Gaining a new perspective hurts

Two new perspectives that hurt my brain and heart….

In the last two years I’ve learned of the occasional harm caused by some of the things we do while trying to help others. See my posts on unintended consequences.

I know this new way of seeing outcomes is sinking deep into my brain by looking at my immediate sadness upon reading two articles at Africa is a Country a few weeks ago. After letting the articles sit for a while, it is time to discuss them. First, swimsuits…


I never look at the swimsuit issue of a particular sports magazine for two reasons.

First, I have little interest in sports. I would rather read about economics or the American Civil War (yes, after you finish rolling your eyes, you may pray for me).

Second, without seeing or knowing anything about the current issue, I know for certain it features models who exercise half the time they are awake, eat less than 800 calories a day, and  their photos are likely airbrushed. Most seriously, I know the photos will be based on lust and provide much encouragement for lust.

Objectifying women is just the start of the issues with the current year photo shoot.

Apparently the theme was photos on all 7 continents. At Africa is a Country, Neelika Jayawardane discusses the issues when Sports Illustrated does Namibia.

The next layer of problems after lust is Native-as-Prop. That’s the situation when white, privileged Westerners use native people as props to tell whatever feel-good story is in play.

In this situation, the native props are used to show off the beautiful models.

Now that I’ve been writing on NPO issues for a while, I’ve learned that the same technique is sometimes used in fundraising for NPOs. You know what I’m talking about – the glossy fund-raising pieces that show white people solving all the problems of the black/ brown/ yellow/ orange people who can’t help themselves.

There are several more layers of issues, but check out this one in particular:

Posing this model next to the quintessential image of human ancestry — the primitive ancestor, porting nothing but loincloth and spear, his spare, lean body devoid of the ugly traces of excessive fat (the scourge of modernity) — means we can also project our fantasy of return to that fat-free, supposedly simpler time, when we were not tainted by the miseries of our industrialised state, one that we nonetheless would want to give up. Because the model’s facial features and skin are supple and youthful — while her ‘primitive’ companion’s face is marked by the stamp of sun, dry air and general harsh environment — she appears markedly privileged, different. The resulting effect of the juxtaposition is a deep contrast between where we came from, and how far we’ve come. This game is still about us saying we, with our access to Sports Illustrated, are better off, and better evolved.

You can go two directions here, both of which are implied in the quoted paragraph.

The first is the contrast between the enlightened, privileged, well-fed, toned, modern, barely-dressed-because-she-feels-like-it Westerner and the scrawny, subsistence-hunting, barely-dressed-because-he-can’t-afford-clothes primitive (that would be Africa today).

Look how far we’ve come. Look how much we’ve accomplished.

The alternate direction is the contrast between the highly-processed, fast-food life today and the simpler, in-touch-with-nature life in the ancient past (that would be Africa today).

Ahhhh…. Life was much sooooo much nicer then.

Of course, further thought reminds us that in the ancient past you also died at age 40 from malnutrition, smallpox, or pneumonia after spending every waking moment of your short life trying to have enough food to keep your family from staving before tomorrow morning.

Whatever direction the photo prompts your thoughts, you wind up comparing yourself to those people.

Those people who in 2013 wander around in a loincloth carrying a spear which is the most advanced tool available to provide dinner.

Like I said, it hurts my brain and heart to think of the unintended messages sent.

My point? 

It is easy to see the issues in the photo shoot. Astoundingly easy. What really breaks my heart is wondering how often we in the nonprofit world do the same sort of thing but aren’t even able to see it.

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