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Guest blog: Speaking out is hard, but we have to do it

by Sara Gibbons

Recently, three high school girls in South Portland, Maine spoke out about their right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance, and the backlash was truly astonishing. Online trolls commented on their story calling the girls “ingrates,” “witches,” and “attention whores.” If you spend any time on the Internet you’re I’m sure well aware of the vitriol online targeting toward girls and women, and the lack of secure spaces for activists and bloggers – especially those coming from a distinctly feminist perspective. With incidents like this one in Portland, it becomes especially clear that blogs, and the Internet in general, is not safe for female voices.

It’s painful to hear reports that some of the most exciting feminists I love are writing less or even retiring entirely (!) because of the “toxic stew” of written, emotional, and physical threats they receive. Woman and girls genuinely fear for their personal, career, familial, and physical safety, which is so discouraging and quite literally halting feminist efforts.

But trust me, I get it. Who wouldn’t experience hesitation in the face of such backlash and judgment? As a long time fan but relatively new blogger, I have frequently found myself hesitant to pursue some of my blog ideas for fear of what might happen if I do. It’s intimidating enough to put your voice out there, but to know that your ideas will probably be met with backlash and criticism – now that’s really scary. In fact, it’s a real tragedy! For all bloggers, but especially for young feminists looking online for a safe place to voice their concerns.

Michelle Goldberg of the Washington Post wrote an article that unfortunately only supports these findings. She speaks of the contradiction of the digital age — how social media and technology have provided the space to amplify feminist voices while simultaneously magnifying the criticizing and shaming of those women who share their stories. She notes that with increased technology, comments can be especially harmful and damaging because your personal information is so much more accessible, which, I can definitely attest to, only make the threats more real and scary.

However disheartening, I found some real inspiration and motivation in the words of anthropologist Robin Nelson of Skidmore College. She speaks about how bloggers have to keep going, even in the face of this very real danger. In an article for Cosmos and Culture she says, “I tweet while knowing well that this is probably just the beginning of the cost I will pay for living my identity and politics publicly. I am far from alone in this, as many black feminists…have to constantly work to both preserve their privacy, their safety, and not have their words used without permission. This being said, we are far better off for having had the opportunity to hear all of these voices in conversation. Thus, I will continue to take the risk.”

Nelson speaks about risk, but she also speaks about responsibility and reward. This responsibility and reward part are really important. Seasoned and especially new bloggers like me can’t give up – we have to continue to be brave and take the risk so that our individual collective voices can be heard and hopefully listened to. As bloggers, it is our responsibility to persevere so that we can continue to spread important ideas, spark debate, discuss opinions, and raise awareness on the many great and important feminist issues. Maybe even more excitingly are the rewards! As I continue to blog, I’m excited about becoming apart of the supportive communities that challenge and inspire new bloggers like me.

But don’t worry, for those of us still working up to blogging freely, there are ways that you can be involved without putting your whole self out there. Try blogging under a pseudonym or check out blogs similar to SPARK, like The FBomb and Powered by Girl (PBG), where the comments are moderated. And there are even organizations working to stop this harassment altogether. Organizations like WAM (Women, Action, & the Media) have teamed up with Twitter to investigate how women can better report online harassment and how to more effectively respond to it.

Whatever path you choose, remember that we all need to speak our truths! Continuing to have our opinions heard will be hard, and sometimes hurt, but it is imperative we continue our work, because let’s face it, it’s important. It’s necessary that we continue to write and fight so that one-day, hopefully soon, we can all live authentically and without fear.

Sara Gibbons is an Education student at Colby College. 

The Sisterhood of Night, like teen girls’ lives, is complex and complicated

by Georgia Luckhurst, Montgomery Jones, Dee Putri, and Elisabed Gedevanishvili

When a teenage girl says she’s the victim of a secret network called The Sisterhood of Night, a quiet suburban town becomes the backdrop for a modern-day Salem witch trial.

Based on the short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser, “The Sisterhood of Night” follows a group of high school girls whose secret society – led by the charismatic Mary Warren, the creative Catherine Huang, and the shy Lavinia Hall – attracts unexpected national attention after accusations of the group committing sexual abuse are published on a fellow student, Emily Parris’, blog.

