By Jessica Langlois, MFA ’10
What happens when women produce, examine, and reclaim images of themselves? Several imaginative projects by Mills alumnae have shown that such actions are steps towards self-determination, empowerment, and equality. Before & After, a project designed by Esther Honig ’12, examines beauty standards across cultures. It went viral last summer, picked up by CNN, Elle, Time, The Atlantic, and Good Morning America. Jennifer Bermon ’93 has been showing women’s strength and vulnerability in her photo series Her | Self, which pairs black-and-white photographs of women with their own handwritten response to the image. She started the project at Mills the year she graduated, and continues to seek out women and their stories today. And this past March, Hazel Streete ’11, MBA ’13, unveiled the mural Her Resilience in Oakland’s Park Community Garden, featuring images of women who have suffered urban or domestic violence. Each of these Mills graduates and their thought-provoking projects aims to return the power of representation, and self-representation, to women.
Esther Honig started thinking about perceptions of women and the power of the media to subvert norms as soon as she arrived at Mills. She read excerpts of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Suzanne Bordo’s Unbearable Weight in her English 1 class. In a public radio reporting course, she learned about telling the stories that the public most needs. Since graduating, Honig’s work as a radio journalist has taken her to several different Latin American countries, which is where the idea for Before & After began to percolate.
“I’ve had the privilege of traveling abroad as both a student and a journalist,” Honig said in a phone interview from her Kansas City home. Being able to immerse herself in a culture “where the people who are considered attractive don’t look like supermodels or actresses back home,” she says, triggered her interest in experimenting with concepts of beauty ingrained in women by entertainment media and advertising.
To test those concepts, she sent her image to photo editors in 28 different countries, giving only one directive: “Make me beautiful.” If the editor wanted more guidance, she asked them to make her look like what they see in their country’s fashion magazines. The project was by no means standardized or scientific, and the skills varied widely among the 50 artists she commissioned, but Honig’s intent was simply to curate a sampling of various individuals’ understandings of beauty. About 60 percent of those individuals were men. Interestingly, women artists were just as likely to change her appearance drastically.
Some editors changed her skin tone or eye color, others smoothed out visible lines on her face and body, some applied heavy makeup, and others changed the shape of her eyes, nose, or mouth. What was most arresting, however, was how each one came up with such a different interpretation of the same prompt.
“We live in a society with a homogenous concept of beauty; we are surrounded by manufactured images,” Honig said. “These results popped that ‘beauty bubble.’”
Most responses to Honig’s experiment have been positive. When she was featured as the keynote speaker at Boston College’s Women’s Summit this past March, Honig says, “people were eager to share their own experiences, especially those who are biracial.” One student, who grew up in both the United States and Japan, said she felt caught between two concepts of beauty, but that the Before & After project made her feel some relief from the pressure of living up to either standard. Many young girls who saw Honig’s project emailed her to share their struggles to reconcile their own appearance with the images they see around them every day.
Not all responses have been affirming. One image, created by a Moroccan photo editor who added light makeup and a turquoise-and-lavender hijab, is one of Honig’s favorites for the way it explores the connection between beauty and religion. But, she says, a woman from Morocco wrote to her objecting that the image does not represent the majority of Moroccan women but, rather, upholds a troubling stereotype.
Honig welcomes discussion on the outcomes and limitations of her project. She acknowledges that part of the reason she felt comfortable sending an un-made-up image of herself around the world, and seeing it suffuse social media, is that her appearance conforms to traditional Western beauty standards. Also, she is white. Although she was curious to know how a subject of a different race or ethnicity would fare in a similar project, she felt it was not ethically sound for her to send out images of others.
Priscilla Yuki Wilson ’13 saw the opportunity to explore that question and pursued her own offshoot Before & After project. Wilson, who is half black and half Japanese, came up with her own collection, which earned similar attention in September 2014. Wilson’s racially ambiguous features posed a different challenge to the photo editors. “As a biracial woman, there is no standard of beauty or mold that can easily fit my face,” Wilson writes on her website. Many women contacted Wilson, saying they identified with, and appreciated, the fact that she didn’t look like most other faces presented in the media.
