The project displaying the truths about girlhood in the digital age.
Navigating your way through Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and their popular sister social haunts is a pretty stressful task for anyone in this digital age we live in. Trying to figure out who you are and what you stand for as a young teen, with the mountainous pressure of keeping up appearances on social media is a whole other ball game. For young girls, being constantly surrounded by invasive social platforms and individuals is a discouraging bubble of feeling inadequate, often conforming to society’s beauty ideals by preening, posing and editing their images in a way to make themselves ‘fit’ with the mainstream.
This reason was what prompted Izzy Whiteley to set up That’s What She Said, a documentary photography project in collaboration with photographer Jessica Gwyneth, aiming to portray the young girl of today. As a platform for girls to discuss their own insecurities, gender and growing up in this unfiltered society, the pair innocently photograph young women in their own environment, finished with a hand written message by the participant on their opinions and issues that they have dealt with personally.
All so delicately portrayed, the project is a strong advocate for girl power, but not in a pushy, in your face kind of way. It is an open line of communication, a place where everyone is beautiful and no one can be judged.
We spoke to Izzy about what she thinks should change a world stacked with pressure on how girls should be.
Tell us how That’s What She Said came about?
I struggled a lot as a young girl with my relationship with myself and what I thought boys wanted from me, it was very toxic. I grew up sexualising myself, we all did and whenever we did not meet the beauty ideal we would blame ourselves. To be a teenage girl and to hate the way you look to the point it affects everything in your life, to the point you starve yourself, even for a day, is far from abnormal. I did not question this because ‘it is just what girls do’. I did not question being catcalled and sexually harassed because ‘it is just what boys do’, it is a joke, it is a compliment. Girls are always taught that it is their choice to do what they want, to wear makeup, to shave, to diet, so is it a surprise I was confused when I felt such conflict? After what we had all been through. I was shocked at how much people accepted of life as a girl. I started to realize that society can condition girls to blame themselves for the way they feel almost like it is out fault we feel so inadequate. We expect girls to feel ugly, fat, spend large amounts of money, time, and energy and take dangerous measures to change their appearance. We are not born like this, this is how we are taught to feel. Society and the media are very very strong forces and they infiltrate your life from the first time you open your eyes, conditioning is a very real and scary thing. Girls need to be taught that these feeling are not their fault and they can change with the right education and more importantly, they do not have to accept this way of life. I really feel that if we teach girls to do this from a young age and, make it cool and admirable to be part of, then a lot of damage control can be done. We cannot remove the harm that they will face but we can give them the tools to live happily among it and fight against it. I know from being a relatively young girl, how bad the situation at the moment really is with things like the rise of the internet, celebrity culture, and social media but I really don’t feel the majority of people do – especially adults. The first step and an on going aim of the project is to really expose what it is like to be a young girl now and try to force the issue and encourage industries to make changes. It is about hearing these issues straight from the girls, not to have adults talking about what they think is hard for young girls. That’s What She Said was started because when I allowed myself to question my surroundings, it changed my life and I want to give all girls the opportunity to do the same.
What would you say are the main difficulties girls face in this heavy digital age?
From what the girls have told me social media and appearance are the main pressures. These two pressures are directly linked to the Internet. Things like porn, sexism, celebrity culture and lad culture thrive in the Internet. Image sharing and manipulation has got to such a high that scrutiny of the female body is infiltrating these girl’s lives every time they pick up their phone. Unless you live in a hole not being even slightly affected by this is impossible. There has never been more of a time that people have been able to get seriously famous just by being society’s beauty standard and the girls see this. My friend, who is 22, spends hours Googling reality stars with like ‘body’, ‘diet’ after. Imagine the effect that can have on you when you’re 13? Accepting yourself is so unheard of that its almost a joke to suggest it as ‘advice’. Images of plastic perfection are literally everywhere on the Internet let alone in the magazines, on TV and on billboards. Even young girls in the media don’t have a chance. Another issue I would say girls are facing is the afterlife of images, we are so encouraged to take pictures of everything – Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook. Once these snapshots are in the hands of anyone else you have lost all control. There are Instagram accounts in schools devoted to exposing nudes of students. Yes it is a girl’s choice to take/let someone take a nude of herself but the pressure on girls to be sexy is never ending. What if you see pretty girls getting attention and praised for it? What if the only reason you sent you BF a nude because everyone is doing it? Because you BF said it was frigid of you didn’t? Because all the Celebrities you love always post half naked/naked nudes on Instagram? Because how else can you know your body, boobs and bum are good enough if someone isn’t telling you? Not only this but the girls are seeing the disgusting amount of body shaming that goes on in comments on even a model’s photo – no wonder girls go running at 8.
