The Quail Pipe - What I See Project feature: We attend the launch and interview its founder, Edwina Dunn

The Quail Pipe - What I See Project feature: We attend the launch and interview its founder, Edwina Dunn

25 April 2014

According to the press release, the What I See Project is:

“a global online platform that recognises and amplifies women’s voices. By answering the universal question, ‘What do you see when you look in the mirror?’ women can relate to each other’s words, thoughts and stories and be part of the consequent conversations.”

On 1st October 2013 the Quail Pipe editors were lucky enough to be invited along to the project’s launch evening to cover the event and to find out more about WISP’s aims and achievements. The event, held at the Science Museum in South Kensington, was smoothly and beautifully put together. Members involved and associated with the project gathered under and around the museum exhibits clasping glasses of bubbly, taking in the contributor videos on show, and making their mark on the two interactive art installations. In the IMAX theatre an inspiring film was screened to us: a collection of interviews with the project’s ambassadors, imparting their unique wisdom on what it meant to them to look in the mirror, to call themselves successful, to go through womanhood.

Free popcorn had been left on our seats and my stomach raised a withering eyebrow at the sound of munching while we all gazed at super-sized faces on screen and took in their personal accounts of self-image, but hey – free food is free food, and I’d have tucked into mine if I weren’t also worried about contributing to the rustling sea of masticating chops. But in glancing round the theatre to check if anyone directly near me would effectively cover up my own potential rustling and scoffing, I was heartened to see a wash of female faces, watching intently and gladly, and thought how encouraging it felt to be sat there among so many other women. This event was here for us.

The film itself was powerful in its particular address to the matter of how appalling it is that women continue to struggle to achieve the same career steps as men, and why it is we end up stereotyped as certain kinds of women by others who don’t even know us. Several of the ambassadors then took to the stage for a Q&A session: Professor Frances Ashcroft, Jody Day, Caroline Criado-Perez, Professor Dame Athene Donald,Eileen Cooper. Their confidence, self-conviction and insight was heartening and the audience listened, captive. I highly recommend checking out each of the ambassadors mentioned if you are not aware of their work. (At the very least, follow them on Twitter!)

I won’t attempt to replicate what was said at the Q&A for fear of butchering the eloquent sentiment and wisdom imparted. But the founder of the project, Edwina Dunn, was kind enough to do an interview with The Quail Pipe, and explain how the campaign came into being:

How did the What I See project come about ?
I have worked in a business environment for many years – but I have been very shaped personally and professionally by the fact that in the boardroom, for example, I felt that my voice was not being heard as much as those of men. It made me realise that there must be so many women across the world whose voices are never heard – and I wanted to set up a project to allow them to tell their stories.
I’m also really interested by women’s relationships with what they see in the mirror; their physical reflection – and what this means. I used to wait outside the changing room as my then 8-year-old daughter tried on clothes, and, in the gap between the door and the floor, I would see her little feet bouncing up and down with excitement as she tried on something really beautiful. This made me think about how we related to this image of ourselves – and that is another interest that really contributed to my founding of What I See.

It’s important that women can talk openly and honestly about their bodies and how they feel about them – how forthcoming or reluctant to do you think women today are?
There is so much more to who you are than how you look. We are all aware that women are described more fully than men in almost any walk of life. Girls are constantly told they “look beautiful” whereas boys are “strong and brave”. I want there to be more role models for girls to relate to . . . we can’t change how others judge but we can think better of ourselves.

How has your own relationship with your body and appearance changed throughout your life?
Like most women, I feel that I could “be better”. But I have learned to be happy with who I am – I are but it doesn’t define me.

How did you go about finding women to contribute for the project?
From the beginning, it was really important to us to find diverse contributions and reach out internationally, so we asked 10 filmmakers in different countries to contribute a couple of videos each – you can see those on the website. We then continued gathering contributions through installations – like an early event at the Science Museum in February and Women of the World Festival at the Southbank. We’ve recently conducted a campaign where we partnered with 18 ambassadors – influential women who are outstanding successes in their field, for example Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, Caroline Criado-Perez, the first female Keeper of the Royal Academy of Arts, Eileen Cooper and Professor Dame Athene Donald. We also reached out to 100 online communicators – whose interests and skills range from science, to fashion, to politics – to help raise awareness of the campaign and encourage contribution. We asked them to talk about the project on their website or blog, and also to contribute a video saying what they see when they look in the mirror – this way they shared their very extensive and diverse networks with us. Ultimately, we’d like the project to become a self-activating portal, so we encourage as many women to contribute as possible to the website. We have some ideas about how to further the project and further our international reach – so watch this space.

What feedback have you had from men who have come across or in some way been involved with the project?
Although the project revolves around female self-perception, we’ve had a good response from men too. There were much more women than men at the launch – but the men who were there were very supportive!

We’ve also had men wanting to get involved and submit their own answers to the question. Although this isn’t currently possible, we really welcome their views, and encourage them to email or tweet us, or contribute via a blog post.