The film intends to raise some very valid questions about how society polices young girls’ sexuality and friendship, as well as the influence the internet has on today’s adolescents and the degree to which it dictates how we live our lives as well as creating fantasies that impede on our reality. How successfully did “The Sisterhood of Night” deliver? Montgomery, Georgia, Dee, and Elisabed discuss.

GEORGIA: What I liked about the film was that it represented close friendship between girls in a way that I hadn’t seen portrayed on screen before. In particular Mary and Catherine’s relationship resembled my own with my three best friends. I also loved how the film tried to address the way in which our society polices girls’ friendships, and how it sexualizes those bonds in order to create rifts and remind girls that their thoughts, feelings, and ways of being are public property. That issue could definitely have been explored more – it’s not a conversation that’s easy to have in an hour and a half’s worth of movie! – and I wish the film had made more of an argument for the extent to which teenage girls have a right to privacy and self-expression. We’re so often ridiculed by society’s lack of respect, for, for example, pastimes like diary writing or blogging, and I’d like to have seen that explored instead of some of the side plots, like an alleged teacher-student relationship that proves untrue.

I think what’s clear about “The Sisterhood of Night” is that it was made with such great feminist intentions which don’t normally come into big movie productions, but it can’t be said to have entirely pulled off all the goals it set out to achieve. Overall I can say I really did enjoy the film, and I will encourage my friends to see it, but it’s the sort of movie that requires a lot of deconstruction after having seen it just to mull over all the different plot lines and questions it’s trying to raise.

MONTGOMERY:  I actually enjoyed the added storyline of the sexualization of the relationship between the counselor and Mary. I wish the film had somehow expanded on that in some way.  It raised the question, is it possible for the a young woman and a grown man to have a completely platonic relationship without assumptions being made?  Or were the circumstances too representational of anything but?  Then there was the question of guilt.  Are those accused, convicted by the public if enough people point the finger? Does innocent until proven guilty still apply?

Overall though, I thought it played out like an overcomplicated Lifetime movie.  The film would have done well to let many of the moments speak for themselves, but instead it felt like it was underestimating the viewer’s understanding.  There were singular powerful moments that would have done well with little explanation, scenes that could have artfully represented the insatiable appetite the media has for a hyperbolic story but the issue was, those moments were clouded by this monster of a plot that didn’t fit. Sometimes simplicity is the way to go. So much can be said about a group of girls just hanging out and getting all the preconceived notions tacked on to them. But the weird group that attacked Lavinia, the blog, the press, the counselor, all of it together was a lot to handle.

DEE: I quite liked the movie–I can relate how life is so confusing at that age. There are so many pressures from parents and friends. The Sisterhood is about girls who share their deepest secrets and believe that the other sisterhood members would keep it as secret–I think it is such a relief when we can say what we really want to say without being judged. I mean, teenagers tend to say those things on social media, which often lead to be judged by others. Did you read early Rookie stuff? I thought the film had a very Rookie vibe: the clothes, the sisterhood, the DIY.

Also, I think I can try to explain Lavinia. I mean, my point of view. I think that Lavinia is a shy girl, who Mary thought that needed the Sisterhood. She has her own issues, like, her mom always has a different boyfriend, and she feels that she’s not normal because she doesn’t have her dad around. My parents are divorced, so I can relate to that. Being 16-17 years old is the most confusing time–we’re teenagers and we have so much angst! We try to figure things out. And when Lavinia fell in love with a boy, it was confusing for her:  she didn’t think that the boy would like her back, but it seems easy for her mom to find boyfriend(s).  Also, there are some gap between Lavinia and her mom. They’re not that close and  Lavinia has to try to figure things out all by herself. But then, after the Halloween, she just can’t take it anymore. It was just too much pressure.

ELI: I thought the movie had a great message for the viewers. I, myself, as a thirteen year old used to be in a similar sisterhood. The only exception was that no one ever accused us of anything… maybe because I was in a totally different country? Maybe, if I were in the United States, instead of Georgia, my friends and I would be exposed to same things that Mary, Lavinia, and Catherine were? Might our whisperings and our secret diaries have been the subject of multiple concerned parents and a school investigation? I doubt it. That’s why I keep thinking that the portrayal of the problem that everyone else already mentioned was a bit exaggerated.

