Photo used with permission of Asia Croson.
On Nov. 30, “Girls Who Handle It” (GWHI) returned to San Luis Obispo. A record-breaking 1,000 people shuffled through the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art as the community was able to gain insight into the women’s deepest, most personal vulnerabilities and struggles. Black and white glossed photos were accompanied by unimaginably raw stories, along with the participants’ Instagram feed from when they were experiencing the most difficult times in their lives.
Although ‘weak’ is often considered a synonym for ‘vulnerable’, vulnerability is not a weakness. Rather, it is the most accurate measurement of courage, especially when the outcome is uncertain. Local San Luis Obispo photographer and founder of GWHI Asia Croson stands behind this notion. Through this event, she has provided an opportunity for girls to find their strength in vulnerability by sharing their most guarded truths.
The event was created with the intention of doing more than providing a platform for these women; Croson wants to increase public vulnerability and thereby normalize open and honest sharing and acceptance. Stories ranged from sexual assault experiences to losing loved ones to mental illnesses, each so impactful that they brought some readers to tears.
After receiving an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from last year’s event, co-founders Croson and communications studies senior Julia Freet knew this event was much larger than just one night. Almost instantly, they decided to expand their team and hire communications studies senior Maddie Leber as their Communications Coordinator.
After endless hours of coordinating with the San Luis Obispo community, the three women created a safe, loving and accepting family for the 45 participants.
“It’s not even about tonight. Tonight is to let the community know what we are doing, but everything we have done up until tonight is really what it is all about. These girls have built an instant support [group] and community with one other,” Croson said.
With open hearts and minds, they accept and respect one another’s stories. More importantly, they provide the day-to-day support that all women should provide for one another.
“It’s really about creating a culture of acceptance and understanding, and I think we set that standard at the very beginning and they just ran with it,” Leber said. “Those girls became their first point of contact for anything. Good day? Go to the GroupMe. Bad day? Go to the group. Need a hug? A girl literally left her class to go give another girl a hug.”
Kinesiology junior Emma O’Malley, a participant in the event, expressed her deep appreciation for her fellow participants. “It’s like a mini sorority on a deeper level because we are bonding over our true authentic selves. We are so open and it’s like we are falling in love with each others’ souls by sharing our truths,” she said.
Croson described how the title of the event was purposefully chosen. “It’s not girls who handled it. It is girls who are still handling it,” she said. Despite what social media portrays, our lives are never picture perfect. We do not simply become happy or overcome a tragedy, but rather we are constantly fighting our own battles.
“These stories are not just about girls sharing their stories and saying, ‘Look at me now! I’m healed and I’m great!’ It’s okay if they are not, and by allowing readers to gain that raw insight, it [helps] them realize that for themselves as well,” Freet said.
Business administration junior Kareem Hassan attended the event to support his girlfriend and the other women participating. While he read each story, he came to the same realization that Freet hoped readers would. “I know it’s a problem within our demographic, with college and growing up, and there’s a lot of growing pains involved with that. And some things we can’t control,” he said. “Not every story had a positive ending, but there is always something positive you get from growing. Going through hard times only makes you stronger.”
Heart beating and blood rushing through their veins, many of the participants shared feelings of fear and nervousness about what others would think when they read their stories. It takes courage to tell even your closest friends your deepest, most carefully guarded secrets, but to share with a whole community— mostly strangers— requires a new amount of strength.
“It’s kind of weird to walk by and look at other people read your story and think that they may not know that I am standing right behind them,” history junior Halie Swanson said. “I was nervous coming in and it’s still kind of scary, but it feels good to have it out in the world now because, before this, only five people knew my story.”
“If I could possibly make a difference for even one person, it is worth it,” O’Malley said. “It is empowering to put your name out there and have people say, ‘Hell yeah girl I support you on that!’ [It] makes you feel like it wasn’t a mistake sharing; that they love you not despite all you are going through, but even more because they know the things you put forward while you were dealing with it.”
By accompanying stories of the most difficult times in the participants’ lives with bright and bubbly Instagram posts, GWHI strips back the allusion of the picture-perfect life. “Instead of viewing social media as the front door of someone’s health, it’s like a back window. It’s not everything you are supposed to see. It is one tiny aspect that people let you see,” Freet said.
Leber described the importance of considering why we don’t share our honest thoughts and recognizing the norms that are in place so that we can question and challenge them. “If enough people [share openly] across enough contexts and settings, then that’s how change happens,” she said.
Going forward, Croson, Leber and Freet hope GWHI will impact those beyond San Luis Obispo. To impact as many lives as possible, they have been taking steps in creating a nonprofit. Having already communicated with numerous other campuses, they hope to see this project help women all across the state and eventually nationwide.
To continue this conversation and raise awareness, last years’ stories are posted on their website. The stories from GWHI II will be posted in the near future.