On the cusp of the 21st century, Jodie Evans was at a refugee camp in Guinea, the West African country where hundreds of thousands of people from Sierra Leone had fled as civil war raged on. A longtime political activist, Evans was thinking of making a documentary on the displaced women.
Evans has run campaigns for human rights, labor rights and women’s rights. She’s championed campaign finance reform, anti-war movements, and traveled to remote regions all over the global south. She worked closely with Jerry Brown and ran his 1991 presidential campaign. She cofounded the women’s anti-war organization CodePink.
But in 1999 in Guinea she learned something surprising about herself. “These woman showed me the way home to my body,” Evans says.
That’s the same thing Evans wrote 10 years ago underneath an image that photographer and TV news producer Jennifer Bermon made of Evans in her garden in Venice. The piece is among several dozen black-and-white photos of women Bermon has taken over the past two decades, currently on display through Saturday, April 4, at dnj Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica.
Bermon asked her subjects to write their feelings about their black-and-white portraits in their own handwriting. She wants to start a conversation about women's body image issues and self-judging, and her Bergamot show has stirred a respectable amount of media coverage.
Jodie Evans, whom Bermon shot in 2005 at age 50, wrote beneath her own shot: “I feel Truth, Beauty, Love, Grief, Anger, Intimacy & ALIVE in my body … Women in the global south live in their bodies much more than we in the global north. Not as distracted by patriarchy’s controlling images – They know power is in THEIR bodies. I am deeply grateful for the women who showed me the way HOME.”
Evans is not an easy woman to pin down. Her assistant patches a reporter through to her cell while she’s in a taxi from Newark to JFK. She’s just met with Ras Baraka, mayor of Newark, to talk about CodePink’s resolution to demilitarize U.S. cities, an initiative connected to their War Dollars Home campaign. On the phone, she talks about Ferguson, campaigns she ran for Jerry Brown, marching with Cesar Chavez, quitting electoral politics after the L.A. riots and the dearth of women in Hollywood.
But, mostly, she talks about this idea of the body as the root of women’s empowerment.
At the refugee camps in Guinea, she was struck by the agency and joy of self-expression she sensed. “When you’re in a war zone, it’s never about what you’re wearing,” Evans says. “It’s about that space you come together as women.” Evans took in the women’s styled hair, colorful fabrics, and movements as they danced, sang and sat together.
She was certain they were doing it for themselves, for each other, not to respond to a male gaze or satisfy a patriarchal construct.
They were at home in their bodies. The sensation was visceral, hard to pin down, but she knew she’d never quite felt it before.
Evans argues that women in more remote regions have been able to escape the dominant images of patriarchy and colonialism that dictate a certain appearance required for women's entry into the ruling class.
“I’m not talking about women in major cities [in the global south], where there’s just as much botox and facelifts,” Evans says, but women she met on buses in Chile and Brazil.
For Evans, the road to rejecting dominant beauty standards began as a teenager in Las Vegas. She had survived parental abuse, been forced to pay her own way for much of her adolescence, and was working as a hotel maid, organizing for a living wage.
But amidst all that, she found herself dolled up for her first beauty pageant.
It was around 1970. Evans was a tomboy and a hippie, but her grandmother wouldn’t let her drive unless she enrolled in charm school. One of the women at the charm school ran a Miss Universe pageant, and registered Evans.
She sat backstage with an older girl who was clearly going to win the Miss Universe pageant—she was polished, beautiful, poised.
That girl’s boyfriend, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, was being mean to this lovely girl. Evans realized that beauty as some guarantee of success, love — or even safety — was a myth. “I learned I never wanted to live my life out of beauty,” she says.
In a recent social media analysis, Dove, the beauty products and soap maker, found that only 4 percent of women find themselves beautiful, while 72 percent feel pressure to be beautiful, and 80 percent see beauty in others. But not in themselves.
Women wrote more than 5 million negative tweets in 2014. Most were directed at themselves.
The creator of the show at Bergamot Station, Jennifer Bermon, has asked women to write about images of themselves for two decades, While many of their responses are positive and show how empowered they are, she sees just as many self-critical attitudes as she saw in the 1990s.
Dove’s #speakbeautiful campaign aims to balance negative tweets about self-image. Always’s #LikeAGirl campaign emphasizes that women can do anything they set their mind to, and Pantene’s Sorry, Not Sorry ads zero in on women’s instincts to apologize for themselves. Mega-stars Beyonce and Taylor Swift have proclaimed themselves feminists, and Emma Watson called for gender equality at the UN last fall.
But Sarah Banet-Weiser, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, recently expressed concern that the corporatizing of the women’s confidence movement is grounded in an economic incentive.
She sees a rise in violence against women, vitriolic online attacks and alarming new restrictions of reproductive freedoms.
In December, hackers revealed that Sony’s top-paid executives are 94 percent male and 89 percent white. This mirrors the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report, conducted by the Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. It found that in our world that is 50 percent women, 75 percent of leading characters in films are male.
And 89 percent of leading characters are white – and that percentage rises among the mostly male writers and male directors who create these persistently male worlds for the screen.
The link between the heavily male control of Hollywood's story lines and imagery, and women’s pervasive negative self-views, is undeniable.
For Evans, who has served as board chair of Women’s Media Center, if women do rise to positions of power, that's not enough.
“For me, feminism is about equality. So, when someone works for a Wall Street firm and says they’re a feminist, my eyes are going to roll,” Evans says. She equates feminism with socialism, so equality for women isn’t just getting a place in the boardroom. It's also about not bombing women in Iraq.
“But I’m a radical,” she adds with a chuckle.
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At age 60, Evans wants to instigate change on both the community and global level. “I call it grandmother wisdom,” she says. “In my fifties I was still in creation mode. Now I have more of a responsibility to step back and mentor and offer wisdom, offer sign posts on the path.”
Still, whether she’s organizing youth in Ferguson, banging pots outside hotels in L.A., cleaning up the beach, or hanging out with her neighbors in the homeless community in Venice, she is far from being done with rallying in the streets.
Ultimately, that may be the best image of a woman living within her own body, a woman refusing to conform, that Evans can offer young women today.
To reach Jennifer Bermon: @jenbermon