The camera can lie. Photographs can be airbrushed, edited or cropped before publication. But not in the WHO Speaks campaign. Founded by five Duke students earlier this semester, the project portrays women's body image insecurities without any filters or airbrushing.
Students Ashley Tsai, Diana Xie, Sarah McCaffery, Shaoxin Lu and Ting-Ting Zhou decided this fall to put together an online photography campaign centered around a national obsession with women’s body image.
Zhou said the campaign's goal is to encourage dialogue about body image rather than propose a solution.
"It's important to acknowledge that there is a problem," Zhou said. "As much as I'd like for us to come up with a solution, there's no cure-all and that's not going to happen because of our campaign. It's also important for other women to know that there are people on campus who are brave enough to talk about these issues and not accept them as the norm."
McCaffery and Zhou first wanted to photograph women holding written statements about body image, similar to popular and controversial recent "Who Needs Feminism" campaign. After McCaffery met with senior and photographer Ashley Tsai, WHO Speaks took a different path.
"We thought of other ways to discuss this issue and came up with the idea of painting words on our bodies," Tsai said.
Tsai and McCaffery organized a photo shoot the week before Thanksgiving Break featuring residents of the Women's Housing Option -- a female-only living space on three floors of the Few residence hall. The volunteers' bodies were dotted with phrases like "Suck it in," "Too small," and "Do you eat?," and then photographed.
Tsai posted the images on Facebook the week after Thanksgiving Break and received more than 600 "likes" in one day. Tsai's photographs were also printed on posters plastered around campus, complete with each subject's account of a low point in their self-esteem. McCaffery credits the campaign's success to strategic use of social media and the veracity of the images.
"All of the people in the photographs are Duke students," McCaffery said. "There's such realness in it that people are going to relate to it on an emotional level."
The campaign hopes to solicit photographs from female Duke students and host informal events to spark conversations about body image. One such event is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, at the Women's Center on campus. Tsai will be taking photos at the free, public event.
"The event will bring the people who have seen the images together," Tsai said. "We decided not to make this a formal discussion because we wanted it to be a lot more personal. A big part of the event will be getting more people to help us keep the campaign going and to also get more submissions."
Freshman Molly Walker found out about the WHO Speaks campaign via Facebook and posters in her residence hall. Although she has only been on campus for a few months, Walker said she noticed the desire to achieve "effortless perfection" almost immediately.
"After seeing the images on Facebook, I contacted the person who had posted them and thanked WHO Speaks for recognizing the issue of 'effortless perfection' that women are going through at Duke," Walker said.
Walker said the campaign persuaded her to look at gender issues more critically and to get involved with the WHO Speaks campaign next semester. She also plans to apply to live in the Women's Housing Option.
"I'd like to tell the people behind this campaign, 'thank you,' " Walker said. "I'm just so grateful that there's a group of women on campus who are dedicated to reminding us that we're not alone in our [issues with] body image."