Standing up for one another: Navigating womanhood in the age of social media

Social media has been a beneficial tool for many women, serving as a platform to promote new businesses, share progressive ideas, and just simply connect with friends and celebrate life.

However, as with most things, there is also a darker side – a side that some Bahamian women have discovered when they presented themselves in a way that society declared to be “improper”.

Chanel Smith, a local businesswoman, told Tribune Weekend about how she was harassed online for posting photos of herself in an event-appropriate costume participating in Trinidad Carnival.

“Yes, I am a businesswoman and I don’t walk the street naked on a normal day, but the number of messages I got to indicate that I should put on clothes were crazy. People have a generalised view of how women should look. They think if you are dressed ‘too naked’ you are negatively labelled. So women who don’t want to come across as this, they may try their best to crop a photo a certain way or not post the photo at all, and this is also crazy. It almost makes me feel as if I were to participate in a carnival event in my own country I would be scolded,” said Chanel.

“I would say people need to travel and see the world more, but even that won’t make a difference because through social media you can also see women being criticised for what they choose to share of themselves all over the world.”

Alicia Wallace, director of Hollaback! Bahamas – a movement to end harassment – said she wants to encourage women to get involved when they see this type of online bullying happening; to stand up for their sisters.

She said sadly, but understandably, women often unnecessarily censor themselves on the internet in order to fit society’s expectations. And she wants to urge women to intervene when they see others being harassed simply for who they are.

“I know it is difficult, especially in a small place with a few degrees of separation, so I do not blame the people who censor themselves and try to fit a mould,” Alicia told Tribune Woman.

When it comes to womanhood in the age of social media, activists like Alicia are working diligently towards the creation of a world where women can truly be themselves, free of the burden of expectations and the feeling that they have to apologise for their very existence.

“More and more I am seeing women push boundaries and step outside of the roles we are expected to play. It may be a change in dress, career, relationship, or hobby. It could be a public declaration of a long-held view they did not feel safe sharing before,” said Alicia.

“These steps, big and small, need to be celebrated. They are a form of emancipation – a freedom from the narrow spaces we have been expected to squeeze ourselves into. Our support for one another is just as important as living our own truths, and understanding that we don’t have to live the same lives to respect and support others.”

Focused on ending sexual harassment in public spaces, Alicia said the Hollaback! Bahamas movement has expanded its mandate to include battling cyber violence, as well as promoting Women’s Wednesdays, a monthly event bringing women together for conversations on national, regional and international issues such as gender equality, citizenship, financial management, and health and wellness.

She believes there are countless ways for women to uplift and empower one another via social media, from the “Yes, girl, yes!” comments on beauty shots to sharing links to resources for self-care and mental hygiene practices.

Alicia said it is also important for women to use social media to show up for one another in times of crisis, as women need to be able to connect with friends and relevant individuals, knowing who can be a help to whom.

“We need to intervene when there is a heated exchange where one person is clearly being violated. We have to leave the ‘that’s not my business’ attitude behind and realise that our freedoms are tied together, and we can’t leave anyone behind,” said Alicia.

“It is easy to feel as though we have to limit our social media activity, and fall into second-guessing ourselves and predicting what others would say or do in response to our posts. This can lead to self-censorship. We have to remember that allowing others to police our behaviours is relinquishing a power that is ours. Our value cannot be measured by what we wear or where we go. I encourage people to hold on to their power, be true to themselves, and let others know what they will and will not accept. Sometimes it only takes one strongly-worded response to an inappropriate comment to let social media contacts know who we are and how much we value our individuality and autonomy.”

With global campaigns like the #MeToo and Time’s Up gaining traction, Alicia believes social media is critical for storytelling. Some women, she said, are using the platform as a storytelling tool without even knowing it. For her, hashtags alone don’t make a movement. However, they are the tools that help link stories and connect people having the same conversation in different spaces.

“We often feel alone, and as though no one else is experiencing the world the way we do. Reading just one story can change that perspective and show us how connected we are too each other, and what our experiences are like in the grand scheme of a social or political issue,” said Alicia.

“A lot of the time no one cares about a single story. It often takes a big name or a familiar face to raise concern and move people to act. That is the power of a hashtag movement like #MeToo, and it was the power of the Life in Leggings movement late in 2016. Social media helps us to reach across borders, causes and disciplines. It makes the world a smaller place, and reveals the truth about the issues we face as women. We are not alone, and these issues are not specific to the Bahamas or the Caribbean. They are happening all over the world, and it’s up to us to use this moment and the existing movements to press for progress.”

She said while there has been some progress made in women’s rights, misogyny, patriarchy and rape culture persist. And these do not only present themselves in and through men; women were born into and raised in this world, and have learned damaging behaviours that have been explicitly and implicitly taught.

“The process of unlearning even the most dangerous behaviours is far more difficult and requires more intention than learning them. While we recognise all of this and see it play out on social media, it is important that we remember where it is coming from,” said Alicia.

“Much of this we have not chosen for ourselves, and learning and unlearning our processes we cannot do in isolation. Those of us who know better must do better, and use our social media accounts and connections to help change the culture and create an environment where women can safely and comfortably be themselves, whether or not they meet the ‘standards’ of the conservative or gender-conforming. Women are diverse, and we deserve to be and see that diversity everywhere, in person and on social media.”