Jessielyn Palumbo, 25,
Fashion Photographer, Former Miss New Jersey USA
Jessielyn Palumbo is not your average pageant queen. Outspoken and talented, Palumbo is speaking out against her haters with a bold campaign called #ThisIsBeauty, which shows the Miss New Jersey 2016 alongside her pageant sisters wearing nothing but their confidence. “We decided to combat the bullies by empowering ourselves in the most vulnerable way possible; unedited, nude with minimal makeup,” says Palumbo, who shot every photo in her powerful series. “That is the true meaning of pageantry; empowering women.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
Ever since I was 3 drawing in my grandparents home I always had an innate passion for the arts. I actually entered college as a Fine Arts major focusing on traditional drawing and painting. It wasn’t until sophomore year that I was exposed to photography. To date, some of my greatest accomplishments would be creating my own photography business at 22 years old, along with winning Miss New Jersey USA 2016 after 7 years of competing and never giving up.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
There have been times where I was advised to dress “more conservative” for job interviews because I looked “too attractive” to be taken seriously.
As a female artist engulfed in the world of pageantry, I was not only combating the challenges of my appearance but also the stigma of pageants.
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
The pageant stereotype is something that has definitely challenged my career. Many believe that competing in pageants is not in line with feminism, and some colleagues during college labelled me as “pageant girl” - the inference being I had nothing more to offer than a pretty face.
"To date, some of my greatest accomplishments would be creating my own photography business at 22 years old, along with winning Miss New Jersey USA 2016 after 7 years of competing."
When I finally won Miss NJ USA, I was hit with another wave of criticisms unlike what I faced in college. This time it was based upon the disagreement of my beauty. I was just one amongst many that almost felt defeated by cyberbullies. That’s when I created #ThisISBeauty campaign. Myself, along with my fellow courageous Miss USA sisters, decided to combat the bullies by empowering ourselves in the most vulnerable way possible; unedited, nude with minimal makeup. We wanted to show that there’s no definition of beauty, and that we are all beautiful in our own way. Every curve, cellulite, scar.
"As judgmental as some may be, I never resorted to hatred. If you succumb to the negativity, you will feel insecure and unmotivated."
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
I changed people’s perspective of pageantry through both my campaign, and by my actions. As judgmental as some may be, I never resorted to hatred. If you succumb to the negativity, you will feel insecure and unmotivated. By the end of the year in college, my colleagues came up to me and said “You’re nothing like what I thought a pageant girl would be, you’re cool and down to earth”. My #ThisISBeauty campaign also SWAAYs the perceptions of pageants and overall concept of beauty. I have had mothers messaging me thanking me for the project, allowing their daughter to feel comfortable in her skin and to have women to relate to. We have to be the change we want to see.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
No matter who you are, if you work hard enough, you can do it!. The worst thing one can possibly do is to give up, and succumb to the negativity of others. Believe in yourself, the only opinion that matters in the end is your own.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.