Cindy Bishop : Don’t Tell Her How to Dress

INTERVIEW

Cindy Bishop:

Don’t Tell Her How to Dress

Catherine Vanesse

15 November 2018

Hot off the success of the exhibition in Siam Paragon and the Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC), #DontTellMeHowToDress is taking on the capital city’s universities. A wonderful occasion to meet the one who started this campaign, Cindy Sirinya Bishop.

Currently a judge on the program “Asia’s Next Top Model,” the american-thai actress and model Cindy Sirinya Bishop started her career at the age of 17 by winning the title of Miss Thailand in 1996.

Since then, she has constantly surpassed herself, acting in movies and TV series, launching her own line of cosmetics “Mama’s Secret,” and acting as the ambassador of the haircare brand Philip B as well as two charities: Fin Free Thailand and The Camillian Home for Disabled Children. More recently, and almost by chance, she even found herself at the forefront of feminist activism.

Last March, following the announcement of Thai government members for young women not to dress “too sexy” during the Songkran festivities, Cindy spontaneously reacted by sharing on her Facebook account a video entitled “Don’t Tell Me How to Dress”. In it, she talked about the assault she fell victim to herself during Songkran but also denounced a “society that is too conservative” and a rape culture that still thrives too much in the country. “Drinking and partying does not give you the right to touch women’s bodies,” she says. The video very quickly became viral and garnered many reactions in Thailand on social media. Through #DontTellMeHowToDress, the country has finally found its own version of #MeToo to speak about sexual harassment.

Is the #DontTellMeHowToDress’s campaign the answer to the #MeToo movement?

I think the reason #DontTellMeHowToDress went that fast is because it’s a good entry level to #MeToo. It’s difficult for Thai people to point out someone, we are in a no confrontation culture, we are not pointing a finger at one person. It’s cultural. So #DontTellMeHowToDress is a good conversation start. In Thailand, there is a way to do everything. I don’t think if I came out, shout loud, it’s gonna help so I’m doing my own way, in a way that is loud but also gentle at the same time.

I definitely want to see #MeToo happening much more here and see women coming forward, naming and pointing out their assaulter, that’s the goal but there are a lot of steps that need to be taken, not just women speaking up but also law enforcement and a change from the government on this issue.

Based on the numbers of “Men and Women’s Progressive Movement Foundation”, less than 10% of the people who get raped make a report…

Did you consider yourself a feminist before?

I’ve always been a feminist, I give credit to my father as well as my mother. I was always told I can do everything, they never limited me. Definitely, it was like nothing was impossible for me and that such an important message to tell to our daughters that they can be anything as long as they believe in themselves and work hard. That’s the same for boys.

Through my work and the content I produce on my Youtube channel, I’m into women’s empowerment, I talk about confidence and so on but I never had the plan to lead a women’s rights movement, it’s more the plan came to me.

When I read the newspaper and the article telling women not to dress sexy, I just recorded the clip. It’s the reactions on this, the support of the women and men, it showed me that I’m not alone on this. Before, people didn’t really have a platform to express themselves, I’m giving myself as a platform and all the feedback I get, it’s why I started the exhibition, it’s why I just keep going.

How is feminism in Thailand?

I think we are very new, in a way our society is really tied in with the culture. A woman has to be respectful, dress conservatively, be minor… and at the same time, I see more and more strong and confident female role models, a lot of them are in the entertainment industry which is OK but I would like to see more of them in business and politics.

There are groups of feminists who speak louder, who fight over everything, I admire and respect their anger but sometimes I think there is a moment and a place to get angry, that we have to see how to make this movement last, how to involve the different groups because otherwise nothing will change, it is not enough to protest against the government, you have to bring them in and find a way to work with them.

What are the next steps on the #DontTellMeHowToDress campaign?

Right now, the #DontTellMeHowToDress campaign is going well. We are now taking the exhibition to some universities: Kasetsart University, Mahidol in November and later Chulalongkorn and Thammasat at the beginning of next year.