There were so many issues that kept on popping up throughout the film; they could have been movies on their own. The contributors most likely wanted to utilize different aspects, such as Emily’s blog, to deliver the main message; but, all these little parts of the film had huge issues buried in them. Issues that definitely could bring together actors, writers, producers and directors for several potential films.

I thought the film did a good job at bringing together girls from different backgrounds, most of whom were very relatable. To me the most identifiable was Catherine, whose mom suffered from cancer treatment. It was interesting to see how Catherine dealt with her situation.  One thing I didn’t appreciate about the movie was the inclusion of religion. Some may argue that religion is a big part of American life, but it didn’t add any meaning to the plot; quite the contrary, I felt like the film unintentionally stereotyped religiousness  as villainous.

I would recommend watching Sisterhood of the Night to those who enjoy suspense and unexpected plot twists. Although, after watching the movie I do not support Emily’s doings, at first I found myself believing in all the wrong things. I was amazed how the film put me on the spot. It definitely convinced me that everyone, even the most skeptical viewers can be persuaded that a lie is the truth!

The Sisterhood of Night is playing now in select theaters  and is available everywhere on iTunes. 

SPARK Artists: Daniela Groza wants you to be kind for real

by Brenda Guesnet

Daniela Groza is a Romanian artist based in New York City working mainly as a documentary photographer. She recently got in touch with SPARK for her newest project Be Kind For Real (BKFR), which is all about practicing kindness through art. The project was exhibited in the Emmanuel Fremin gallery in NYC but is ongoing–Daniela has designed t-shirts that she sells. In keeping with the theme of the project, Daniela decided to donate the proceeds of the project to grassroots organizations she believes in. We were thrilled to learn that we are one of them, and wanted to know more about the project and the motivation behind it.

According to the website of Be Kind For Real, BKFR cares for Art, Feminism, Beauty, Freedom and Kindness for the self, because they are paramount to the enjoyment of life. Daniela says the idea for BKFR came to her when she was experiencing a difficult episode in her life that made her reflect on what she was doing in life, and even what the purpose of life should be. She then encountered kindness not just as a moral imperative, but as an entire way of living.

How to translate this into an art piece? At first, the project was limited to the gallery space, where Daniela exhibited a text-based piece enclosed in a circle on the wall. But this left her unsatisfied: “Right after the show there was this strange, intense feeling of unrest, as in I just gave birth to a kindness-related project, but what ELSE can I do with it?” she says. She goes on to explain: “Since I’ve been working in the fashion industry for a few years now, and clothes, especially here in New York, make strong durable statements, . . . the first art object that came to mind, meant to bring maximum visibility to sharing as a practice, was t-shirts.” So Daniela made sixteen different designs – which you can see in the illustration – that she is now shipping to people all over the world. By splitting half of all proceeds with activist organizations, Daniela’s belief in “generosity to an extreme” finally found an incarnation.

I was intrigued to know what the words on the t-shirts mean, but according to Daniela a proper answer to this question would run the length of a novel. She did tell me that “every word is meant to capture the essence of our experience in the world, so I wanted to stay away from overly used words that advertising pushes on us. I wanted to keep the project simple and strong: we’ve forgotten the meaning of words, and so it’s hard to imagine a true, authentic life nowadays what with all the diluted jargon of advertising taking power away from language”.

It can be pretty hard to pursue radical politics and reject commodification in a city like New York (especially as an artist) but Daniela tries to remain on the grassroots level with her work, which she considers to be “most powerful, especially when it starts with the younger generation”. She goes on: “I think size, in general, tends to override the idea of personal relations… Anything done on a large scale standardizes and de-personalizes, and I think in today’s society impersonality is a plague”. That’s why she made the decision to promote the project only via ‘democratic’ social media, and to donate to organizations that she feels a personal bond with.