Do you think the internet has been a help or a hindrance to empowering women?
Most obviously, the internet has been a help to empowering women. It has become a portal for women to express their views in a way that just wasn’t possible before. Interestingly, our ambassador Caroline Criado-Perez mentions this topic specifically in her video:

“That’s really what’s so amazing about the internet, is that it provides women with a route into whatever they want to do, and it gives them a voice, and they don’t need anyone to give them permission for that… I’ve been shown this open door where all of a sudden everything’s possible.”

Also, the What I See Project may not even exist were it not for the internet. So it many ways it has been incredibly liberating for women. However, Caroline herself has suffered some of the disadvantages of that freedom – becoming a victim of abuse alongside many other female journalists and feminist campaigners. The anonymity provided by the internet, that in its positive form can be so liberating, can also encourage abusive behaviour. That’s one of the reasons I feel so strongly about the What I See Project – it allows women a safe environment and provides a portal for self-expression.

What is ‘imposter syndrome’ and why does it affect so many women?
Imposter syndrome is something we’ve noticed as a recurring theme in many of our contributions. It’s the sensation that you somehow don’t deserve your success – that you got where you are by luck, or fluke, and you’re about to be found out as a fraud. Men suffer from it, but I believe women suffer from it more. And that’s something that really interests me – the idea that women are in some sense scared of their own success. We’re really excited to start exploring this theme further.

How did you find your voice and your strength to become a powerful business woman? Did you have to overcome your own insecurities?
I think I was lucky to work alongside my husband, Clive. We’ve done that for 30 years!!! He has always encouraged me and depended on me for the things he finds difficult. It made me brave and bold where I could have shrunk. He is the scientist and R&D lead and so I became the negotiator and business lead. We trusted each other and knew that the two of us were far stronger than each of us alone.

How are you targeting women for the project that might not relate to mainstream feminism –i.e. those who are not middle class, cis, or able-bodied?
The project is open to everyone, and we try and encourage contributions from as diverse groups as possible. We’re reaching out to various female groups and organisations, and now the campaign is over we intend to get back on the streets, to continue finding diverse women’s groups and conducting meet ups in local communities. I think the diversity we’re aiming for was really reflected in our 100 online communicators – and I am very proud of that. Our ambassador list is also set to grow, with an even more diverse range of women.

Do you feel it’s appropriate to focus on physical appearance when we live in society where women are told it’s the most important thing? Are you more interested in what women literally see in the mirror, or more metaphorically? Or both?
I think what’s so powerful about the project is that it invites all views. We try not to influence our contributors, so they can interpret the question however they choose. So, some focus heavily on body image, whereas physical appearance doesn’t enter at all into other contributions. I think what’s important to note here is that even when there is a heavy focus on body image, that often makes a path for the contributor to talk about things on a deeper level – society, their self-perception, their confidence, for example, and how all these things tie in to their perception of their body image. So I don’t think a discussion of body image necessarily just focuses on the “superficial”.

Another thing to note is that often, we’re told by contributors that the most interesting part is what happens after they’ve recorded their video, or written their text. In a way, what you say or how you say it matters less than the fact that when you do contribute, you often surprise yourself with how you feel about such a seemingly innocuous question – and you become part of a larger tapestry of conversation. And what the project allows is a winding together of those individual strands of thought and opinion.

From the contributing videos, do you see a trend between women’s life experiences and their own self-perception?
Yes, we’ve noticed some definite trends. Something we’re really interested in exploring further is the theme of age groups – how older women react differently to body image, for example, than their younger counterparts. Often we see older women who view their lines and wrinkles as signs of life, rather than signs of age, whereas younger women have more of a tendency to berate themselves for what they see as a negative appearance.

Motherhood also seems to have a definite effect on the way women see the world, and crop sup as a definite pattern. Mothers tend to mention their children when answering the mirror question, and it’s really interesting that having a child can have such a strong effect on the way you answer a question that is ultimately about the self. Something we’re planning for the future is a more complex exploration of how women relate to each other inter-generationally, and how the trends and patterns that I’ve mentioned change and progress.

Do the women who contribute to What I See tend to be surprised by their answers in the videos? Do you think women sometimes find it hard to be honest with themselves?
Something that we’re always told is how surprised contributors are by their own answers. Often people say that they meticulously planned a whole answer – only to abandon it as soon as the camera turns on and just let their answer spill out. The honesty question is an interesting one – I’d almost say that women tend to be too honest with themselves; they can be their own worst critics. But in answering the “what do you see when you look in the mirror” question, they often surprise themselves by seeing deeper than their own initial criticisms – and that is something we find really powerful and encouraging. We’re really noticing definite patterns in the contributions – and we are beginning to pull out what really matter to women today.

What are your long-term hopes for the project?
In the near future, we aim for the website to become a self-activated portal. We’d like to generate conversations around the key themes we find in the contributions, and become a neutral platform that brings diverse women together to discuss these conversations, in an environment where they can express themselves freely – this is something we’ve been experimenting with our weekly Twitter chats”, which have been very successful.

Longer term, we’d like to create a panel of experts to further explore these themes and ideas (such as the idea of Imposter Syndrome). We’re currently working on forging academic and educational partnerships, and we’ve got ideas in mind of how to explore the inter-generational links between women, and their relationships with each other as well as their own self-perception.

Visit the What I See Project’s website to contribute your own video or to watch the answers of others, and look out for the weekly twitter chats on #WISPchat