I’m working on another project as well. I would like to create a children’s book, in Thai language, to talk about consent. I want a book that parents can read with their children, something easy to understand, not too threatening, that explains how important it is to respect your body and people consent, teaching about the good touch/bad touch…

There is a lot of material talking about this in America but nothing in Thailand so I would like to make my own book in Thai and maybe turn it into something we can share on social media, just to get the conversation started.

It’s endemic right now, you cannot start teaching about sex at high school, you have to start to teach children when they are 3 or 4 about what is private, what is not. I want to introduce the basics, like you have to ask permission for this and that. Hopefully I will start it soon but that’s really something I want to do.

Do you make any difference with your children, between boy and girl?

Most of the Thai media say “oh you’re doing this campaign because you have a daughter” and I say: “it’s because I have a daughter AND because I have a son”, it’s the same. This is not a problem of women, it is an issue that affects both genders, and happens to both, you cannot just tell women to protect themselves because it is not working. To just put all the women in the house and then when they walked outside cover them, simply doesn’t work.

It comes to education in terms of respect, consent, to have a healthy attitude about sex, healthy in the way that’s not shameful, that you don’t have to hide it and that it’s a normal part of life, but that it comes with responsibilities.

Like about consent, it starts already when they are kids, when they are playing together, it starts all fun and they both enjoy themselves but at some point one of them is getting tired or doesn’t want to play anymore and I’m always waiting to see when one will say “I don’t want to play anymore” and if the other one does it, I just say, “did you hear what she or he said?”. So that’s the idea, even if both started to have some kind of relation, if someone decides to stop, you stop, you can’t take it from them.

With my son Aiden, I’m really careful when I talk about women to portray them as strong, independent individuals, not to come to some stereotypes.

About stereotypes, how is it to be an American-Thai in the fashion industry?

I didn’t expect to really come into this industry although I was already starting to model at 13 years old. My father is a diving instructor so I was doing a lot of commercials that involve I had to swim. My career really took off in 1996 when I won the Miss Thailand pageant.

I don’t really look like Thai, although I’m born in Thailand and I feel Thai, and there were a lot of controversy and a lot of people didn’t agree when I won the title. It’s something I’ve always had to deal with it anyway, in all of my life. I never felt completely accepted, it’s hard when you don’t look like the country you associate with.

Now I’m fine, but growing up, especially when I was only 17, as a teenager, you’re trying to find where you fit in, where you belong… At the end, I think it made me, I guess, unique. Maybe stronger and able to do a lot of different things. So, I’m not in the box.

How was the fashion industry back then?

The modeling industry was really different from now, everything took much longer, we didn’t have digital cameras, we had no retouching, it was so much fun, I loved it because it was much smaller too, there were only a few designers, the models were only a few as well, but we were really close-knit. It was the era of celebrities like Cindy Crawford or Claudia Schiffer…

Now, everything is about social media, celebrities are influencers and bloggers. It’s very interesting to see how everything has changed in 20 years. So, it’s very important to be able to change with the time and reinvent yourself and see how you can still be relevant.

What are the big changes you make about yourself to stay in the field?

It’s not so much changing but reinventing myself.

Before, I used to be a model and now I’m a model maker, I’m the teacher, I’m the mentor, I can share my experiences and hopefully inspire some younger, not just models but women, girls.

I try to go further into that field, education on how to be more confident, how to navigate the dangerous area of social media, manage self-esteem and body image.

You are really active on social media…

If you are not on social media you will not stay, everything is based on it. The brands look, not only to your followers although it’s a big part, but at you. You are a brand, you have to create who you are and they will choose to work with you based on what you represent, what you stand for.

You show different facets of yourself on social networks, is it important to appear as natural as on the podiums?

I think so. Obviously I’m in the entertainment beauty industry but it’s important to show some pictures of me with no make-up, funny times with the kids, because that’s who I am, nobody is perfect. I’m showing my real side as well, so it’s important to have the balance.
I’m actually giving a TED talk in November about this idea of perfection and how in our society, sometimes, you only compare yourself to perfect Photoshoped shoot.