I mostly signed up for the Tyra Banks break-out at the (excellent) Upfront Summit last week because I didn’t want to go deeper about heavy political issues involving Trump and Russia. Her keynote that day was strangely raucous, evocative, emotional, confessional, and brazenly confident.
My favorite moment was her description of a time in Italy when she was working as a barrier-breaking Black runway model. At her mother’s insistence, she had researched European fashion labels before going to Paris first, and she booked a record-breaking number of first shows as a result her first week. She knew who wanted red lips, who wanted slicked hair, who wanted pastels and a pout.
Record, record, record. Bam, bam, bam. Slay, slay, slay. This from a girl who was told by LA modeling agents years earlier, “Sorry, but we’ve already got a Black girl…”
Finally, she hits a point in Italy where her agent was compelled to have a tough conversation, not with Tyra, but with her mother. She tells her that Tyra’s butt has gotten too big. This is an emergency in the Italian fashion world. He gives her a list of eight runway shows she will definitely lose if she doesn’t get this a** problem under control—stat.
Her mother tells Tyra, who sobs uncontrollably, while trying to come up with a plan. Could I get up earlier to work out? Could I eat less? Her mother cuts her off and says she knows what they are going to do instead. “We are going out for pizza.”
Her mother has Tyra write on the paper tablecloth in the restaurant a list of companies who “like a**” and models who (relatively) have a**. Through tears still, she writes down proper nouns “Victoria’s Secret” and “Sports Illustrated” and “Cindy Crawford.”
That list is your new clients and that other list is the careers you are going to emulate, her mother tells her. “Because my baby is beautiful, and she’s not going to starve to please the BIB.” (“BIB” was her and her mom’s code for “b*tches in black” because fashion heavyweights who determined who was in at whatever moment always wore black.)
It wasn’t that easy. That list was all remarkably white. They still had to carve the reality for a black woman to become that mix of girl-next-door and jjuuuuustttt unattainable sex appeal that cast them on the Victoria’s Secret catalog and cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. But that was the new problem to solve, not the size of her posterior.
There were so many things I planned on asking Banks after her talk, or even before her talk. But as I walked to the break-out it was clear that I only had one thing I had to ask her. I sat front and center so she couldn’t miss me and raised my hand immediately and until I was called on.
Her talk was about making beauty inclusive; about her and her mother’s fight to do so. It was about the importance of beauty. A defense of it, even, despite the patriarchy weaponizing beauty against women.
And the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life is my gender fluid child, Eli.
His face is so beautiful that sometimes it hurts to look at it. As my mom once said, “That face is a huge responsibility.” I realize every mother says these things. In my case, my reason he’s so stunning is his otherworldly gorgeous fluidity that cannot be categorized.
A friend once said that Evie exudes power and Eli exudes beauty. He lives and breathes beauty. He moves like his limbs are flowing through water. He feels intense pressure to help make the world more beautiful. That’s one reason he adores Disneyland so much. There, he can relax. Thousands of cast members have got it.
He makes his own clothes, he decorates our house, he styles everyone in the family. He’s already working on slogans for Evie’s eventually presidential campaign, because she has promised he can decorate the White House for Christmas. He’s researching White House ballrooms and tunnels and events, already styling himself into a sort of queer older brother/sister version of Jackie O.
He sees it all in front of him laid out as destiny. Because how do you dream of fixing a polarized, orange, brutish, bigoted America? If you are Evie, you want to be president. If you are Eli, you want to make the office of the president beautiful and accessible to everyone.
I had to tell Tyra about him. I had to tell her how beautiful my baby is. Even though I know there are people in the world who also think there’s too much of him, like those agents in Italy sizing up her a**. People who would feel the need to edit him, to shrink him in order to deem him beautiful.
I told her about Eli and asked her when he would have someone like Tyra Banks shattering records to look up to. She said he’s lucky to be growing up in the age of social media. Social media, yes, can be “the devil,” she said. But it’s also broken open teen and young adult expression of what beauty is. Fluidity has surpassed the exotic to become commonplace among teens. Social media isn’t allowing the fashion/beauty complex to tell us what young beauty is anymore.
She’s right, and yet, there’s the same duality we see with everything right now. Yes, he’s lucky to be born when he is. Yes, he’s also been bullied in the queer haven of San Francisco. If social media is empowering, it’s because it’s what we make of it. We must be vigilant. It’s not a place that I trust with Eli’s beauty and brilliance. But it is a place where I can show him pictures of other fluid beauties like Jonathan Van Ness so he can see that he’s not alone.
Afterwards, I thanked her and showed her a picture of Eli because—come on….have you seen him? She grasped my phone and gasped and confirmed that I don’t have a mom bias. I can’t wait to tell him that one of the most barrier-breaking and beautiful women in the world gasped when she saw his face. I might save that one for a low moment.
I felt a little sheepish for turning a business event into such a personal moment. (Everyone else was asking about business models and personal brands…) But throughout the day, a dozen people—mostly men—came up to me to thank me for asking the question. None of them had gender-fluid kids. But they talked about the fears of raising kids in a gender-rigid world, and the need to talk openly about these things.
Never let the world tell your baby its a** is too big. Feed that baby some pizza and redefine the world together instead.
Today’s new questions on Chairman Mom:
- Does everyone pay for a house cleaner? Is there anyone who does not outsource this? What do you pay?
- Is anyone on Chairman Mom in public/nonprofit sectors?
- What Questions do you have about Climate Change and your personal/company finances?