Daniela explains that she decided to help SPARK with Be Kind For Real because kindness and feminism are closely related, especially since she feels that with both it’s crucial to practice what you preach: “let’s face it”, she says, “on the surface we all believe in equality but once we are confronted with every day reality, few of those truly act toward and for it.” We’re thrilled to have caught Daniela’s interest as an organization that actively works towards empowering girls and women, and like her, we want to continue Being Kind For Real.

Research Blog: It’s written all over your Facebook

by Christin Bowman

Confession: Facebook is a big part of my life. I was actually one of the first people to sign up for an account in 2004, and I haven’t looked back since. For a long time, Facebook felt like a warm, cozy living room where my friends and family could meet and stay connected. I would eagerly upload pictures from my latest trip or adventure, caption them with something clever, and tag my loved ones. I would pore over the pictures my friends and family posted, and would obsessively inspect any pictures they tagged of me.

Slowly, though, I started to notice something was wrong. Very wrong. Facebook was making me a nervous wreck.

Rather than that warm and fuzzy feeling of community, I started feeling hurt and insecure. More often than not, looking at pictures of my friends doing things without me gave me intense FOMO. Why didn’t they invite me? Don’t they like me anymore? If I posted pictures of myself or my life, I was consumed with the number of likes and comments my pictures received. No one liked this picture – they must think I’m [insert terrible thing here]. I also noticed that I was a little too invested in how I looked in pictures, and how my friends looked in pictures. I would feel embarrassed if I thought I looked silly in a picture (Quick! Untag before anyone notices!), and I would feel jealous if I saw a picture of a friend or acquaintance looking amazing. At times it seemed that Facebook was doing more harm than good in my life.

All that obsessing over what I looked like on Facebook made me wonder: Do other people feel this way about Facebook? Is it possible that self-objectification plays a role in how rotten I felt.

Researchers Evelyn Meier and James Gray wondered the same thing. They conducted a study with adolescent girls[1] to find out whether there’s a relationship between spending a lot of time on Facebook doing appearance-focused things (like looking at pictures and posting pictures) and bad outcomes like weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification. The girls in the study filled out a survey about how often they use certain appearance-focused Facebook features (e.g. updating a profile picture, posting a photo, looking at friends’ photos, untagging yourself in friends’ photos), and they also filled out scales designed to measure weight dissatisfaction and self-objectification.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. The researchers found that the more often the girls reported using the appearance-focused Facebook features, the higher their weight dissatisfaction and the more they self-objectified. In other words, girls were more likely to feel bad about their weight and to look at themselves as objects if they spent more time on Facebook doing appearance-related stuff.

I don’t know about you, but all of this really rings true for me. I was feeling so bad about myself because of my obsession with Facebook pictures, but I also somehow felt addicted to it, and didn’t know what to do.

So about a year ago, I decided to try something: I stopped posting pictures of myself on Facebook. Let me tell you – it wasn’t easy. I had been so caught up in being my own worst critic and basing my self-worth on how other people responded to me. But I knew it had to stop. So one day, I just did it – I made myself quit posting pictures cold turkey. And do you know what happened?

I started to feel better.

Not right away, of course. At first it was like going through withdrawal. I craved the attention I had gotten from posting things. But slowly, day by day, week by week, it started to get easier. I stopped worrying so much about other people’s validation. If I was feeling good about myself for some reason, I didn’t have to worry that sharing that information on Facebook would somehow redefine that good feeling for me.

And I started noticing something else, too. Everyone around me suddenly seemed irrationally addicted to their phones and posting pictures on Facebook (side note: I think Instagram and Snapchat have burst on to the scene in a similar way). While having brunch with my friends, I would look around the table and notice people snapping pics of their food or of themselves and then posting them right away to Facebook or Instagram. It felt like everyone around me was more concerned with how their lives looked online, than how it felt to actually live them.

And what’s curious about that is it’s exactly what self-objectification is all about. Self-objectification happens when we think a lot about how we look to others – we actually look at ourselves from an outsider point of view – rather than focusing on how we feel on the inside. The authors of this study found that when we spend so much time on Facebook and focus on the way our lives look we objectify ourselves. After all, I had been so concerned with my appearance on Facebook that I started to forget how I actually felt.

