Thursday, August 20, 2015

Cultural Perceptions of Beauty

Yesterday Lani posted about how our culture of origin and the emotional scars it left on her, inhibiting her ability to see her own beauty.

This is a topic that she and I have discussed frequently, as we share similar scars.

The more I dive into this topic, I realize that there is an unfortunate resonance between the way women were valued and categorized in the Unification Church (which my sister touches on her in Ugly post) and how women are valued in our culture at large.

Last year I was invited to New York City to speak on this topic and its intersection with my work and growing up in the church. Because it was in the midst of our mother's struggle with cancer, I never really shared this beyond uploading it to my YouTube channel or posting it as an afterthought on my photo blog.

But here is where it's most relevant. So I'm finally sharing this where it belongs and where, hopefully, it will do the most good.

Huge thank you to my sister and friends who accompanied me to the event, and especially to Lani for filming me:

Below is the transcript of my talk if you would rather read than watch:

Hello thank you so much for having me here. My name is Jen Kiaba and I am a fine art and portrait photographer from Rhinebeck, NY – about 90 miles north of here.

Tonight I want to share a little bit with you about my journey in reframing my perspective on beauty, especially as it pertains to femininity and personal value. 

To give you a little bit of background, I am the eldest of five children who were born into the Unification Church. For those of you who are not familiar with the group, it is a religious movement that was started by the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon in Korea and had its heyday in the United States in the 1970s and 80s. In popular culture, Rev. Moon is best remembered as the purveyor of mass arranged marriages.

So tonight I want to talk to you a little bit about what I learned growing up in this group, how the ideology framed my sense of beauty, femininity and value – and finally what I learned from leaving the group and what I feel is applicable to our wider culture's binary views of beauty and value.

In order to give you some perspective on the world of my youth; I have to invite you down the rabbit hole a little bit. Therefore, in the immortal word of Lewis Carrol I will begin at the beginning.

According to church legend, Sun Myung Moon had a revelation on the Easter Morning of his 15th year while praying on a mountain top, where Jesus appeared to him and revealed to him that dying on the cross had actually been a failure of his mission and it was the young Moon who was supposedly qualified to take up that mission, restore humanity and become the King of Kings. 

By the time Rev Moon's church gained traction in the United States, many parents were afraid of losing their children to the organization. And they hired deprogrammers to abduct their children in order to extricate them from this, and other groups. Growing up I heard stories of my parents' peers who had been kept against their will for weeks on end, in slimy motels, sometimes tied to the bed, while deprogrammers read to them from the bible, trying to break the spell that Moon had on them.

My parents were married, along with two thousand other couples, Madison Square Garden on July 1, 1982. I was the first of five children who were raised as members of the Unification Church's Second Generation, who were thought to be the first people born sinless and of God's Lineage.

The theological text governing the Unification Church is called the Divine Principal, which combines eastern mysticism with biblical beliefs. In the church's theology it states that 

“Love is an emotional force given by the subject to the object; beauty is an emotional force returned to the subject by the object. The power of love is active and the stimulation of beauty is passive.
In the relationship between God and man, God gives love as the subject, while man returns beauty as the object. Between man and woman, man is the subject, giving love while woman is the object, returning beauty.

From this theological basis I learned that as a woman I was object, to give beauty was my main purpose, and that it was a passive behavior. I learned that to be woman was to be mailable and to remain as unformed as possible until such time as I was given to a husband of Rev. Moon's choice.

In the Unification Church, one didn't date. We referred to one another as brother and sister in order to emphasize platonic relations and dissociate ourselves from hormonal, sexual and emotional urges.

Sex before marriage was absolutely out of the question. The Church had a word for that: falling. To fall was the greatest sin that could be committed. The church also believed that the fall of man was a sexual sin, perpetrated by Eve having a spiritually sexual relationship with the angel Lucifer.

Therefore we had a very interesting cultural dichotomy that we were raised in. While we were taught that the ideal role of woman was to give beauty to man, our subject, we were also taught to believe, like in many religions, that sin had entered the world through a woman. 

Thus it was a woman's role to cut off from sexual temptation – and essentially her sexuality as a whole. Purity was the defining value for a woman and it was through this lens that we were taught we would eventually be able to express our value: our beauty, once we were married. We were taught to dress, act, and think modestly until that time, so as not to lead men into temptation.

It took me until 21, after being coerced into an arranged marriage and then fighting for two years to get out of that marriage, to gather the emotional and financial resources to leave the group. Interestingly enough, the moment that I knew I was going to leave, was while I was on a trans-atlantic flight from JFK to Oslo to visit my then-husband, and the young woman in the seat next to me handed me a few beauty magazines to occupy my time. She was from Romania, and therefore most of the magazines' content was illegible to me.

However the images that the magazine contained showed my a very different world than what I had been raised within. The women in these magazines looked like agents of their own lives, women who owned their sense of identity, sexuality, and beauty.

It took me many years after leaving the group, and assimilating to the current culture to realize that actually many of the issues that I had with my religious group of origin can be found within the our secular beauty culture and gender norms.

We live in a culture that looks at women's value, in particular, from a very binary point of view: hot or not, slut or prude. The ideas of a woman's value coming from an arbitrary standard of beauty is not a foreign one, nor is it one that exists only within extremist religious groups.

Women's bodies, and their sexuality, are politicized. Every time you look at the news, it seems that there is new proposed legislation concerning women's sexual engagement, reproduction and access to contraception.

