Author Kimberly Lau visited IU on Thursday to discuss how beauty, race and feminism can intersect and make women feel genuinely happy with themselves.
Lau talked about ideas from her book, “Body Language: Sisters in Shape, Black Women’s Fitness, and Feminist Identity Politics.” This work won the Elli Köngäs-Maranda Professional Prize from the American Folklore Society in 2011.
“I realized that one of the things the women and saying, over and over, was that beauty was not a possession,” Lau said. “It was actually a mode of relationality, it was a mode of connection with other women, that was a type of beauty for these women.”
Lau shared the origin of Sisters in Shape, a black women’s health and fitness organization. The group was started in the late 1990s by a personal trainer, Melanie Marchand, along with two other fitness instructors. It wasn’t a large-scale operation yet, but they gave classes such as aerobics demonstrations, Lau said.
In 1998, the Philadelphia news ran an article about one of Marchand’s clients. The article raised awareness about negative health statistics for black women. Over 300 women called Sisters in Shape in response to the story, so Marchand organized a day-long event. Between 100 and 200 women attended.
“They talked about black women’s health and fitness from all different perspectives,” Lau said.
These perspectives ranged anywhere from spiritual to motivational. Shortly after this, Sisters in Shape organization was born.
“I was already friends with Melanie when all of this was happening,” Lau said. “I was really just kind of blown away by the upsurge in interest and the commitment these women were making to pretty major lifestyle changes.”
Thursday’s discussion was a part of the College of Arts and Sciences Themester Fall 2016 series. Orejuela said this semester’s Themester is focused on challenging student consideration of beauty as a crucial factor in diverse, scholarly, social and cultural settings.
Recently, Lau reread her book and discovered a few new points about her research she hadn’t realized before, specifically concerning beauty in Sisters in Shape.
“Our current political backdrop really made me try to think about beauty in a different way, try to think about how we might maybe ploy ideas about beauty in a specifically political context,” Lau said.
Lau said women in the organization will often compliment each other as a part of a community sense. This brings the group closer together and makes the women feel indescribably good about themselves.
“These black women are articulating and rearticulating discourses of femininity, gender, sexuality, and race, class, in very political ways that we might not recognize as political,” Lau said.
Lau presented examples in current culture which relate beauty to politics in subtle ways, such as the recent Avon commercial. She described it as a sort of feminist anthem. Lau also talked about different model stereotypes and white, heterosexual normativity.
Orejuela asked Lau a few questions, and then the floor was open for questions from the audience. Orejuela has read Lau’s work and said he was thrilled to speak with her.
“When I read Dr. Lau’s ethnography, beauty appeared in several spaces, and they appeared in unconventional ways,” Orejuela said.