Since quitting my picture posting, I’ve noticed a huge change in the way my life feels. I will often go entire meals with friends without even looking at my phone (CRAZY, I know). I don’t take selfies on the regular or broadcast my experiences. I’ll still take pictures of the things I do or the places I go, but now I’ll share those pictures with my friends and family via email or text. And I admit, since my initial boycott, I’ve posted a picture of myself on Facebook here and there too (even though I continue to get anxious about those pics I post).

But what is most exciting about this personal experiment is that I am so much more present during my life experiences than I used to be. Rather than making sure to get a good shot of my food or a flattering selfie with my friend, I use my mental energy to live those experiences in the moment. I admire my food, and then dig right in and let my mouth explode with the flavors. I look my friends in the eyes and laugh and love with them – no documentation required. And nowadays, instead of having to make sure those experiences are properly reflected on my Facebook page, I smile to myself remembering the fun I had, and then move on to the next adventure, trying my best to experience my way through.

[1] Meier, E. P., & Gray, J. (2014). Facebook photo activity associated with body image disturbance in adolescent girls. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking17(4), 199-206.

It Happens all the Time: How I set up an exhibition about sexual harassment at my school (and you can, too!)

by Brenda Guesnet

We’ve all experienced it in one form or another: a small remark from a passer-by that was ‘only a compliment,’; an unwanted hand somewhere on our body at a party; a person we trusted going further after we said no. I don’t have a single female friend who doesn’t have a dozen stories like these to tell, and yet most of the time we don’t even consider them worth mentioning – precisely because they happen all the time, and we’ve been made to accept sexual harassment and sexual violence as a fact of life.

On Twitter, I follow the Everyday Sexism project and I think what they do is very simple but quite strong: they re-tweet stories of “everyday sexism” people tweet at them to their 195 thousand followers, no matter how minor or major. Their account almost functions as an archive of the daily harassment women face just by walking down the street, and makes visible these incidents that are so normalized in our society. This made me think that maybe the simple act of verbalizing these stories and bringing them into the public sphere can have a powerful impact.

I go to a small liberal arts college where I help organize a week that is dedicated especially to issues of gender equality. I thought that maybe setting up a participatory exhibition in my school building would be a good way to raise awareness, especially among people that are, for instance, less likely to attend a lecture on feminism. People could visit on their own time throughout the week, alone or with friends, and come back if they wanted to. I decided to call the exhibition It Happens all the Time: Sharing experiences with Sexual Harassment because I think many people don’t realize how pervasive of a problem this is and how seldom we actually talk about it.

To encourage people to share their stories, I posted a Google form on my school’s Facebook pages through which anyone could anonymously submit their experience. I told people that their experience could be something serious or minor, could be super offensive or so normalized that it felt to them like they couldn’t complain about it. It could come in any shape or form – one line of text, an entire page, a poem or a song. People could decide to put their names or to stay anonymous.

And we actually did get a whole range of diverse responses that came in all different ways of writing. The stories we received ranged from a bus driver making a nasty comment to horrifying accounts of sexual violence, and as responses kept on coming in I often felt myself unable to read through them because of their intensity. But I was also so grateful for peoples’ bravery in sharing their stories and for the opportunity to present them to a larger audience.

Thanks to the participatory nature of the exhibition, putting it together was ridiculously easy – this is really something you can do with limited resources. The most expensive part was the paper, since I wanted to have a certain color paper that I got from a fancy store for 4 euros, but otherwise all we needed to do was print the stories and find a place to hang them in school. I printed every story in a different font and size to emphasize the different voices behind them, and we set up a table where people were encouraged to add their experience. We also made sure that the content of the exhibition wouldn’t be immediately visible and put up content warnings on the outside of the display.

My school was really worried about “excluding men” throughout the week, and kind of silenced all references to gender inequality we might have in our events. So I purposefully made no reference to gender in the description of the exhibition – even though of course statistics clearly prove who is disproportionately affected by sexual harassment and sexual violence – and decided to let the stories speak for themselves. And although each story we got was unique, what they had in common was the way they showed how often men feel entitled to women’s bodies, and the devastating effects this has. If girls and women are reduced to their bodies, and then denied the right to them, what do we have left?