What kind of girl do you look for when finding someone to shoot? What reaction do you usually get from the girls?
Well, appearance has absolutely nothing to do with it, which is hard for some of the girls to believe. They always say ‘but I’m not photogenic, I’m not a model, I’m not skinny’. I am so bored of seeing a certain type of appearance celebrated. Even talking about it as a decision making process seems odd because the point is we would never think ‘I would rather celebrate this girl than this girl’. I look for any girls between ’13-18’ but get extra excited when the girl is doing something positive with their time, be it sport, music, art, a hobby, anything. It is also important to hear from the girls that have been affected by the mainstream media as hearing why they feel they need to do all of this to themselves is key. Talking to girls that have serious insecurities is really important to me but it is a more delicate situation. We have shot a girl who has been badly bullied and hope to shoot a girl who has had so much trauma purely because she has red hair… seriously? Is that still a thing? Another big big thing is getting girls from all walks of life from race to culture to background to surroundings to location. When you get to know any of these girls, who may consider themselves ‘just normal’, there is genuinely so much about them that it would be hard to find a reason not to shoot them. I really try and make the girls know this isn’t a ‘fashion shoot’ as that is always their main worry.
How do you think your images are influencing the girls of this generation?
I would hope that the collages with the quotes and images are making girls feel more connected, like there is another girl somewhere feeling the same way. When you are young you can often feel very alone and alienated in your feelings. The main things about these images is these ‘normal’ girls are the stars of the show and it is nothing to do with the way they look. They are photographed because of their achievements, strength and thoughts and this will hopefully start to show the importance in that. Many people are very interested in these images, much more than your standard glossy and I think it shows the girls that together we can make a change. Having a platform for girls to speak up but it be in a, dare I say it, fashionable magazine editorial but without the huge pressures and self doubt that come with it, these are the new editorials.
How do you think social media, especially image-based Instagram, contributes to girls’ self esteem?
I am sure that for a girl that fits society’s ideal of beauty, white, thin, pretty, the praise she receives from her images would help her confidence but it is a vicious circle. No one girl can have everything that people want to see in a ‘perfect girl’, especially at such a young age. She may be praised for her thin figure (which is an issue in itself considering her age) but she’ll feel insecure about her many small bumps, bum and lips. Maybe she has everything but is short and isn’t tanned enough, social media highlights this, because not only might people tell her, she will see people slating celebrities’ images for similar things. I once saw on Kim Kardashian’s picture a man put ‘look how you breasts have fallen, so saggy’. Kim may not be everyone’s favourite but she has had two babies and is being shamed for how a woman’s body naturally changes. What is scary is girls are often looking to mimic women’s images, women that are 10/20 years older than them, this is dangerous on so many levels. On social media, women never age, they don’t have patchy skin, wrinkles, their bodies are still tight. The rejection of women ageing has become a huge problem in our society Social media has become a popularity contest, girls post pictures for likes and rates, pictures that in real life they cant live up to. These girls are going through puberty, their faces are breaking out, their body shape is changing, they are learning the curse of cellulite and then, these edited images are all they see everyday. A 14 year old girl was talking about her classmate, who edited a picture of herself in her bikini so much you couldn’t recognise her. It’s not only the pressure your appearance on social media but your whole life. What are you doing, wearing, eating, how you work out, who you see affects your self worth. Girls buy expensive clothes for a picture, then take them back. They take a selfie in places they can never afford or would never go and hang out with people that are mean to them because they are ‘cool’. They do this stuff because if you want to be cool in school it matters, an added layer of pressure and exception has been added. Social media has taken us so far away from reality that I think many of these girls struggle to read between the lines. If you only accept yourself when you have edited your appearance and life, is it any wonder you are so disappointed with yourself without all of it?
