Banking on Women’s Bodies

Daily, I feel helplessness, anger, frustration and fear that maybe I am the only one that knows this company understands women as plantation owners understood coolies, as bodies to use and control, and persons to disrespect and dismiss, because it’s good for profits. —  Gabrielle Hosein

There was a time when feminists, from the Caribbean and beyond, picketed beauty contests. They protested the sexualisation and objectification of women, the reduction of women’s worth to their physical attractiveness, the narrow, ageist, heterosexist and racialised standards of attractiveness.

That time has come and gone.

But as with all things of merit, a throwback is sometimes essential.

Can we talk about the economics and (gender) politics of aesthetic and sexualised labour–  of entering a competition to be crowned the calendar girl of a local beer? The fitness regime, diet, clothing, hair and other services needed to put your best face and crotch forward do not come cheap.  But hey, regardless of what kind of work we do we all make some personal investments in our future, right?

But shouldn’t we question the trade-offs and the pay off? Is modeling a swimsuit that is not really a swimsuit worth a shot at the prize money? Is modelling a swimsuit that is not really a swimsuit worth explicit photos of you living on forever on the internet and out of your control?  Isn’t it just as feminist to acknowledge that women make choices to participate in these competitions as it is to question the context and conditions that make such choices not only possible but seem like positive career options?

If we think of promotions work as work, and it is work, what responsibility do employers have to the (usually) young women that they employ and dress in very little while making tolerance of sexual harassment part of the job? What are their ethical responsibilities in requiring such aesthetic and sexualised labour from young women?

Recently I learnt a lot about aesthetic and sexualised labour from a young woman with first-hand experience.   She outlined how recruiters sought out college/university students for this work, using education as a proxy for class.  She argued that they produced a working environment filled with sexual harassment, no pay for overtime hours worked and a low hourly rate.  When asked why students took those jobs she mentioned that some used the money to pay fees or buy books and that as a marketing student she was hoping for some experience in the field.  She also repeated a familiar tale of the racialised and class-based segregation of the market for “promotions girls.”  Tall, slim, light-skinned, long weave-wearing late-teens- to- early-twenties women were preferred for “upscale” events. Alcoholic beverages thought to have a wider consumer base among working-class black Caribbean men opted for “promo girls” with larger breasts and behinds. Whether upscale or lowdown the skimpy dress code remained the same so too did the expectation that workers flirt with customers.  At some events,  a is bodyguard hired to “protect” the young women at work, though even being touched by or dancing with male patrons is not outside of the expectations of the job.

There are standards for sex work that seek to ensure a safe working environment and protections of workers’ rights.  When young women aren’t even sure that the work in which they are engaged is sex work how can they negotiate effectively or even claim ownership of their image and determine how sexually explicit photographs are distributed?

Caribbean feminist, Gabrielle Hosein, has written about the sexism in Caribbean advertising:

Daily, I feel sick that the men and women at Carib Brewery put their minds and their money to so deliberately put down capable, hardworking and flourishing women and girls who only ask for an equal chance to aspire and achieve. Daily, I turn the blame inward, against myself, for trying to get us home amidst the afternoon traffic, like everyone else, rather than destroying those signs however I can because my baby girl deserves more than these people with power will allow her. Daily, I feel helplessness, anger, frustration and fear that maybe I am the only one that knows this company understands women as plantation owners understood coolies, as bodies to use and control, and persons to disrespect and dismiss, because it’s good for profits.

I want  to end with Gabrielle’s words of the helplessness, anger and frustration you feel as women’s bodies are used by corporations with our complicity and at great cost to ensuring that our societies recognise women as the complex, human beings that we are; and not as faceless “brown tings” to be exploited for alcohol sales.

Edited to add: In Barbados there has been public outcry over the Banks Calendar Girl “swimwear” choices which many describe as degrading.

Darkies & Brownins: Commodifying & Consuming Women


The photo above is for an upcoming fete in Barbados.  It invites attendees to bring either a pack of chocolate teatimes or a pack of vanilla teatime cookies to indicate one’s preference for either dark-skinned black women or light-skinned black women.  Except that we know from Buju Banton and from Patricia Mohammed that there is much more going on here than mere individual preference: (hetero)sexualising, commodifying and consuming women, equating them with food, reducing a woman’s value to her attractiveness to men, producing norms around beauty, hair, attractiveness and body size that are racialised and gendered; and of course, our history as plantation societies and its attendant anti-black racism and sexism which excludes some black women  and includes others insofar as their bodies can be consumed through sexual labour, service and desire. In short, the colonization of our very desires. The very intimate reach of power.

