By Ludovica Martella
“Fighting for gender equality from the beauty industry to the United Nations. A conversation with NGO CSW/NY Gender Coordinator Houry Geudelekian”
About a week after the end of the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), I sat with Houry Geudelekian, gender equality activist, mom, child marriage survivor, and unbelievable kind soul, between many things. Houry is currently the Gender Program Coordinator at the NGO Committee on the Status of Women, NY (NGO CSW/NY). This non-governmental organization (NGO) supports the work of the UN on its fight for gender equality, but especially, CSW, the yearly global gathering of women in NY, meeting to discuss and network on the topic of the year. For this 63rd gathering, the priority theme was “Social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” Houry is also UN coordinator for Unchained at Last, an NGO fighting against child marriage. I met with Houry to talk about her formation as a women’s advocate. Our conversation revolved around two main pillars: how the beauty and fashion industry can be demeaning to some women, and why men should help women achieve gender equality in the work space in the time of the #MeToo movement, where talking gender can be a scary subject for some men.
The beauty industry and the fight for gender equality. How both men and women should be aware of false beauty stereotypes
Originally Armenian living in Lebanon, Houry came to NYC in the 70s, where she ran successfully her own business with her former husband for about 35 years, in the beauty and fashion industry. In her field, she started noticing images that demeaned women and girls. “When I went to press releases, I would always say that ‘beauty comes from within’ and that you don’t need to follow fashion to be beautiful. Obviously, there were people rolling their eyes at me but there were actually a lot of people who appreciated that. So I guess I could say that without knowing, I was for gender equality, but that was not intentional.” As many women (some of whom are not aware) both Houry and I have been victims of societal pressure to look a certain way. “They (beauty industry companies) make you feel less than you are just to sell you crèmes etc. and honestly, you don’t need all of that. The reality is, it’s a gazillion dollars industry and people need to make money.” Because of the monetary factor, but also because the human being thrives to be accepted by others, these standardized beauty norms are well integrated in our society. The trick to not get stuck in them is to call them out and realize they are money schemes and to truly start appreciating ourselves for how we are.
But HOLD ON a sec, how is this connected to gender equality?
There is evidence that these schemes demean some women because of several reasons. First of all, women might not feel the freedom of being themselves and embrace their natural features. This can cause relevant stress and insecurities in a woman’s life, which in the worst case, can bring to mental illnesses such as eating disorders. Furthermore, being persuaded to feel the need to “look a certain way” is a substantial waste of time: a distraction from working on ourselves from within. As a result, some women run the risk of spending more time beautifying themselves rather than on working towards their life goals. “I went through months of sadness thinking that no one was going to touch me because I am not going to give into whatever it is that women have to adhere to,” Houry confessed. “But then I realized, I am not my body, I am thankful for it, because it carries me around, but I don’t need it to be perfect in order for it to be valuable” (hands clapping emoji here). Another way in which mainstream beauty and fashion industries also demean women is, unfortunately, in their representations in advertisements. As I always quote, “the medium is the message,” and considering that we are consistently fed with advertisements with photo-shopped women, these false beauty standards end up being digested by not only some women, but some men too. “There are not enough guys who want that (natural beauty). So, I think we need to keep on talking about the truth behind all beauty and fashion industry. And again, there are women who want to adhere to beauty standards, and guys out there who want that, and I am not going stop them” Houry commented. Obviously people are and should be free to do what they want, but I would say, let’s save the savable. By talking more and more about the false reality of the commercial standardization of beauty, we can protect young women especially, and encourage them to accept themselves for how they are and live a life with less stress.
If you are personally struggling with accepting yourself for who you are, I advise to follow these inspiring women on Instagram: @whollyhealed, @ownitbabe (who also has an amazing podcast, “Own it Babe,”) @mybetter_self , @jameelajamil and @bodypositivepanda.
Should men stand up with women on the fight for gender equality? (A.K.A. rhetorical question)
In 2010 Houry decided it was time for a change. She got divorced and got fired from her business, which she now laughs about, then she stumbled upon NGO CSW NY through a friend who said an Armenian organization needed representation. She knew she wanted to work in social justice, and she admits that at the time, she knew very little about gender equality, but she accepted the job anyways and got involved with the UN. “I remember being in the room listening to Michelle Bachalet talk and say why they were creating UN Women and why it was necessary to have a separate entity to fight for gender equality and suddenly everything made sense, all of the world made sense. That was it. The rest is history”. From then on, Houry embarked a career working toward gender equality, a topic which involves not only the participation of women, but the one of men too. This prompted me to ask her about men supporting women in the time of the MeToo movement, which turns out to be, a tricky subject.
DO women want to be supported by men in achieving gender equality norms?
I personally stumbled upon some men who said to be “afraid” to stand up for women because these might take it as undermining their own strength (gentlemen, I would say, when in doubt, offer help: that is always appreciated). “The bottom line is,” Houry said, “we need to humanize both men and women. We are both human. At the end of the day, we are on similar quests. There are no reasons why no woman starting up as a secretary, and no man starting as an assistant, for example, can’t become the CEO of a company. To get to that point, there are a lot of steps you have to take. None of that is unique to male or to a female. So to me, the idea that a man shouldn’t support a female because she is ‘strong and independent enough’ is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with what we are talking about. Your genitalia should not make a difference on how you behave.”
“Here’s the million dollar light ball: men can be affected from patriarchal society as well. There are enough men out there who do not need to be patriarchal to achieve their goals. The problem becomes when those men who don’t want to be in that patriarchy system feel less supported even than the women. Because they become the bullied ones and they are the ones who end up saying ‘it’s not worth it’. They are not the ones going after the CEO position because they feel like they are not going to be supported, because they think differently. So can’t we just ask the controversial question, ‘can a human just support another human’ and not see it as gendered?
The way we support people is by humanizing them. Slavery happened because we dehumanized the black skin. Or American Indians, or indigenous people. Violence happened because we dehumanized them. There is no gender there, but there is dehumanizing of humans, so you can control them. The same things happens with members of the LGBTQ+ community. We dehumanize them. We say, ‘no human being could be with another of the same sex, it’s not human, it’s not how God created us.’ To fight that, we need to humanize ourselves. To this day, the same thing still happens with slavery and there is so much more work to be done. It took 200 years to abolish slavery, but there is still much work to be done to end it. And perhaps it’s like that with gender equality too.” In fact, the fight against gender equality (just as the one against climate change, *sigh) is much younger, than, for instance, the fight against racism. “Perhaps this is a time where we are chipping away by giving good example on how an equal society should be, but it will take time. Look at the United States women's national soccer team. They are suing U.S. Soccer because there is no reason why a woman should be paid less of men for the same amount of work. The only reason why it happens it’s because these companies have been doing this for a long time. Furthermore, there are men who are starting to stand with us. Look at actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who claimed was going to refuse his role unless his female co-star would get the same money.”
Small gestures to stand up against inequality of any type, can go a long way, even if we live in a seemingly unfair society. Change though can happen, eve if slowly, and it could impact the lives of many people. So, when in doubt, let’s stick together for everyone’s success.
What do you think about these subjects? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Updated on April 23rd 2019 at 11:52 A.M.