Fashion writer Marie Southard Ospina conducted a third Before & After experiment, this time with a “plus-size twist.” She presented her results on Bustle.com, where she writes that she was pleased that only three of 21 editors significantly slimmed her down; she also indicates that some of her photo editors may have been consciously aware of the impossible standards their Photoshop efforts were meant to produce. “The experiment offered a lot more editors in favor of ‘preserving natural beauty’ than I would have imagined,” she writes, “I feel extremely positive about its results.”
Wilson feels the project transformed a difficult topic into something simple that people could easily understand. She wanted viewers to notice which images made them uncomfortable and which ones they found pleasing. “I didn’t want people to just shove those feelings into a dark corner, but to ask themselves why they had those responses. Are these their own thoughts, or do they come from someone else?”
Jennifer Bermon ’93 has been asking that same question for 20 years. While the Before & After projects reflect external standards of beauty imposed on women, Bermon is more concerned with the internal perceptions women hold of themselves.
She first noticed this as a problem while sitting in Founders Commons one day in 1993, hearing her friends discussing what they didn’t like about themselves and what they would change. In Bermon’s eyes, her friends looked perfect, but she realized that these were daily conversations women had about how they looked. She started to wonder if these women were even aware of their constant negative self talk. “Do we,as women, hear what we say to ourselves?” Bermon asked.
She began to photograph her friends, pairing the image with each woman’s handwritten reaction to the photo. She sought out friends who were struggling with self-esteem issues, but also those she knew who had self-awareness and confidence. Responses in early photos, mostly from 1993, focus heavily on body image. One student, Brisen Vannice ’93, picks apart her image—“my eyes look uneven, my nose looks wide, my hair is messy”—but then reflects on the futility of pointing out all those negative details.
This moment—the transition from practiced negative self talk to reflection on that negativity—is what Bermon was hoping to capture with her Her | Self photo series, which seeks to return the power of self-representation to individual women.
“There’s something about a photograph that freezes things and gives us time to really see something,” Bermon says. “Having women write their words gives them a voice of their own. I started this hoping to open up a discussion about how hard we are on ourselves, to make people aware and get them talking about it. That is the first step.” This project, too, has received widespread media attention, appearing in the Huffington Post and Ms. magazine.
About 10 years after Bermon started the project at Mills, she was working as a television journalist in Los Angeles and realized that very little has changed about the way women perceive themselves. One of her concerns is the preponderance of eating disorders: A 2014 Glamour study of 1,000 women ages 18 to 24 found that 54 percent of women with a healthy body weight are unhappy with their bodies—13 percent more than in 1984. This statistic is just one symptom of the impossible standards many women feel they must aspire to. “I am concerned with how this kind of thinking affects women in their lives and in their relationships,” says Bermon. “Does it limit them? I want them to be happy and feel good about themselves, not struggle.”
Bermon returned to the project and, for the past decade, has photographed more women, incorporating many different ages, races, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes. “I’ve gone up to strangers,” Bermon says. “I’ll see something in her, I know she has a story.”
The stories are as diverse as the women themselves. While some write about body image, others focus on career success, motherhood, race representations, histories of abuse, and aging. Rosaly Lopes, a volcanologist working for JPL/NASA, describes how far she’s come in her career, and how rare that is for women in her home country, Brazil. Susan Blake, a New York City firefighter and the first woman to pass the same physical test as male firefighters, states, “This is the face and posture of someone who is comfortable and satisfied with her position in life.” A selection of Bermon’s photos were exhibited this spring at Santa Monica’s DNJ Gallery; Bermon has also taken the exhibition to local high schools and youth groups.
Creating a forum for young women to find strength from one another was the reason Amy Pellman, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge specializing in child welfare cases, chose to participate in the project. “These young women in juvenile court don’t have support of their families, and some start to hate themselves,” Pellman says.
Rufiena Jones-Soro ’03, whom Bermon shot in 2014, wrote on her image: “I know this woman, but I almost never take the time to just look at her, let alone appreciate her.” Jones-Soro aimed for complete honesty in her response to the photo, she says. “I started out happy, then got detached, then sad, then critical. So that’s what I wrote.”