In Patricia Mohammed’s article she makes the point that in Buju’s apologetic “Love Black Woman” the black woman gets respect, not desire.  Desire is reserved for the brownin. The ad above clearly shows both the “darkie” and “brownin” both as objects of desire. And that’s not progress, that’s the problem. Women remain as objects of male desire. In our recent #catchafyah tweet chat women shared their dislike for being disrespected, objectified and harassed on the street. Some, however, admitted to wanting “a sweet word” when they walk by and to feeling disappointed when no such sweet word was forthcoming. One shared that as a teenager with low self-esteem not feeling desired by men left her feeling bad about herself.

Edited to add: Creative Commess argues that the term darkie (at least in the context of Trinidad and Tobago) is used for both men and women and

functions as an important reaffirmation of Afro-descendant beauty, by calling attention to a certain skin tone in all its chocolate splendor. Its contemporary usage in Trinbagonian society is also markedly different from the American term “darky” (or other cultural uses, with or without a “y”) which is an old termed racial slur, rooted in the era of blackface, epitomizing the negative stereotypes of all dark-skinned people.

At CODE RED for gender justice we have an ongoing project which examines race and gender in Caribbean advertising.  (See also Rum and Rape Culture, our most popular post to date.) Please email us your submissions at redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com.

Rum & Rape Culture

Earlier this month we highlighted the use of sexist, racialised images of women (or rather parts of their bodies) in Caribbean advertising.

Via Caribbean feminist blogger & creative writer, Creative Commess, I came across this advertisement for rum which basically endorses date rape.

“Avoid the friend zone.  Offer her a real drink,” says Angostura, a Trinidad & Tobago rum distillery.

Edited to add: After posting this image on our tumblr (yes, we’re on tumblr too!) some people responded that we had misinterpreted the ad, that it is in fact NOT a nod to rape culture.  The other interpretation is that if a young man offers a woman a good quality drink she will be impressed with his “good taste” and want to have a sexual relationship with him rather than just be friends.  (Apparently friendship is not what men are supposed to be after.) There is still a lot to be unpacked in even that interpretation of the ad. The message remains problematic and draws on gendered ideologies about men and women and sexual-economic exchange.


No thanks, Banks!

So Banks Beer, which markets itself as the national beer of Barbados, recently launched an ad with the tag line, “My Brown Ting, My Banks.  Brown never looked so tasty.”
Yup, a racist, sexist colonial throwback which draws on a long history of the sexualisation, commodification and thingification of the brown woman’s body. Very, very original and imaginative, Banks.
Banks joins a long list of other Caribbean advertisers who drawn on worn-out racialised and sexualized images of women to sell anything from alcohol to cellphones.

Vidyaratha Kissoon of Guyana has publicly denounced the objectification of women’s bodies in advertising, especially light of the persistently high levels of violence against women in the region:

The use of women’s bodies in advertising and marketing in Guyana has increased in proportion to the intense levels of violence that many women and girls face. Around the world, many advocates against violence campaign against the objectification of women in the media.

When we wrote about the Banks ad on our facebook page, one reader responded that we were focusing on non-issues to the exclusion of other more important ones, that for that reason no one takes feminists seriously and that alcohol advertising must use sexualized and racialised images of parts of women’s bodies because their target audience is men:

rrrriiiiiggghttt, when you all are done you will turn alcohol ads into what? milk ads? these products are mainly marketed at MEN hence the sexy images, instead of flustering over a beer commercial why not campaign for real issues affecting women, such as the right to choose and abortion rights.
This is why women’s rights movements are now viewed as nuisance groups.

This perception of feminists as “nuisances” is as old as the sexist, racialised images Caribbean marketers trade in. So too is the old trick of accusing us of failing to understand what the real issues are and of being selective in acknowledging our activism.

Another reader had this to say:
this frankly sad but strange logic is more common than not from your average Caribbean woman. A function of how much out popular culture of hypersexualising not just thoughts, but songs, slang, our festivals like Carnival and Chutney fetes in T&T…Its really disturbing to read someone say its aimed at men so must be OK. Where’s the subtlety? Nobody’s saying wear a sack but whatever happened to commercials where companies never felt the need to tell us that brown never looked so tasty.

Her comment highlights the fact that since these racialised, sexist images are EVERYWHERE they have become normalized.
Well, a few flustered nuisances will be doing what we can to highlight to contextualize and historicize these images. Join us! CODE RED has started its own campaign asking our readers and members to send us sexist ads from across the Caribbean. You can email us too at redforgender [at] gmail [dot] com.