What do you think needs to change in education about feminist issues?
Many parts of feminism need to stop making themselves such a Mean Girls club, it s so anti productive to the cause. Many girls I have talked to say the pressure to be a perfect feminist is so much they would never want to identify as one, even if it follows their beliefs. Things like ‘you can’t be a feminist and shave your legs/wear lots of make up/date a ‘lad’, these are all the misconceptions taught by people with a lack of understanding. There seems to be a stigma around the word feminism so even people who technically aren’t feminist don’t want to say they are and this is very dangerous to the movement. This becomes a huge issue for boys and men, we need males to be openly part of the movement but if they keep getting attacked online or in conversation when they might phrase something wrong, it will never work. We are causing a divide. Feminism helps men greatly, the expectation on men to be strong, powerful, dominant, unemotional, sex obsessed is a pressure too which, in turn, hurts women. We did a whole shoot with girls talking about the issues of the sex education curriculum, things are taught in very brief detail and ultimately very retro normative. They feel that the government just want to briefly cover it so they can tick that box rather than actually trying to make a change. Being ignorant is not going to stop you from having sex. Issues that came up were that everything is aimed at girls not getting pregnant or stds, which are only the two parts of what needs to be taught when it comes to sex. In-depth discussion into things like consent and domestic abuse need to be covered. They feel that sex ed is very mechanical. At wow festival, a teacher expressed the extreme pressure on them to reach targets and the lack of power over things like this. They have no time left after all the ‘important’ lessons and regulations control them from speaking to students about these things- their hands are tied. Also in a lot of schools the parents have complete control and can stop a child learning about these topics, this can be very damaging. Girls also need better education about civic rights/political activism so people understand what power they have to make a change- even just education about voting and engaging with your MP. I also think helping girls to understand money and saving etc. from school age might help towards the gender pay gap. I think having a new class at school- an updated PSHE/Citizenship/General studies class would really help and that being an important part of the curriculum.
What are your words of advice for girls struggling with self-confidence and insecurities?
I would say that talking and sharing can be the most helpful thing. Online there are so many blogs and forums where you can find comfort in likeminded people and have your say anonymously. I would say that issues with confidence and insecurities can be a slippery slope and once you feel these initial doubts its best to take action. It is hard to advise a girl to stop watching reality TV or reading certain magazines or hanging out with certain people but small steps are important. A huge thing I would say that helped me is starting to educate myself in feminism through books and the Internet. It really does teach you a lot and can help your feelings start to make sense. The most important thing is, if it is really too much, get help, don’t hold it in, don’t feel your feeling aren’t valid or aren’t serious enough. If you have no adults in your life you trust then there are many resources online. Even though when you are older you do realise all these cliché sayings are true, such as ‘it’s what’s on the inside that counts’ saying this to a young girl will get you nowhere. The more you involve yourself with stuff that has nothing to do with your appearance the less you think about it, that really helps. I think its important to also acknowledge that this is a hard age, it is almost impossible at some point to not feel insecure, but stuff does get better.
What are your hopes for the future of female society?
Equality is what I hope for, equal pay, more women in higher roles, more women in parliament, less sexualisation of women and girls etc. (including self objectification), but this is a long road. I hope for more boys and men, with education and support, to fight for equality for women and for themselves. I hope that girls will have a better education on how to deal with the pressures of society and have knowledge of the conditioning that can happen. I hope for rules and regulations on airbrushing. I hope for there to be a strong backlash against our obsession with editing ourselves in images or in real life. I hope for a reconnect from alter egos to reality. I hope that for the first time girls and women will be able to see their appearance as an afterthought and their character as a priority. These young girls are our future as they are the next women. For the future of female society to be great we need to help them share, talk, learn and give them the education and strength to make a change.
What’s next for That’s What She Said?
We are planning to launch the website in Spring/Summer 2016, right now I am building up the Instagram and I encourage any girls who want to have their say to contact us through it- @thatswhatss. On the website will be all the shoots/interviews and articles written by young girls/women. A big part of it will be a submit section where girls can send in their thoughts, worries, writing, art- anything creative, we hope to start a big conversation. These will be published on the website so that it will become a go to place for all those interested in what this generation of girls have to say.