There is also a resurgence of “purity culture” in the more right wing religious groups, which has helped give rise to some of this political discourse. Within this new purity culture, we also see the phenomenon of things like the Purity Balls, in which daughters pledge their virginity to their fathers until they are married.

Therefore, it seemed to me, that the same problematic equation was presenting itself again and again. Woman as object. Woman as passive. Woman as either completely pure, until an outside authority figure deemed it ok for a woman to engage in sexual activity, and then it must only be within certain culturally approved constructs – or woman as completely sexually available and in many cases as an object.

Unsurprisingly that this kind of objectification has been linked by psychologists to shame, depression, substance abuse, and sexual dysfunction.

As a photographer who works mainly with women, much of my goal is to facilitate a conversation around self and body love before and during the photographic process. My goal as a photographer is to give people – women primarily – a safe place to witness themselves and their unique beauty without judgement or subjective standard.

The biggest problem with that, was that it had to start with me. I had to walk my own walk and truth be told, for many years I was not comfortable sharing my story or turning the lens on myself. I realized that I had to change that and from that place came my newest body of work: Burdens of a White Dress; it addresses these pervasive cultural norms that I see around femininity both in my childhood religion and our beauty culture. 

The first piece that I created is called “Hold your Peace,” because in a conventional marriage contract one is asked to confirm that they have come to the marriage agreement free from any duress or any obligation.
Hold Your Peace
Hold Your Peace by Jen Kiaba
 My experience lacked that confirmation, but I have also seen how many women enter into culturally approved feminine roles under psychological duress and obligation without having been given the opportunity to explore and address their own needs and goals first.

Within this image I wanted to address the idea that women are bound by the cultural notions of purity and virginity as virtues that are something for a man to claim as his domain either as a father, or a husband. 

My next image addressed what goes on for young women as we are raised in these cultural norms. This one is called “My Mind is a Lie” and it asks the viewer to really consider what is at stake with this culture.

My Mind is a Lie
My Mind is a Lie by Jen Kiaba
Essentially we ask both men and women to remove their logic and humanity from the equation as we fill their heads with these dehumanizing constructs of what it means to be beautiful and desirable and that that is the core of where a woman's value lies. 

This image is called “At the Helm” and it looks at the absolute loss that I felt in navigating my way out of a controlling environment: In the middle of a murky fog, without a paddle, left on my own.

At the Helm
At the Helm by Jen Kiaba
Unfortunately, as in the first image, the subject is blindfolded. This plays two roles in the unfolding on the images. Not only is she unable to see and navigate around her, but she is also dehumanized by her identity being obscured. Young women today, without many other options being presented to find value within are also like this figure, lost and passive and looking for outside influence to guide them, with their true identities obscured

I want to jump forward ahead a few images in the chronology of this project. This image is called “Matched,” the photograph deals with an overarching theme from my religious childhood and the ways in which women were raised and treated, expected to come to the marriage state as completely pure and malleable.
Matched by Jen Kiaba
Uncondoned sexual activity aligned us with murderers in our theology. In that sense many of us did not make it to be married without “blood” on our hands.
But again I have had to reflect on how this ideology is also present in the world at large. Certainly we see this treatment of women in other cultures, but even in our own we could point to many instances of women being devalued for their sexual experience and how much these ideas hurt women.

To take that idea even further and examine how it plays out in our culture, I want to speak about briefly tonight is one that I call “The Purity Knife.” It references a time in my mid-teens when I was sent out fundraising for the church. Living in vans, we travelled across the country selling trinkets as a part of our "fundamental spiritual education."

The Purity Knife
The Purity Knife by Jen Kiaba
While I was fundraising I found out that one of my friends had been found dead, after being sexually assaulted and strangled. The church leaders did their best to cover up the incident and urge young people to stay in the fundraising program. As we prepared to go back out into the streets to fundraise, the young women were each armed with a personal alarm and mace; some young women's mothers had given them Purity Knives. This ideological relic comes from the old Korean tradition where young of women of high birth wore a knife and were "expected to commit suicide to ‘protect’ their virginity, as opposed to using the knife to defend themselves."

And this was an idea that was pervasive in our church culture, as Moon did recommend that members carry "a knife to kill yourself before you will be violated.” According to Moon, "if someone is trying to invade you, you would rather kill yourself than go through the fall. At least you won't go to hell that way. Even if you die, you don't go to hell.”

The victim shaming in that ideology is horrifying. And yet America itself has seen many instances of terrible victim shaming – with the Stuebenville case as simply one of the most recent in memory. So women are being raised to be passive objects, beautiful for man's consumption, they are also being told that their choices in matters of dress, drink and behaviors means that they deserve to be victimized and acted upon.

So at the end of the day I want to ask the question: is that beauty? Is beauty what our culture is so pervasively trying to convince us it is? A commodity to be owned and subjugated. Or is it something more intangible and less binary than the hot or not, pure or sullied, virgin or whore, subject or object, and even male or female scale that we have been presented?

To me, beauty is a spark that exists within a person, not something that can be owned or objectified.

And so I want to leave you with a few final pieces and a call to action: simply to open your minds to the varied shades of beauty. That it can be powerful, it can be clean and it can be dirty. It can be conventional and it can be unexpected. This piece is in its sketch phases, and it is called “Rewiring” which is something that I hope we can all do.
Rewiring by Jen Kiaba
We need to emerge anew in order to perceive beauty in its varied and manifold forms. I believe that our ideas of beauty need to be completely transformed, and in that way our full spectrum of humanity can be experienced and expressed. Thank you.

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