Feminists We Love: Tomi-Ann Roberts

August 16, 2013
By

RobertsTomi-Ann Roberts is a Professor of Psychology at Colorado College, where she is also a core faculty member in the Feminist & Gender Studies program.  She earned a BA in Psychology from Smith College (Magna Cum Laude and Phi Betta Kappa) in 1985.  Subsequently, she earned a PhD in Psychology from Stanford University (1990). For over 20 years, Roberts has maintained an active research agenda committed to feminism and gender, publishing in Sex Roles, Psychology of Women Quarterly, Psychology of Men and Masculinity, Women and Therapy, Feminism and Psychology, Journal of Men’s Studies, Sage Handbook of Gender and Psychology, Self-Objectification in Women: Causes, Consequences, and Counteractions,  and From Menarche to Menopause: Reproductive Lives of Peasant Women in Two Cultures.

She most recently co-edited The Sexualization of Girls and Girlhood: Causes, Consequences and Resistance with Eileen Zurbriggen (Oxford University Press, 2011), an interdisciplinary anthology stemming from the report of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.  She also edited the second edition of Lanahan Readings in the Psychology of Women (Lanahan, 2004). Her leadership in the academy is also noteworthy because of her commitment to marginalized people and research. She serves as the Co-Chair for the Task Force on Educating through Feminist Research, a sect of the Society for the Psychology of Women.  She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, and is a member of the Association for Women in Psychology.

Tomi-Ann has also been an especially vocal advocate for issues related to feminism and gender outside of the academy.  Currently, she serves as a Consultant and Advocate for U by Kotex‘s Generation Know, which is committed to breaking the silence, busting the myths, changing the message, and spreading the word about women’s bodies, especially regarding vaginas and vaginal wellness.  Additionally, Tomi-Ann is a Research and Statistical Consultant for a Colorado District Court project focused on fact-finding in custody cases with allegations of child sexual abuse and a Board Member of the Women’s Educational Society of Colorado Springs.

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Everyone needs someone that believes in them unconditionally, and just a couple years, Tomi-Ann Roberts became that for me. I’ll never forget the day we “met.” My husband and I were traveling back to the United States from the Bahamas after our second honeymoon, and I received an email from Tomi-Ann informing me that the Feminist & Gender Studies Program at Colorado College had learned about me through the Consortium for Faculty Diversity, and was interested in offering me a dissertation fellowship. I was more than a little bit scared. Our children were only 3 and 5 years old; my husband and I had already lived in two different states and three different cities; and my husband hadn’t owned his first barbershop for more than a year. Scratch scared—we were terrified. Nonetheless, after discussing the possibility at great length and liking what we saw when we visited, we decided to make the move.

Tomi-Ann went out of her way to welcome me and my family to Colorado Springs. She understood when I remained scared after her multiple attempts to reassure me that everything would be okay. She was compassionate when I expressed reservations about remaining at Colorado College upon completing my dissertation. Whenever I felt angry or alone, she knew just what to say and do to remind me that I’m cared for, respected, and loved. On the other hand, she never hesitates to check me when I’m wrong, and she does so in a way that lets me know that she really does have my best interest at heart. She always encourages me during times of difficulty, and celebrates every single one of my successes as if it was the first. Over the past three years, we’ve become great colleagues and great friends, and I never take that for granted.

Tomi-Ann has been instrumental for both my professional and personal development. However, a quick glance at her curriculum vita (briefly summarized above) illustrates just how important she is not just to me but to women and girls everywhere.

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BratzTFW: Oxford University Press recently released  The Sexualization of Girls and Girlhood: Causes, Consequences and Resistance (2012), an anthology you co-edited with Eileen Zurbriggen that stems from the APA’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls.  What prompted you to conduct work in this area, and why do you think this work is still necessary in what’s been called a “post-feminist” era?

