Sharing Perspectives and Learning Across Generations

Graphic imagery that prompted important conversation about what activism looks like.

Last month was Sexual Assault Awareness month. Because our goal on social media is to “equip, elevate, and activate people who want to end violence against women”, we decided to develop posts around the idea of empowerment. Natasha volunteered to create the graphics for this campaign, and I assembled the resources that would go along with each post. What I didn’t realize was that this team effort to empower others with knowledge would also lead to me learning a life lesson about the roles of teacher and student – one that is also pivotal to the smallest steps documentary itself.

The Dilemma

Natasha was quick to prepare the graphics, and within days, they were in my inbox. We hadn’t planned exactly what each graphic would include, so I was eager to open them and get cracking on the resources. However, when I opened the images, my first thought was “We can’t post these.” To me, the graphics depicted women in passive and sexualized poses that seemed opposite to our “empowerment” message.

I didn’t want to reject the graphics outright, particularly since Natasha volunteered her time to create them. Further, from a communications point-of-view, the graphics would certainly catch people’s attention. Sex sells after all. However, I didn’t feel immediately comfortable with posting them, so instead, I shared my concerns with Natasha and asked for her thoughts.

Another example of the graphics that prompted our discussion.

The Conversation

Here’s a condensed version of what I shared with Natasha in response to the graphics she created:

“I like the messaging and text format you used. I feel torn about the photos of the women, so I’ll ask you to weigh in here…The photos are very visually appealing, but I am wondering if they are so appealing because they portray “sexy” women in seductive, passive poses…Now on the one hand, sexual assault awareness means women can look and be however they want and they are never asking to be assaulted. On the other hand, are we perpetuating the stereotype that women are meant to be looked at and be sexy [for the male gaze]?…My gut says find photos where the women look more active as opposed to passive…I welcome your thoughts on this.”

Natasha responded with what I feel was important insight, not only because of the perspective she shared but also the way she engaged thoughtfully with my concerns. Here’s a condensed version of Natasha’s response:

“So these images come up when you search ‘women empowerment’. It could be because we, as women in society, have been trained to believe that feminism has a look (i.e. active bodies, raised hands, intense faces) and if it’s not that look, then we are passive and submissive. You can have activism in stillness as well [though] we have been taught that silence is acceptance of powerlessness… We have been fed images of what something should look like and what it should not look like. If it does not fit inside these standards, then we feel it is wrong or uncomfortable, and not acceptable. I think having a conversation about how we look at bodies, especially in the context of activism, is important because there are so many stigmas in the activist community about what an activist looks like.”

This graphic was one that made me particularly uncomfortable. What do you think?

The Lesson

I’m really glad that instead of rejecting the graphics outright, I asked for Natasha’s thoughts. First, her perspective helped me to see the biases I carry within myself. Yes, the images portray what our society currently views as “sexualized” individuals, but part of my negative reaction to this is because I have obviously thought of women’s sexuality as exclusively tied to another’s desire. As a result, I have unwittingly been objectifying women’s sexuality because I have not truly considered the idea that a woman could express her sexuality for herself and her own empowerment, which, in our current societal context where women’s bodies are considered objects owned and policed by others (e.g., men, the state, etc.), would clearly be an act of resistance. Further, I also carry assumptions about what “an activist” looks like, which is slightly ironic considering that with the smallest steps, I’m trying to demonstrate that anyone can be an activist. So how I’ve managed to maintain a specific image of an activist contradicts my goals with the smallest steps (although, the term ‘activist’ does at least connote action, so perhaps that’s why we assume that imagery of activists should portray some type of action or movement).

Second, as Natasha points out, having these conversations about what bodies ‘count’ under the ‘activist’ label is important, mostly to help us dispel our ingrained stereotypes of who can be what. Truly, an empowered woman is someone who is free to express her entire being, and to express it in the ways she chooses. If feminism is about freedom of choice, then it must respect choice, especially regarding bodily autonomy (and yes, we could question the basis on which someone is freely choosing…for example, we could ask whether or not how one dresses can ever be truly separate from society’s expectations of how that person should dress based on societal constructs such as gender. But we could also mention here that, if said person is aware of social constructs and still makes a choice within said construct, then their choice is still free inasmuch as it’s possible to have free choice…anyway, I digress!).

Finally, the most important lesson for me is the reminder that knowledge and wisdom can reside in all of us, regardless of our age or amount of life experience. This lesson is pivotal within the smallest steps, and is partly why we chose to follow four emerging activists alongside interviews with more experienced activists. We often assume that those who are older and wiser automatically know more about the world and how it does and should work. But what this experience with Natasha reinforced for me is that we all have the opportunity to offer new perspectives to others, and we can all benefit from remaining open-minded to these new perspectives. The more open-minded we can be, particularly to having conversations that surface new perspectives, the better I think we’ll be at ensuring our activist efforts to end violence are inclusive.

What do you think?