Few things in this world could pull me out of a six-month post-graduate-degree writing silence. Last week's TIME cover managed to do so with vigor. Its presence and imagery choice stirred up issues about gender, beauty, race, religious marketing, and how the "face" of mindfulness and Buddhism in America hasn't changed in over a decade.
My initial reaction to TIME's "The Mindful Revolution" cover was pretty surface. I huffed and puffed about the fact that a prominent Western-based magazine was portraying Buddhism in such a Cover Girl way. Flawless make up, perfect bone structure, skin as supple as Snow White; this girl was getting a lot from the "Mindful Revolution." What's her secret?! Even the positioning of her head, tilting up as some sort of divine call-to-action, soaking up erethral rays, screamed Western Christianity. And yet, there, splashed above her bosom, was the Buddhist-themed headline.
I shared the photo -- and some sort of sarcastic remark -- with my social media network and called it a day. But then the wonderful Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religious New Service correspondent and all-around fantastic #religion tweeter, posted this side-by-side image...
... noting that apparently TIME magazine can only depict mindfulness via a beautiful, white, blonde woman.
It's one thing to feature a young, fertile white girl on the cover of TIME and promote it as "mindfulness." It's another to do it twice over the course of a decade for, essentially, the same watered-down story you're trying to sell the West about what Buddhism means and what, and here's the kicker, it can do for you.
So what's in question here? Gender, first. Mindfulness is almost entirely marketed towards women. When is the last time you saw a mindfulness book for dudes? Women love this self-help niche. During a conversation on this topic, a friend brought up the fact that historically, women are the ones striving to "self-improve," or at least taking visible action to do so. To calm their culturally-assigned hysteria, if you will. The men in my life -- and I am well aware most of them fit within a my social and racial demographic -- all follow this trend. Men don't need help. And if they do, they fix it themselves. That's what tool belts are for. Women need improvement. And they do so with outside help. Hello, Oprah/Dr. Phil.
Next is our standard of beauty. Look, we aren't the most culturally diverse country in the world, but that doesn't mean we can't break away from the Disney-princess notion that beauty equates to porcelain skin and golden hair. All magazines -- not just TIME -- are dragging their feet on this. While I couldn't find any authenticated studies reporting that beautiful, white women sell more magazines in my online hunt (I'm sure they exist, write me if you find 'em and we can link), clearly this is information being shared internally 'cause white women keep popping up everywhere. We're even hiding the race of those unfortunate enough to not be born white. All in attempts to sell magazines.
Is this an accurate portrayal of American women? Absolutely not. Does this continue our cultural ideology that thin, white, blonde women are the beauty elite? Yes.
Which tangents into race. I don't pretend to be an expert within the sticky world of race and media, so these comments will be quite brief. But it is important to mention this within the context of Buddhism, a religion that originated in Asia and whose majority adherents are Asian. True, putting an Asian on the cover meditating or being "mindful" would have created a stir as well -- "You can be Buddhist and white!" -- but my tip-toe into the racial issues of this cover involve the bougie-ness of modern Buddhism. Meditation retreats are expensive and, as many social media-ers pointed out, mostly white. Because only affluent white people would be crazy enough to leave their cushy life, shell out $10,000, temporarily take retreat in an "impoverished" country, and meditate on other people's "suffering." [Yes, many retreats are domestic, but these international retreats exist and are quite popular]. Perhaps I'm being reductionalist here. Again, I'm no expert; just an angry white girl who studied Buddhism in graduate school.
But here, TIME is smart. They're selling Buddhism to a crowd that thinks they need to buy it. Beliefnet has a great little summary on the divide of "ethnic" and "elite" [read: "immigrant" vs. "adapter," "Asian" vs. "American"] in American Buddhism. The "elite" are craving those mindfulness books, those meditation tapes, and those month-long retreats, perhaps because they feel like they need to catch up intellectually on a religion they converted to, or simply because they think it's a fun hobby. "Ethnic" Asian Buddhists aren't going to buy into TIME's "Mindfulness Revolution," probably because they were brought up with the religion and hear their grandparents talk about it enough.
And perhaps those who are Buddhist-born (as opposed to converted to Buddhists) laugh as they watch a millions-old religious tradition morph into something that can fit into your pocket. In Western modernity, Buddhism has become something that you can fit into your life, not something you shape your life around. There is no commitment, no hierarchy, no community -- all that was lost in transition. This new definition of Buddhism is perfect for those who want to dabble around spiritually without fully committing to a set of moral or ethical rules. The "nones," if you will.
Lastly, it is interesting -- and sad, for this writer -- to see that the face and narrative of mindfulness and Buddhism in America hasn't changed in the last decade. For our culture at this time, Buddhism is something we can pick apart and apply at will. It is a way of being spiritual but not religious. I've heard too many people call Buddhism a "philosophy, not a religion" than I care to admit. These two covers, taken at surface-newstand-value, reveal that when it comes to mindfulness & Buddhism in America, you're not getting the whole story.
I suppose the question is, then, do you want the whole story?
[It should be noted that I analyzed the American cover aimed at an American audience. It should also be noted that while TIME usually features different covers for different international audiences, they chose not to do so this time around.]
This view reflects that of the writer, and not of the publication she is associated with.
Follow Joanna Piacenza on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jpiacenza