By Heather Niccoli
I’d like to introduce you all to someone who’s making a major positive impact on our society. Meet Camilla Meshiea, the woman behind Idefinemybeauty.org. When I came across her TEDx Talk, I knew I had to have her in HaveHeart. Camilla isn’t afraid to speak the truth and stand for what women desperately need: a change in media. Here’s what Camilla had to say about IDMB when I asked her what inspired her to start it.
“I was fed up of seeing imagery of athletic women from magazines and apparel companies that simply don’t look like any of the athletic women I know,” Camilla said. “There are actually a number of reasons why: I love fashion and am fed up with how myopic most fashion magazines remain.
Media has made beauty an ugly word. We’re all consuming a wonderful idea that has been transmogrified into something degrading.
Beauty is in and for anyone who wants it and it’s perverse that we don’t have permission to feel our beauty without threat of being judged.
I believe the individual must be the arbiter of their own body, the writer of their own definition of beauty. This let’s us reclaim pleasure in the self while opting out of the judgment/comparison culture.
I believe that beauty is not in direct opposition to feminism.
I believe feminism is in jeopardy. Too many people are confused about what it actually is, what it actually does, and how much we have to thank it for our current freedoms.
In actuality the issue isn’t BEAUTY, it’s respect: self-respect and mutual respect. If we had deeper self-respect we wouldn’t be so easily swayed by stupid rules made up by people trying to capitalize on us. If we had mutual respect we wouldn’t be so quick to judge and degrade others.
I wanted to create a visual counterculture, specifically a visual experience that was the total opposite of looking at a fashion magazine. I don’t necessarily feel my self-esteem lowers after flipping through a standard mainstream fashion magazine, but I certainly don’t close one feeling inspired or uplifted. On the other hand, when I look at the collection of images on the IDMB feed, I get PUMPED. Seeing all these different manifestations of power, happiness, pride, self-love, exuberance, you can’t help but feel uplifted. IDMB is not saying that everyone must BE beautiful and we’re not saying WHAT is beautiful. Furthermore, not everyone WANTS to be beautiful but anybody should have permission if they desire. I became frustrated with the way a lot of the body positive movement ends up continuing the problem of impossible standards. It can be shaming towards thin women, surgery, or fashion-y types. To me the point isn’t about telling other people what the “correct” conduct is, it’s to say that adult women have the right to define their physical self-expression and to take pleasure in their bodies without apology or justification. People need to feel comfortable in their bodies.”
You should know that Camilla is quite the athlete. The changes in her body as she got stronger truly changed how people viewed her. I really wanted to know what that was like for her, since in her TEDx, she describes how people reacted to her newfound shape. “Other people did look at me differently as I became more prononced in my muscularity -I often felt as though I was an oddity,” Camilla said. “People thought I was extreme or obsessive, told me I wasn’t womanly. I was working as a photographer in NY at the time and the standard of smallness and thinness was omnipresent. I would spend the day working with young women who were making themselves sick to be thin (which has a lot to do with why I stopped working in the field), then I’d go to the Muay Thai gym at night and would be surrounded by women who were the exact opposite of that, we were getting a thrill out of seeing our bodies get bigger, but more importantly we were getting a thrill out of finding power in our bodies, we walked taller for it, felt like we had discovered an amazing secret society where women were supportive of each other, where we could kick each other in the face then go out for dinner afterwards and laugh about it. So really, the beauty idea was more about self love, self care and marveling in the gift of the human body. It was also about confidence, not being apologetic about who we are, not feeling bad for taking up space, we learned to feel powerful and masterful and see the things that made us different as a bonus, a talent, not something to hide. It’s another of these impossible contradictions like the ones I talk about in my TEDx: To throw like a girl, means to throw badly but to throw like a guy makes you less of a woman, so should we just not do anything? Of course not, but we will have to keep doing things that people think we aren’t capable of until the issue is moot,” she adds.
One thing I wanted to speak with Camilla about was the whole “workout photo” debate. If you haven’t heard it, it’s a new kind of body shaming for women. You might recognize this as the photos on Pinterest that show thin, sculpted women as the ideal size a lady should strive to be after working out.
“Anything that pushes self-acceptance is great but there are more and more renegade sources pushing fabricated rules of good health,” says Camilla. “It’s not clear how we can monitor and standardize this imagery but I know that many large social media outlets are working with The National Eating Disorders Association to help develop guidelines that bar the promotion of disordered or self-harming behaviors. One photo will not represent an entire gender, personality type or body type, and instead of sitting down and giving up because we don’t feel represented, I say, stand up, take a picture or write a story or pick up a tennis racket and show the world something different. Tolerance is born, in part, by visibility, so the more we reveal the more we broaden the perspective.”
Before I concluded our interview, I realized to myself just how much she “gets it.” Most of the “Re-Define Beauty!” campaigns have been glossy, cutesy attempts for big business to make more money, some sites shame others, and some just blatantly put down skinny women. It’s sad. Camilla understands the importance of us coming together. I wanted to know what she thought the call for change was, what it should be. “We as a society have become less analytical, more passive and afraid of individuality,” Camilla says. “It’s strange because I think of the US as a place that championed the outsiders, the misfits and the sore thumbs of the world and fashion has played a large part in celebrating these types. That said, if all magazines stopped photo shopping and put a full spectrum of humans in it’s imagery it wouldn’t count for anything if when we walk the streets, we are still insulting each other behind backs or spending more time watching TV then reading, volunteering and contributing. We have to understand that we are complicit in the problem. That is, we can’t only blame media. When we chose to devalue other people’s experiences and bodies, or blindly reject change or persist in consuming garbage media without a critical eye, or reject the value of feminism, or reject the value of beauty we become the pushers of gender bias and judgment culture. As long as the Queen B culture, the devaluation of education, the passivity of victim mentality, and the apathy of spoiled brats are championed, we are a part of our own problem. Most mainstream media is still peddling the same tropes and stereotypes. We’re eating trash food, watching trash TV and trash talking anyone who thinks anything that opposes our spoon-fed trash ideologies. That’s why I’m thankful for platforms like TED and HaveHeart. We are famished for perspectives that are inclusive, evolved and unfamiliar. We need to inspire people to speak up in contrast to this. We need to inspire writers, directors, thinkers, script writing and image making that show alternative perspectives, we need to flood media with these alternative perspectives.