I often tell the story of my younger daughter, then seven years old, traveling with me on a tram in Berlin, Germany. We entered a neighborhood where women prostitutes solicit openly. My daughter was positively entranced. She gazed out the window, smiling broadly at a woman who was wearing white vinyl thigh-high stiletto heeled boots, hair extensions, and a labia-length skin tight tube dress. She sighed and exclaimed, “Mommy! They’re SO pretty! They look just like Bratz dolls!”

Developmental Psychology has shown that children look to the cultural ideals of their gender in order to model themselves to be their best gendered selves. If domesticity was the ideal of femininity when I was coming of age (and you can bet I had an Easy Bake Oven), then a kind of voyeuristic (hetero)sexually objectified “sexiness” is the feminine ideal today. For my daughter, these women (and the popular dolls she so loved) exemplified the ideal. With absolutely no disrespect for these women or for sex work, as a psychologist and a mother of daughters, this incident really brought home for me one thing that a so-called “post-feminist” era is really about, and that is disempowering women by convincing them that their highest calling is to be “pretty” (as my daughter said) and that to be pretty is to be a very narrowly defined kind of SEXY.

The body project that the culture has convinced us we must be engaged in 24/7 from the time we’re old enough to want a Disney princess nightgown is not just a way of psychically annihilating girls and women, but also a way of keeping us IN OUR PLACE: the busy, distracted, money-spending eye-candy of the patriarchy. Because of course it costs time, cognitive energy and cash to keep the body disciplined as young, thin, fair, big-breasted, full-lipped, glossy-haired, wide-eyed, toned and wrinkle-free. I remember thinking to myself on that tram that Susan Faludi was really onto something when she named “post-feminism” for what it really is: a backlash. Only a concerted backlash could accomplish convincing young women that showing their tits in a “Girls Gone Wild” video is empowering or convincing my daughter that to look like a Bratz doll is the way to be her best gendered self. And only a concerted effort on the part of feminist scholars and activists will turn this around.

Because of my research on self-objectification (the equivalent of Simone de Beauvoir’s “doubling,” the psychic introjecting of a third-person, mirror image of one’s body as the primary perspective on the self), I was invited to serve on the Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, which had been identified by the APA and child advocacy groups as an increasing mental health concern. I was really happy that my scholarly work had brought me to a place where I could begin to effect real social change, so serving on this task force and working on our book has been a tremendous privilege.

TFW: As you just mentioned, you’re a pioneer of “objectification theory,” a theory that helps us understand the impetuses for and implications of the sexual objectification of women and girls.  In fact, the first paper you co-authored on the topic is the most cited article in the 35-year history of Psychology of Women Quarterly.  First, how do you feel about that?  Second, in what ways has “objectification theory” progressed in ways you didn’t imagine?  And finally, in what ways do you think the theory can and should be further developed?

When my graduate school officemate and co-author Barb Fredrickson and I found out about our “most cited” status, we were not only thrilled, but we felt recognized at last for work that was initially very difficult to publish. That first paper was rejected by countless general psychology journals as being too “applied” (science’s insult for research that appears to have an agenda of any kind). This was long before we each had tenure, and so we were seeking recognition from the highest-ranking journals, but “settled” for the openly feminist PWQ, which was the only one to accept our paper. Now, of course, I’m so glad that’s where we ended up, because we could speak to the readers that truly wanted to hear what we had to say. And I’ve used that experience to help mentor other young scholars who face the same dilemma. Dear young feminists: choose door number 2. Yes, our first article was published in a decidedly feminist journal with a small readership, but that readership consisted of important feminists in the field who assigned our article in their classes, where students read it and got ideas and went to graduate school and convinced their advisors to let them test those ideas. Then, they went on to become scholars themselves, and impacted more students who are now publishing this work in the so-called “mainstream” journals.

But lately I’ve learned that you have to be careful with this sort of “mainstreaming” of feminist scholarship. Every year I am asked by someone carrying on this work to be part of a symposium submission on objectification theory for the big social and personality psychology convention, and every year the proposal gets rejected. Then, last year, I attended a huge session, with big names, on “Objectification” at that very conference wherein my work was alluded to without my name and where I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the loss of any feminist application of the new research, all in the name of experimental “control,” internal validity and, well, science with a capital “S.” So, what I’d say about where the theory and related research needs to go now is back home. This brings me full circle to the young feminist scholars out there: submit your work to feminist journals, call out scholars in conference sessions who refuse to draw feminist applications where they ought to be drawn, and generally find ways to avoid allowing the mainstreaming of feminist work to mean that it loses its feminist POINT of social justice.