I hope that the exhibition showed that although sexual harassment comes in all shapes and sizes, one thing is certain: all of it needs to stop. And while it can be extremely upsetting and depressing to read such stories, I also realized that taken together, these stories are also testimonies to defiance and survival. To be sure, It Happens all the Time was a tiny step in the struggle – but everyone who shared their experience helped send out a message that they will not allow themselves to be silenced, and that we will continue fighting against injustice. If you feel the same way, you should totally do this at your school/university/in your community – all you really need is some paper and a pen.

Five things I learned from my first time as a leader

by Dee Putri

I had never been a leader before. I don’t have that charisma--you know, like Ellen Page with her coolness, or Hillary Clinton with her powerful presence? I’m not one of them. I wasn’t born with it; I’m this shy girl. I do have opinions, but sometimes I just feel that it is easier for me to keep them to myself since I’m bad at arguing. I’m bad at confrontation, it makes me feel uneasy, uncomfortable. I’m bad with being in a crowd. I hate crowds sometimes. I’ve learned that it’s just easier to be in smaller group or by myself.

Then, I became a coordinator of a group at my school. I thought I would only manage the group schedules, but I was wrong: I also needed to lead lead the group to get things done. I had never really led people, especially more than 10 people. It scared me. This was my first time doing this kind of thing, so I sucked. But I knew it was a good experience for me, and I learned a lot. Like, for example…

1. Being a good leader means remembering that you’re working as a team. That means that you have to work with your team and try a few ways to cooperate. For example, when we had a group paper assignment, I divided the work for everyone and assigned everyone a chapter. If a way isn’t working out for the group, try other ways that might suit how the group works. For example, my group loved to procrastinate, so I set earlier deadlines than the actual final deadlines. It’s tough at first, but you’ll figure it out.

2. Good decisions come from clear goals. As a leader, it’s important you to help set the group’s goals. The goals are different for each group depending on what you want to do, but in my case, the goals were meeting with the lecturers, creating an exams schedule, and writing papers. (Yours might be having a rally, organizing a letter campaign, or doing something else altogether!) We divided the work into group work and individual work. This was tough for me, because sometimes people wanted individual work to become group work, because they want to be in this together, but I prefer to work alone on some things. I just think that group work requires a lot of time and well, I’m not a patient person (my bad). I don’t want to wait for all the members of the group to be present to do a simple task instead of just doing it. I had to adjust. It was also sometimes hard for me to push people who are procrastinating because I was afraid they’d hate me–but then, I realized that I’m their leader, so like it or not, I have to keep reminding them about our goals.

3. You have to think about what’s more suitable for the group, not just yourself. That needs to go two ways: everyone needs to consider that they, as individuals, are also part of a group, and work make the group a priority. If everyone is putting the group and its goals first, including you, the group can trust you with the decisions. And as you make the decisions, you should remember that you can’t make everyone happy! This was a big challenge for me: after asking for help from group members a few times, I decided to do things by myself, which is not a good thing since it meant the rest of the group wasn’t working on it together. After a while, though, I learned who I worked best with and who had the same work ethic as me.

4. Be flexible. I used to be a perfectionist, but now I’ve accepted that it is okay not to be perfect. Sometimes I still feel upset because I know that my work isn’t perfect and that I can do better, but it requires so much time that I don’t have, especially in a group setting. As an individual priority, perfect work would be OK, and I would make that decision because it benefits me. But as a good leader you can’t do that. There are a lot to compromise for when you’re in a group. I’m not saying that you should change everything about how you work, because I know that it is so hard. But it is just important to have a meeting to say how each person works best so the leader can find a way that’s best for everyone. It might still be hard, but once the decision was made, as members of the group we all decided to give it a try. Maybe you’ll find that your work ethic will get better and you can become more adaptive!

5. Motivate your team. I learned that it really helps to give your group motivations or rewards. Try building in socializing time—like going out together to dinner, or watching movies together, or just spending time together in a relaxed way.

It is great to experience this growth! I was a pessimist before this experience, thinking I couldn’t lead. But now, I know that I can always learn something more. I’m still young and there are so many things ahead of me. I’ll make so many mistakes before I know what’s perfect for me. Perfect for me doesn’t always mean the same perfect for anyone else.