her Stop Objectification project, Kamali shares that this wasn't always the case. When she graduated from FIT and began to search for work as a fashion illustrator, the young Kamali went to an interview, only to have her prospective employer instruct her to "put your portfolio down and turn around for me." She remembers, "I just stopped in my tracks. I thought, 'What about my portfolio?' I was 18, feeling totally out of power...and I turned around. And I was so humiliated and embarrassed."
Kamali's horrible experience, she realized, wasn't an uncommon occurrence. All women are familiar with it: the "hey baby" in the street; feeling like your chest is being addressed, not you; an inappropriate grope or grab that takes you a moment to catch on. It's a part of being a woman in 2012 — but Kamali doesn't think it needs to be.
In her campaign, the designer spins "hey baby" into something positive and is encouraging women to tell their stories, upload their photos, and discuss their feelings of degradation on The idea is that, by having conversations and sharing stories, women can highlight how problematic the media portrayal of women can be while simultaneously hoping to raise awareness of objectification.
The fact that Kamali is a fashion designer — part of an industry that is consistently criticized for its unhealthy depiction of the feminine — is one of the things that makes this project so important. As she explains, it isn't about "showing skin" or one's appearance, but about self-esteem, dialogue, and awareness. As she tells WWD, "I think about the ‘stop smoking’ campaign and how hard it was for so many people. I remember when everybody smoked; then less and less, and now, when you smoke, people look at you and think, ‘Why do you want to hurt yourself?’ and you feel bad. I think this should have the same effect: that you feel bad when somebody behaves inappropriately.”
Thinking about our behavior — all of our behavior, from both men and women — is Kamali's MO, which is how she approaching her outreach campaign. As she says, change starts from simply sharing.
This is such a great program aimed at women. But a lot of the discussion revolves around the behavior of men. Do you have any thoughts or ideas as to how men (and the women who know them) can be alerted to this kind of damaging, objectifying behavior? Especially those who don't "realize" what they are doing?
"The most important thing I learned was objectification is the root cause of self-esteem and image issues for women, and it's one experience all women around the world share. We want to be careful not to police male behavior but to simply bring awareness. Awareness is meant for both men and women.
Many women don’t think they are being objectified until they have conversations with other women who tell their stories of objectification. This, in fact, is a very effective way to bring awareness. Women telling their stories to others opens the floodgates of experiences. We do an emotional cleanse by sharing our stories.
But you are right; lots of men don’t have a clue, and for the most part, they do not want to hurt us. We, however, keep the incidents of objectification secret because they are so embarrassing and humiliating. We need to talk...and keep talking. We need to sit face-to-face with the men in our lives who love us and tell them our stories.
The result will be first disbelief, then shock at what you have been living with, and then I am so sure they will become our advocates. I believe, they will think twice before talking to a woman in a way that might cause pain, or behave in a way that is objectifying."
Photos: Courtesy of Norma Kamali
Women, too, can be responsible for objectifying others. What can women change to stop propagating this type of behavior?
"I also think we are each victims of our own use of objectification. Many, many women in search for love — which we all are, more so than men — allow ourselves to mistake objectification for love. Yes, other women are responsible for objectifying women. However, do not forget no woman escapes objectification. Whether it is fashion industry ads or models we use as symbolic versions of true beauty. According to the ads and mags, we are not thin enough, rich enough, or pretty enough to wear the clothes shown and shot. All women have suffered by feeling less than someone else in a room. It comes from everywhere, but the fact that male objectification has been in existence since the beginning of time, and is accepted behavior, is the real challenge."
Some might argue fashion is the ultimate form of objectification. How would you respond to that?
"The most objectified is the model. We want her to be unrealistically thin…she is not allowed to express her opinion or really speak when she goes on a go-see for a job. She is asked to walk and to show her book, and we judge. We dissect her, and then if we book her, we do all we can to change the way she looks. Many of the girls are quite young and have no true sense of self or accomplishments. Many are faced with unrealistic situations.
We then present the photos in magazines after we air-brush them and Photoshop them to the most unattainable image of fashionable beauty. Women then feel they are not enough to meet the expectation of that photo."
Photos: Courtesy of Norma Kamali
How would you respond to someone who says that, when a woman is dressing provocatively and using cleavage/showing legs, they deserve or want to be ogled? Will we ever be able to change that? Is there truth in that claim?
"People confront me with the challenging question: How can someone like yourself talk about objectification when you make provocative swimwear? I refer to the gold-medal-winning volleyball women champions from the U.S. team, who wore the smallest bikinis and we didn't objectify them as sex objects. However, if two women wore the same bikinis in a music video where the context featured them as objects, we would have a different impression. So, it clearly is not the clothing, but the attitude and the image of the women in the clothing. Beyoncé wears my swimwear, and I never ever see her as a symbol of objectification."
What is your favorite comeback to a cat-caller?
"The best comeback is when another man tells his pal that his daughter told him a story of how she was objectified by a cat-caller on the street and how painful it was. Then he would ask his pal to think about the pain it might cause his mother, sister, daughter, or wife — that would be the response. I am trying to encourage awareness. Men just don’t believe this exists or the extent it does exist."
Photos: Courtesy of Norma Kamali

More from Living