by Corin Hirsch
On Halloween, about 2000 people received an email from the Highfields Center for Composting offering "New Rewards for Highfields' Heat Recovery Kickstarter Project!" The Hardwick nonprofit has been researching ways to better capture the heat generated by decomposing food scraps, and is in the midst of a $40,000 Kickstarter campaign to help fund a research center.
The two images that accompanied the email, though, were startling for some. In one, a smiling woman held up squash to obscure her naked breasts, while straddling a green placard with the word 'Compost' written across it. Another woman lay topless in a pile of dark humus, flinging some up with her left foot. Both models were volunteers for a 2013 'Hot Compost' calendar that Highfields' planned to offer as a reward in its campaign.
But the cheeky photos sparked a small but vocal backlash from customers and others who found the concept offensive and demeaning to women. Under pressure, Highfields scrapped plans for the calendar and offered an apology on its website and Facebook page, in which it called the concept a "mistake" and said it did not reflect Highfields as an organization.
This wasn't the first time Vermonters used saucy calendars to raise money. In 2008, Shoreham residents bared all in a calendar to raise funds for their local library. And back in the early aughts, the infamous Men of Maple Corner calendar raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Calais community center.
The latter project was what Highfield's executive director Tom Gilbert and his staff had in mind when they brainstormed their 'Hot Compost' calendar. "For years, there was a rash of cheeky, nude calendars that went out. As we were coming into the home stretch of our Kickstarter campaign, we wanted to get a little more energy behind it," he says. "The compost heat thing made for some lighthearted banter and pithy framing."
In the Oct. 31 email, Highfields wrote, "Drawing upon some of the finest ladies in the Hardwick local agricultural scene and some of the finest compost in the world, we're dishin' up a calendar of hotties n' humus for the 2013 year." Its Kickstarter page featured a video endorsement from a Hardwick mechanic saying, "You can tell by that big flame behind me that it is a hot item. Please buy a calendar for a mechanic, or your friend, or yourself."
Despite the relatively small size of the backlash — roughly six people complained that they found the photos in poor taste and objectifying to women — Highfields scrapped the calendar within hours of announcing it, and issued an apology via both its Facebook and Kickstarter pages.
"We want to apologize to anyone who found our recent ‘reward’ for our Kickstarter campaign offensive," it began. "In a race to the finish on our Kickstarter campaign we did not adequately reflect on our work prior to posting it and failed to achieve the intent it emerged from. We made a mistake as a result of moving too quickly and the calendar did not reflect Highfields as an organization. Lesson learned." (They also cancelled plans for a follow-up male calendar, "Dudes in Detritus.")
The most vocal critics were Vermont couple Kai Mikkel Førlie and Sheila Poettgen. Førlie said he was "dumbfounded" by the images and thought they were a joke. Poettgen, an artist, said she was "quite frankly shocked because these were very objectified photos of women in very sexually provocative poses, and the language around the ad was very sexist."
"I would expect better from a self-labelled progressive organization," she added.
Peggy Sapphire, an educator, writer and counselor who lives in Craftsbury, viewed the images as akin to pornography and out of character for an organization that has made "otherwise exemplary contributions to our community." Her husband, Bob Feinberg, a founding Highfields board member, said he found the calendar concept "wholly disrespectful of women, and completely undeserving of our support or anyone's support.
"What you do deserve is wholesale rejection by your community," the couple wrote to Tyler Buswell, Highfields' outreach coordinator.
Buswell responded to the couple saying Highfields had removed web links to the calendar out of respect for those who took offense, but he defended the concept. "We understand that the calendar is a hard thing to digest for some people and in respect for those handful of individuals we have taken down all links and images of the calendar. As an artist whose [sic] drawn many a woman, man, and child naked I take offense to the idea that humans can only objectify one another in the nude and it makes me lose a lot of faith in what good and tasteful intentions humans do possess."
On its Facebook page, HIghfields calls the event a "PR disaster" but notes that the models themselves never felt objectified. "It didn't seem worth pursuing if it was going to make anyone uncomfortable," explained GIlbert. "But one thing to note is that the women in these pictures are people we love. I was a little saddened that the commentary seemed to disregard their personhood, their right to volunteer and be creative."
Unsurprisingly, some who were offended by the calendar think Highfields' apology is not enough. "I don't consider Highfields' statement to have been an apology, nor does it, I believe, reflect recognition that their calendar was wholly offensive," writes Sapphire in an email. "We believe it appealed to the worst male instincts which are attracted to and relish the degradations of women."