International Women’s Day is a worldwide event which celebrates the achievements of women, while also calling out for gender equality.
On Monday the 13th of February a group of young women collaborated with Brighton Museum to explore issues such as ‘the things women do to feel beautiful’ ahead of International Women’s Day and to look at the way women are represented in today’s society.
The group was a combination of different cultures, languages and backgrounds. Everyone had strong opinions on what they felt was right, or not, when it came to changing yourself to be beautiful. For the majority of the girls it was their first time meeting each other. We spent the morning learning each other’s names and finding out things we had in common. A couple of girls were thrilled when they found out they were both from the same part of the world, other girls were shocked about how similar their taste in music was despite having completely different lives.
We had the chance to look at some objects which the Museum brought out of storage. These included tiny shoes and a corset. When the young women were asked who they thought the shoes were designed for, they said children, or possible china dolls. It was a sensible assumption because of the size, but the shoes were actually designed for Chinese women who had bound their feet.
After learning what ‘foot binding’ involved, the girls look mortified. Everyone was shocked by the amount of pain and suffering those women went through just to be considered beautiful. It was a difficult subject to talk about, everyone was in agreement that it was wrong but it was also mentioned that, if the women wanted to bind their feet, then who were we to say that they couldn’t.
We discussed the reasons the women might have wanted to look that way; to seem more attractive to men, to show they were wealthy and didn’t need to work, or to be the same as the other girls who had ‘lotus feet’. Despite these reasons the group was in agreement that it wasn’t right.
In the same way some Chinese women bound their feet, Victorian women in England wore corsets to make their waists smaller. Despite the risks and the discomfort they caused, it was almost mandatory to wear one. It was believed to make women seem more sexually appealing to men, made them appear thinner and their busts larger.
In groups we made lists of all the things modern day women do to change their appearance. We only had several minutes but the lists seemed to be endless. Ranging from makeup to surgery, it seemed insane how many different things women would put themselves through just to feel what is considered, to many girls nowadays, as… normal. Looking at the lists we realised not much has changed since the times of corsets and foot binding, women haven’t stopped altering their appearance, the methods haven’t become painless or risk free, they have just become more widely available and are viewed as nothing out of the ordinary.
The girl’s discussions and thoughts were recorded throughout the day. As they wandered around the Fashion and Style gallery at Brighton museum they discussed which outfits were most beautiful or most comfortable, they talked about what was the most conformist and the most outgoing. All the discussions, thoughts and opinions from the activities were saved so they could be made into a ‘sound loop’ to be played on International Women Day.
We ended the day making music out of sounds. It was very strange, someone sticking a microphone in your face saying “make noise”. If we had started the day with this activity I don’t even think I would have be able to join in but after a whole day of getting to know each other and laughing and sharing thoughts, we all felt completely comfortable. It was the best part of the day in my eyes. Everyone went straight for it, everyone had fun and the piece of ‘music’ we made at the end was absolutely brilliant.
You can hear the soundscape in Fashion & Style Gallery at Brighton Museum as part of the International Women’s Day Celebrations on Saturday 4th March. Find out more about what is going on here.
Don’t worry if you miss it you can also visit it on the 5th, 11th and 12th of March.
Ellen Hall, Learning Museum Trainee