UNDEFINED—St. Louis Women Speak Up About Shoegate

The Backstory on Shoegate STL

Two weeks ago the St. Louis Business Journal ran a piece highlighting 2016’s Most Influential Business Women. OK fine, that sounds good in theory, I am always ready to hear more about business women doing business things. What kind of business insight do these women have to offer? Wait, hang on. This looks like a photo essay of women holding up shoes? What? Oh no.

Someone at the BJ apparently decided that the best way, the ONLY way, to help us understand what makes these business women tick is to have them photographed with the pair of shoes that best define them. Let that sink in. The pair of shoes... oh I can’t. Let me give it to you in their exact words:

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When people balk you need to listen, Vince.

We asked this year’s class of Most Influential Business Women to tell us about the pair of shoes that best describes them, and more importantly, why. While some in the newsroom initially balked at the idea, it turned out to be the perfect filter to show readers the best qualities of these 25 spectacular business women. – Vince Brennan, managing editor for the St. Louis Business Journal

I could write an entire post about how terrible an idea this was and why. But I am going to assume your cognitive abilities and social awareness are up to speed and you get it. How and why this could have possibly happened in a modern newsroom is beyond me, but it did happen. So now what? How to express to the BJ and the people of St. Louis that the propagation of this tired old stereotype is unacceptable, sexist, degrading and just plain stupid?* How to do something other than roll our collective lady-eyes and absorb the anger, again?

Whatcha Gonna Do About It?

Alicia tires of the patriarchy. ©2016 OohStLou
Alicia tires of the patriarchy. ©2016 OohStLou

I was chatting to a few friends (while simultaneously trolling the BJs Twitter feed in order to ask them about an upcoming photo essay on businessmen and the pair of boxer briefs that help us to best understand their management style) and thinking of ways in which we could respond. Since I am a photographer, I threw out the idea of a counter-shoot in which I would create portraits of St. Louis women but not ask them to do any kind of weird sexist thing, just let them be themselves. (I know, I know it’s crazy sounding, hang in there.)

One of the women I thought of first was Kaylen Wissinger, who owns Whisk: A Sustainable Bakeshop. I worked with her on a video profile of her business last year, and it’s weird but in all the time I spent interviewing her and filming her at work, I never once thought to ask about her shoes? Embarrassing oversight! I mentioned my idea to her. In minutes she’d offered up her shop for our studio and her organizational abilities to help make this happen. (I don’t know what business shoes she had on when I talked to her, but they must have been pretty serious. Probably Chucks.)

Within 24 hours we had binders full of women who wanted to participate. This BJ story, coming as it did in the midst of all the ridiculously sexist Olympic coverage and the umpteenth young white rapist getting excused from prison because it might not be his safe space, had pissed us all off. Several of the women who wanted to take part were friends of mine, but many I had never met before.

What is a Successful Woman Though?

Kristin has no time to perform your emotional labor. ©2016 OohStLou

The disturbing refrain I saw in their initial emails to me was this: I don’t know if I am the type of person you’re looking for but… I don’t know if I am successful enough for this but… I am not sure what your criteria are for this shoot, but…  That gave me some serious what-in-the-feminist-hell pause. I had messages from women who are staggeringly successful in ways our society does not typically reward or recognize, wondering if they were good enough to stand up and actually name themselves a success. It made me think seriously about what “success” means—how I define it versus how our capitalist patriarchy does. My initial smart-ass response was: “If you got out of bed this morning, you’re successful enough for this project.” But then I immediately rethought, because hey, if you were not able to get out of bed this morning for physical or mental reasons, if you were aware enough to NOT to interact with the world because you were caring for your health, then that’s a success of a different kind. Success is relative, not a fixed point.

Women constantly do work that is unnoticed, unpaid and for the most part unappreciated, and it all contributes to the smooth running of our society. To be a successful woman by the standards of this project didn’t mean the woman had a ton of money in the bank, or a high-powered career, or was the boss of 50 quivering underlings.  Did she have a dream? Did she have a voice? Did she work for something, stand for something, stand for herself? Those are the kind of women you will see here.

I could probably (and might actually) write a book about the experience I had doing this work. I photographed 39 women in 20-minute slots over two days. The experience of getting to know them and finding a way to connect with them in that incredibly short amount of time was intense and overwhelming. Photographs in general can make a woman feel extremely vulnerable, and photographs intended for posting on the internet even more so. (Because that’s never created any backlash or anything. Please see: every photo of a woman on the internet, ever.)

I could have spent an hour, heck, a day, with each of these women, learning more about what they do and who they are and how they feel. You see, they’re all unique individuals who have thoughts and worries and joys and successes of their own, and it’s all fascinating and none of it has anything to do with their footwear.

It was obvious that some of the women who came were uncomfortable with the process, but they did it anyway because they thought it was important. Their courage, their outrage, their strength and attitude, their willingness to be seen for who they are and to call out bullshit, it inspired and energized me. Over the two days that we shot my own attitude changed from anger at the Business Journal for their stupidity to gratitude for it. Without them, I never would have met these women. Would never have been able to learn about what they do, and see them for who they are and make plans for the next thing we’re going to do together.