U by KotexTFW: You became a U by Kotex Advocate in order to, as you stated, help “women and girls feel good about their bodies.”  First, talk to our readers about the catalyst for this.  In other words, what do you see happening that discourages women and girls from feeling good about their bodies?  Additionally, can you be more specific about how your advocacy work helps alleviate this problem?

When I was pondering this question, I happened to be sitting in a café with an iced coffee and my laptop, jotting down some ideas. And while I was there, I overheard two 13-year-old girls sitting in the booth behind me. They were taking “selfies” with their phones and talking. One said, “Look how bad my hair looks!” The other said, “Oh my God! I can’t send him this picture of me.” Another said, “I’m so gross,” and the other said, “My skin is disgusting.” They were engaged in the feminine version of one-upmanship, which I guess would be “one-downgirlship.” So there’s a catalyst for a feminist psychologist.

One of the things I began exploring some years ago in my research program on self-objectification is reflected in these girls’ competitive self-criticism: shame and disgust. The culture of sexual objectification requires that girls and women hide, sanitize and deodorize their bodies’ natural functions. Think about it. A bar that hosts a “wet t-shirt contest” is likely to kick a woman out for breastfeeding. (Hetero)sexualized breasts are everyone’s business. Lactating breasts? Put those away!

Or take menstruation. Above all, girls learn that their periods are “gross” and that they must cope with their “curse” alone and keep their secret especially from boys and men. Products are marketed to help girls and women manage their periods as though monthly bleeding is a hygienic crisis. Imagine an advertisement for a tampon or pad that doesn’t imply that a girl would be ashamed and the cause of disgusted reactions in others if she “fails” to successfully hide all evidence of her period. O.B. tampons have all but disappeared from the American market because so many young women and girls today find the thought of inserting their own finger into their own vagina disgusting. Gone are the days of Our Bodies, Ourselves, my friends. Indeed, pharmaceutical companies have capitalized on young women’s shame and disgust around their periods and now offer menstrual-suppression pills that are increasingly popular with girls. To date, there has yet to be any research examining the long-term impact on the health and well-being of women who never bleed.

So, U by Kotex contacted me to see if I wanted to join in their campaign to: 1. Break the silence, 2. Bust the myths, 3. Change the message, and 4. Spread the word about menstrual and “natural body” wellness. The first phase of the campaign was product-focused, as U by Kotex worked to really change the marketing of tampons, pads, and panty liners with bold packaging and product placement and advertisements that turned the old medicalized euphemisms on their head. In the second phase, which I’m involved in now, I write blogs, Facebook posts, Tweets (@PeriodicallyUrs) and Tumblr posts, all with the goal of educating girls to feel knowledgeable and therefore good about their vaginas, vulvas, periods and embodied selves. This feels like the right kind of work for me to be doing as a feminist psychologist in the current environment of the erosion of women’s reproductive rights. Let’s hope we can educate young girls to feel proud and bold enough that elected officials (mostly white men) no longer feel they have any authority over the choices we women make about our own bodies.

TFW: You and I are both professors at Colorado College, where “teaching is paramount.”  In what ways does feminism influence your pedagogy?  How has your feminist pedagogy changed over the years?  In what ways do you imagine it will change as time goes on?  What advice do you have for feminists regarding teaching?

Most of us who work in feminist/gender/sexuality studies come from some other discipline. And I’ve found that the way in tends to be via either theory, method, or praxis. As a social scientist, my way in was method. In Psychology, even the rats are white and male. And for decades, the only course where students could be exposed to anything approximating feminist pedagogy was “Psychology of Women.” So my earliest pedagogical efforts, in addition to teaching “the (one) gender course” wherever I was, were to expose Psychology students to the work of feminist scholars who critiqued the very methods with which knowledge is generated in the field. I later developed a whole course on undergraduate feminist research methods that I still adore teaching. My pedagogical tools are classically feminist: collaborate, the personal is political, put the researcher and the researched on the same critical plane as one another, examine the issues that matter to the lived lives of the understudied and misunderstood.

