Proud2Bme | That’s What She Said: An Interview with Izzy Whiteley

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That’s What She Said: An Interview with Izzy Whiteley

By Pooja Patel--Growing up as a girl is hard. If you’re a woman then you know the struggles that come with interacting with a society driven, at its core, by males—a society that often asks young girls to define their self-worth via the affirmation of others. Oftentimes, it feels as if we have grown up indirectly interacting with a society that excludes us.

Isabelle (Izzy) Whiteley, founder of the project That’s What She Said, aims to help girls connect with the world around them in a healthy, effective way. Having struggled with her mental health growing up, Whiteley wanted to create an outlet, an intermediary for young women growing up with the same or similar issues. That’s What She Said provides a social media means for young girls to take back their rightful place and voice in today’s society.

Pooja Patel: What was your primary inspiration for the project That’s What She Said?

Izzy Whiteley: I really struggled as a young girl. I had various eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression, self-harm, learning and processing difficulties—the list goes on and on. I very much lost my way at school and, through trying to survive, lost my sense of self. It took me a long time to claw my way back. It’s hard to comprehend how dangerous it is going through puberty in a toxic environment. I think through adolescence it is very important to give yourself the time and compassion to figure out who you are and to feel safe in asking for help.

I know an understanding of feminism at that time in my life would have helped me. I experienced so much sexism and was around people that made me feel that, as a girl, I was worth nothing more than my appearance. What happened in that time brought me to start this project and try to force an understanding of the gravity of these issues. There are so many things we tend to accept and not question in society, because we are told that this is just how life is, but you should never accept a society that is broken.

I’ve learned to put my life into my work and to create my own voice. I started to explore how I felt as a young girl and realized that I covered up all the pain and confusion, because I felt I was alone in it; I was never encouraged to question it. I started to read up a lot on feminism and philosophy pieces that questioned our capitalist society. My feelings began to make sense and I started to realize that society can condition girls to blame themselves for the way they feel, almost like it is our fault we feel so inadequate. I don't feel that far away from the struggles I had as I young girl, so I feel I can still connect to these girls and have an insight into the way they are feeling. I feel they have a lot to say, and that they are not being heard, and society and the fashion industry are taking advantage of them. I felt that I could represent them. That's What She Said was started because when I allowed myself to question my surroundings it changed my life, and I want to give all girls the opportunity to do the same.

PP: That’s What She Said aims to “act as a middleman between girls and society.” What methods have you found most effective when trying to create this connection between young girls and society?

IW: At the start, as the project is very young, social media was key. To get these girls heard by society, by teachers, parents, industries, government, there needs to be buzz around the project. To have a space that holds all the opinions, experiences, needs and wants of young girls, when it comes to society, is very powerful and attractive to audiences that want to target them. Another step is getting it out there, allowing these girls to be seen, so I sent it to everyone and anyone that was interested.

PP: I LOVE the name of the project—how did you come up with it? What does it mean for you and perhaps for young girls and women as well?

IW: I chose the name, That’s What She Said, because it has two meanings. Firstly, it is literally what the girls are saying. That’s what the project is about: for girls to have a platform to ‘speak out rather than be spoken for.’ It’s about staying away from faceless facts and figures and actually being real with personality. Secondly, I really wanted it to speak to young girls and be something relevant to them, something that was sort of an inside-joke with them that maybe their parents or teachers wouldn’t get. I wanted it to be comical and have an edge, because so much of the project is very heavy. That’s What She Said is a ridiculously overused sexist term that takes pretty much anything and turns it in a slut-shaming phrase e.g. Girl: ‘Wow this is huge, I don’t know if I can handle it (talking about a meal).’ Boy: ‘That’s what she said.’ There is something really cathartic about oppressed groups reclaiming words or phrases used against them and that’s what I wanted for this.

PP: What do you feel are some issues that are often swept under the rug for young girls?

IW: There are so many things. Almost all the girls I have talked to have some sort of eating disorder—even if they don’t see it as one. I think it is terrifying how normalized eating disorders are, from celebrities advocating for diet pills to extreme under-eating and the ‘clean eating’ trend making an obsessive relationship with food something to strive for.

Self-harm in girls is an epidemic at the moment, and the blame constantly falls back on the girls for being ‘attention seekers.’ To hate your body to the point where you can’t change in front of a mirror is ‘normal for a girl.’ To feel like a guy won’t like you unless you do ‘a, b, c’ (then get branded as a slut) is ‘normal for a girl.’ To be sexually harassed on the tube [Ed note: British for subway!], in a club, on the street or by a friend is ‘normal for a girl.’

PP: The project, in part, hopes to change the stereotype of a feminist. What does this look like to you?

IW: I want to make it very simple: just express what you feel as a young girl, listen to others' opinions and talk to your friends about these subjects to open up the discussion. I hope that it will make girls who are scared to be feminists realize that it's not like taking on a mountain of work, it’s just being you, and it's so fun to explore, to think, to question.

I want to make TWSS a cool thing to be part of, not because something needs to be cool for youth to take part in it, but because fighting for your rights and exploring who you are, learning to be happy, is REALLY COOL. More and more of these everyday girls will be part of TWSS, and they are all feminists, even if they may not think so yet—this will help other girls see that a feminist isn’t this really scary, bra burning, man-hating girl.

As it is often said, feminism is literally about equality between boys and girls. What normal, functioning person doesn’t want that? It’s this stigma, this trolling and this ‘lad culture’ that creates this stereotype. It’s about bringing up a new generation of girls who are encouraged to fight oppression, and, more importantly, have the ability to question conditioning. The project provides a platform for young girls to have their views heard and will hopefully help them to explore those views and develop the confidence and strength to take control of their own futures.

PP: What is one thing you wish you could’ve told your younger self?

IW: This is interesting, as my whole final project at University was called ‘I Would Tell Myself,’ where I went back to pivotal times in my teenage years and through photography, knowing what I know now, changed the way I experienced them.

Ultimately, I wish I could tell myself to just wait, to not try and rush into doing things, or being someone, or being something. I wish I would have enjoyed being a kid just a bit longer, try everything, look at everything and take it all in. This also means not feeling that being young means you’re a loser, that working hard means you’re geeky, that your virginity means you're ugly, that smoking and drinking is cool, and that your parents are uncool. I really wish I’d listened to my mum more. I was almost 22 when I finally learned for myself things she told me when I was 10. Saying all this I hear my younger self in my head telling me to “shut up because you don’t know anything, you don’t know what it’s like,” and I understand that this all may seem patronizing. Sometimes you just have to learn it the hard way and considering where I am now, I’m not sure I would change anything.

PP: I love the “Post Secret” vibe of the welcome page of That’s What She Said. What inspired you to roll with this particular format?

IW: When I decided to start posting the girls' quotes on Instagram, it was sort of just to get the ball rolling before I launched the website, and I didn’t realize what a big part of the project it would become. I love making them artistic and beautiful as images, not just words. The visual aspect is such a big part of the project. This isn’t just words, like people aren’t just words; they have personalities and emotions and feelings. I also want the welcome page to be very emotive and express, in short, what the project is about. Just by going on this first page, you already learn the struggles of being a young girl. 

Top photo courtesy of Jessica Gwyneth and Izzy Whiteley

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