Megan dares you to tell her to smile. ©2016 OohStLou
Megan dares you to tell her to smile. ©2016 OohStLou

You’d Be So Pretty if You Smiled

You will note that many of the women here are not smiling. I didn’t prioritize smiling, I didn’t prioritize glamour or beauty or these women being conventionally attractive to the viewer. I chose the photo that I thought best represented them as a person in that moment. See the “read more” links at the bottom of this post if the concept of unsmiling women confounds or upsets you.

What Have You Learned, Dorothy?

I suppose thanks are in order, Business Journal. Thanks for your idiocy and your blustering refusal to learn when called out on it. Thanks for your lack of any type of insight into your project or humanity in general. Thanks for giving me this experience. Thanks for being the worst – because if you’re going to be a failure, you might as well be such an abysmal failure that you inspire others to collectively rise up and do great things.

We are some of the many successful women of St. Louis. We are undefined by our footwear. We define ourselves, we use the tools at our disposal to define the world around us and the work we do. You have not heard the last of us.


Susan Bennet is a freelance photographer and videographer based in St. Louis, Missouri. She manages and creates content for Ooh St. Lou, a blog about things that make St. Louis a better place to live. If you like her work you can follow her on Facebook, YouTubeTwitter and Instagram. If you really, really like her work, you can hire her and she will work for you. Contact susan@oohstlou.com for rates and booking information.

Also: I am looking for a local gallery to work with on a show related to this project, if you think that you’re that gallery, hit me up. susan@oohstlou.com   Show will be at SOHA gallery, opening on 1/6/17. See Facebook event for details.

Shut Up and Show Us the Photos Already

Below are 38 portraits of 39 butt-kicking St. Louis women, I hope you enjoy them. Click through the gallery for a brief bio of each women. Photos ©2016 Susan Bennet/Ooh St. Lou, All Rights Reserved

Thanks

I have to give a huge shout out and thank you to Kaylen Wissinger of Whisk and Emily Gavilsky of Renown Rentals. These two ladies did much of the on-site organization and coordination for the shoot, and they used their wonderful extroverted natures to manage the constant stream of people coming in and out of the shop. Kaylen let us use the Whisk space and baked us brownies, as well as giving up her only days off that week. Emily took time out of her busy work day two days in a row to help out. Thank you. You’re both possessed of very generous souls.

Further Reading

*I was contacted by the daughter of one of the women in the BJ photo shoot, who was worried that this project would in some way insult the women involved in the original. That is in no way my intent, nor was it the intent of any of the women who participated. I have worked in PR for many years, and I can see exactly how this happened, and I would never fault the women who participated for doing so. (I also didn’t ask them to participate in the counter-shoot because I knew they might get in hot water with their respective employers.) I can and will fault the BJ who should have known better, and should never have put the women in this position to begin with. Ladies, we know that what’s in your heads is way more interesting than what’s on your feet. We stand with you. In our bare feet, we stand with you.

28 Comment

  1. Bravo!!! I am happy to recognize a handful of awesome women on this page. You got an amazing group together! I wanted to back up your statement of not blaming the women that posed for the original BJ shoot. I also see exactly how it happened – they were told they won an amazing award and carved out 10 minutes of their busy schedule to drop by for a photo shoot. There is a certain level of trust always given to the publication in situations like this and the women certainly didn’t proof and approve the final content that went to print. Congrats to the original BJ winners and the great ladies featured here.

    1. admin says: Reply

      Thanks! It was an honor and privilege to get to know them, I can’t wait to get to know them better.

  2. omomma says: Reply

    Good article. A successful woman might be one who is powerful enough to say no to being defined by her shoes and independently wealthy enough to sustain the lawsuit that would follow her unjust termination. Because we all know that’s the problem.

    1. admin says: Reply

      Sometimes we all do things in the moment, in an effort to go along and seem agreeable, that we later wish we hadn’t. No fault of the women, all the fault of the original publication.

  3. I get what you’re trying to do, but you undermine your own effort by overlooking women over 40. One, maybe two on your list? We may not be glamorous anymore, but we are still out here in the trenches, fighting for women in the workplace and mentoring our young sisters. Yet we remain invisible.

    1. admin says: Reply

      There are at least nine women in these photographs who are over 40, as am I. There may be a few more, but I don’t quiz strangers on their ages. It is terrible to feel unappreciated or invisible.

    2. I’m 43 and a participant. The chubby cheeks make me baby faced. I’d be happy to show you my license.

  4. Bravo! Brilliant response to…can’t find a polite word for the original BJ article. I would be curious if any women walked away from the being in the BJ over the sexist editorial angle.

  5. JenRR says: Reply

    I love the photos. Sandy actually married my husband and me nine years ago!

  6. […] Monday, Bennet published the photos on her website, oohstlou.com. They are a beautiful series, with each woman’s unique personality captured in a way that […]

  7. Susan – your product is wonderful, as I was sure it would be. I have a thought – when I taught a class in documentary photography at Flo Valley CC years ago, we had a gallery exhibit and invited all the subjects to
    the opening – they were pleased with the collective impact of the show, and they enjoyed meeting each other.
    I would bet this group of 39 women would make a wonderful collective event.– Bob LaRouche, Sandy’s
    official photographer.

  8. I wish I could’ve been a part of this. It’s beautiful.

    1. admin says: Reply

      We’re not necessarily done with this series. If you’d like to be considered if we do another shoot, send me an email at susan@oohstlou.com

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