“I really admire Rufiena for being so self-aware and brave,” Bermon says. That bravery is not going unnoticed. Bermon has been inspired by the amount of positive press the exhibition received. While media can contribute to women’s self-consciousness, it can also promote confidence. Bermon believes her project can be a tool for that change because viewers are drawn to the commentary beneath the images as much as they are drawn to the images themselves. “People at the gallery went from photo to photo, reading each one,” Bermon says. “That means these girls and women are being heard—and they represent so many other women out there.”
Representing those who go unacknowledged and providing examples of strength was also the motivation behind Her Resilience, a mural in Oakland’s Park Community Garden organized by Hazel Streete ’11, MBA ’13. The mural features images of local women who have experienced urban or domestic violence.
It all began with a story that is all too familiar: In April 2014, Streete learned that Kimberly Robertson, a 23-year-old mother who had recently moved to Oakland, had been raped and murdered in the Park Boulevard neighborhood. Streete was outraged not just by Robertson’s violent death, but by the lack of media and community response to it. Just days later, the only thing left to memorialize Robertson was a bunch of withering flowers at the murder site.
A 2000 study by the US Department of Justice found that while 1.9 million women are physically assaulted annually in the United States compared to 3.2 million men, women are significantly more likely than men to be injured during an assault, and women of color face higher rates of violence than their white counterparts. Women face assault from family members, partners, strangers, and police, yet the vast scope of the problem remains widely unacknowledged.
“Kimberly Robertson was murdered in April, and by June I was organizing,” says Streete, who works at a nonprofit that supports young women running for local political office.
Streete envisioned a vibrant work of art honoring Robertson and other women who have experienced violence. She pulled together a team of Mills alumnae, women artists, and organizers to create a 12-panel mural, which was unveiled in an International Women’s Day celebration on March 21. The team agreed right away that the mural would not dwell on a sense of victimization, but that it would celebrate the beauty and power of women—their resilience.
In addition, Streete says, “I was really focused on being engaged with the local community at all levels and on creating a team of women organizers who would support each other’s professional goals.” She called on Elizabeth Welsh ’12 to take the lead on grant writing and press relations. Gabrielle Rae Travis coordinated community outreach efforts and secured permissions from the families of women they hoped to portray. Nicole Gervacio, a graduate of the California College of Art whose work aims to oppose the objectification of the female body, was lead artist and coordinated the 12 other muralists.
For Streete, the objectification women encounter is directly tied to violence against them. “When something’s an object, you can throw it around and do whatever you want to it,” she says, adding: “I chose art as my venue of resistance because it disrupts our daily lives. My goal is to interrupt that objectification.”
Streete, who grew up in Richmond, California, is no stranger to using art as a medium for making a social statement.
“I was used to seeing RIP T-shirts and taggers doing things for people they’ve lost or who are in prison,” she says. “It’s part of the culture. Sometimes, when the established systems are ignoring you, you’ve got to take action yourself to make yourself right.”
By the time Streete and her team were underway with their project last fall, Oakland, like many other cities, was roiled by protests against the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. While this anger dovetailed with the anger fueling the mural project, it also pointed out the specific need to honor women affected by violence. Streete notes that women often champion causes supporting men who have been unfairly victimized—the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, was started by three black women activists after Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in 2013—but says she rarely sees women doing that for themselves.
“Women are the ones who are standing up for black men. Women are the ones who are usually purchasing and printing out the T-shirts,” Streete says. “In creating Her Resilience, we are women doing it for ourselves. Instead of printing out a thousand more Oscar Grant T-shirts, let’s do this for one woman.”
Streete’s long-term plan, in collaboration with Mamacitas Cafe, is to create an ongoing project that takes women from victim to survivor to leader. The current mural portrays and remembers victims; next, the organizers will lead workshops with high school girls, teaching them to create portraits of themselves and women they admire—women who are survivors; finally, a congregation of women, led by the high school girls, will take all the portraits to Oakland City Hall and make an appeal for action—a necessary step to ensure that these women become effective leaders.
“Change can happen when women admire each other, when women tell each other ‘Good job,’ or ‘I’m so glad you survived,’ or ‘I see your strength,’” Streete says.
“I can’t control the economic imbalance, the societal imbalance, the power structure, so women probably will still go on and be abused,” she adds. “But when you give someone the power to represent themselves, I know they’ll be able to survive. I know they’ll be able to carry on.”