This year, I was named to another APA task force, Educating through Feminist Research, and we’re working to provide Psychology faculty across the country with these tools. My advice to all feminists regarding teaching is share, share, share. Share syllabi, share horror stories and success stories, share course evaluations, share letters of recommendation. I’m so happy you, Heidi, are here at my institution to share your new ideas with me. I wouldn’t know how to tweet if it weren’t for you, and I’m learning how online and social media platforms can be amazing feminist pedagogical tools from you.

FreeTFW: You’ve accomplished a lot both personally and professionally! You’ve raised two great daughters. You were promoted to Full Professor at Colorado College.  You have an amazing publishing record, and you’re an amazing teacher.  How did feminism help you to accomplish so much? What advice would you give to other emerging feminists that are struggling to balance their personal and professional goals?

From “Free to Be, You and Me” to Girl Scouts to Mary Tyler Moore to Shirley Chisholm’s run for the presidency, I grew up with feminist voices – some quiet and some much louder – and I can’t think of a single cultural icon I loved as a child who didn’t embody feminism’s goals. So with these mentors encircling me, I guess I never even felt like I chose this way to live. It chose me. And I never bought the patriarchal fairy tale that I ought to expect to get anything from a man in exchange for my looks or my service. I knew it was up to me and I had to simply try to do what I wanted to do. I am not saying I “earned” everything I worked for, no. I got lots of things given to me because I was white and straight and middle class. And feminism has helped me know that too; it has helped me see how I have benefitted from privilege, even when I didn’t feel entitled to certain benefits. If I’ve “accomplished” anything good, I believe it came as a fortunate byproduct of two things: 1. Work I wanted to do (I wanted to write, I wanted to teach, I wanted to be a mother) and 2. The privilege of finding venues for getting recognized for that work. My feminist childhood mentors helped me know, just as I know I can get up in the morning each day (well, most days), that I could do those things. So I guess that’s how feminism gave me backbone. And the community of feminist-minded friends and colleagues and mentors and students I am fortunate enough to have around me now helps keep me both honest about my privileges and courageous about keeping the work up, especially in the face of what feels like increasing political and cultural disappointment.

My only advice on balance is that you can pretty much just forget about feeling balanced when you’re in the thick of it. When you’re young and you’re working on a relationship and maybe a family and you’re also working on your professional life, you’re just not going to feel balanced. When you’re at home, you’re going to feel like you should be at work, and when you’re at work you’re going to feel like you should be at home. At some point, I decided to embrace “half-assing it.” I decided to be a good enough academic and a good enough partner and even (gasp!) a good enough mom. Here’s the secret to “half-assing it:” you get to decide what good enough is. And you get to renegotiate that with yourself any time you want. I do know that I have always been grateful to have the balance challenge. I would not even be a good enough mom if I didn’t have a feeling of accomplishment at a meaningful paid job. And I know I would not be a good enough paid academic if I didn’t have family to love. Someone once said to me, “You can ‘have it all,’ just not all at the same time.” I recently lost my life-partner to a sudden heart attack. And so right now, my balance is ALL off. I have to figure out how to do my work without being able to come home to an anchor and a cooked dinner, without someone to lie next to me at night listening to me rail and encouraging me to keep going.

Suggested Links:

“How Gender Affects Posture” (Audio)
“The Sexualization of Girls” (Video)
“Hello Flo’s Camp Gyno Ad & Menstruation” (HuffPostLive Video)

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One Response to Feminists We Love: Tomi-Ann Roberts

  1. Sheila Kissane on August 18, 2013 at 6:29 am

    Well said Tomi Ann, sexualisation and shame and disgust in young girls about their bodies is very sad to see….

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