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Speciwomen Between Girls: a new platform for safe conversations about identity and intimacy

Aug. 20, 2019
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Speciwomen: Who are you? 

Hollis: My name is Hollis Baker, and I’m a 20-year-old from Chicago. I’m going into my junior year at Spelman College, where I’m a Sociology and Anthropology major. I’m interested in art, cooking, entrepreneurship, and various social justice projects concerning the lives of women and femmes—especially around the topics of health and sex education. 

Grace: My name is Grace Coudal, and I’m also a 20-year-old from Chicago. I’m currently a junior at the University of Michigan, studying Art & Design and LGBTQ & Sexuality Studies. I am passionate about exploring intimacy and vulnerability through visual art and storytelling, which has led me to co-found Between Girls, as well as an activist art group called STAA COLLECTIVE (@staa.co). 

Speciwomen: What inspired you to start Between Girls? What was your main goal?

Hollis: Before it even had a name, I was really interested in finding some way to explore issues like body image, sex, and relationships. At the time, I was doing a lot of advocacy work surrounding health issues in our city. Some of the most exciting moments with that work were when I got to interact with individuals as opposed to just populations or “issue areas.” I’ve always been a visual person as well, so I knew I wanted the project to be heavily centered on images of real people. That led me to reach out to Grace, who was doing a lot of photography at the time. 

Grace: Yeah, it all happened the summer before we started college. Hollis reached out to me, asking if I’d be interested in interviewing individuals about their bodies, sexuality, and experiences. She proposed I photograph the individuals while we interviewed them and that we would create a magazine of all the stories and visuals. After that, I was hooked. Obviously, the format of Between Girls has changed with time, but our intentions and values [haven’t]. We want to learn about women and femmes’ lives and experiences and be able to share them with a broader audience. 

Hollis: I think our main goal was to create a community for people to come together and get really honest about the issues that were affecting their lives. We really believe that the conversations we deem too “taboo” or “uncomfortable” to discuss are the most important ones to have. Of course, we’re not the first ones to think this, but it’s a body of ongoing work that we want to contribute to. 

Speciwomen: Are there stories you’ve encountered through Between Girls that have inspired you to think differently or guide the project toward a place you wouldn’t have expected before? 

Grace: Early on in the project, we decided to open up our interviews to people in pairs and not just one individual. It was initially a way to make people feel more comfortable volunteering, but over time we learned how impactful those conversations between friends were. Even if someone was being interviewed with their best friend, they would almost always have questions for each other and learn things they didn’t know before. It would often start conversations about topics that they hadn’t even ventured into talking about in their relationships, like masturbation or their sexuality. 

Hollis: Yeah, there was also one instance when we were invited to interview at someone's family home, and their friend told us how special it was that we were invited there because it doesn't happen often. We’ve grown a lot of appreciation for what it means for someone to invite you into their intimate space, especially when you don’t necessarily have a close relationship with them. On top of that, we’re also having conversations about moments in people's lives that can leave you feeling exposed or a little raw. Feeling like people trust us with their stories is something we really take seriously. Those moments affirmed the work we were doing as something that was genuinely filling a need for people and not just something we do for fun. 

Speciwomen: What are your thoughts on how the media portrays women and their intimacy? 

Hollis: Whether it’s through the news, television, or otherwise, we’re constantly being talked at or about as opposed to being able to speak for ourselves. Even the scope of the conversations we “should” be engaging in is limited. Profiles are a unique opportunity to express our thoughts, questions, and concerns about the ways the world interacts with and responds to our existence. They force you to listen to the voice of an actual person as opposed to what parts of them are determined pretty or palatable enough to show. 

Grace: Yeah, and when we get rid of the pressure to be read as appealing and just focus on being honest, we create opportunities for communal learning. We all have experiences that have made us into who we are today. Imagine what we could create and the issues we could solve if we just pooled that knowledge. That’s the positive side of media that we are trying to contribute to. And even further, womanhood in the media is so cis-centered. We rarely hear trans women and femmes telling their own stories, and those are often the most crucial individuals to hear and understand. Womanhood is so much more expansive than people think. 

Speciwomen: To have the title Between Girls (like Speciwomen or other platforms with the binary in their titles) is inevitably labeling your community as “girl-focused.” How do you see your project fitting into a future where gender is a much more fluid concept? 

Hollis: We’ve had this conversation over and over again. In all honesty, when we initially started this project we knew a lot less about the intricacies of gender. We’re both cis women, and that’s where our perspectives and experiences are coming from. However, womanhood and femmehood are marginalized demographics of people. We hope that through amplifying the experiences of our participants, like Grace touched on, we can all work to better understand just how expansive the umbrella of “girlhood” really is. What it means to be a woman or femme is entirely up to the individual. We don’t have the desire to filter who can or cannot contribute to this work based on exclusive and antiquated models of what a “woman” may be. 

Grace: We're always striving to make this platform a place for people to express freely, and we hope that people feel comfortable enough to share with us. The steps we take to be more inclusive will always be in evolution. 

Speciwomen: Who can share their stories with you, and how are their voices featured? 

Hollis: We are a community-driven platform, meaning that the content we produce [comes from] people volunteering to share their stories and experiences with us. In being conscious of the many ways that people live out femmehood, we actively invite whoever is comfortable sharing with us to do so. As of right now, that looks like profiles of individuals or groups of friends. However, in the future, as we move past social media as our only platform, we hope that people will be able to contribute in a multitude of exciting and productive ways. 

Speciwomen: Do you plan on having a place like an online archive where you’d share the stories of everyone who has shared their stories with you? 

Grace: Yeah! This summer, we will be launching the Between Girls website. There, people will be able to read the extended versions of our profiles and get to know our participants even more. 

Speciwomen: What is in the future of Between Girls? 

Hollis: We want to continue to share stories, but also provide resources for people to live out the values of our community. That may look like hosting panels and workshops around different topics, and just living out open communication and support with those around us. We also (one day!!) really want to compile profiles into a big, beautiful coffee table book. We began this project thinking we were going to create a physical book, so somewhere down the line we have to make it happen. 

Grace: And in the near future we’d really like to create some merch for our brand so people can rep the intention behind the project. We’re also just both into clothes, so we’d love to have a physical representation of all of that. But as of now, we’re continuing to interview and photograph more individuals and share updates on our past participants. 

Photos by Lauren Davis.