Challenging the Challenge: Why I Passed on the #challengeaccepted

When Instagram began to fill up with black-and-white photos of women tagged #challengeaccepted, I googled it. The lead article mentioned some female country singers promoting natural beauty – no makeup/hair, no special lighting or filters, no glam, just women being themselves. Women supporting women being real women.

But that wasn’t what came across my Instagram feed. Instead, I saw superstars coiffed and posed. Even among friends, I’ve seen very few “just being me” photos. Oh sure, I’ve smiled back at the great smiles on faces of people I know and love. But really, why would anyone risk a natural shot when the # had morphed into something glamorous?

People simply follow suit; my friend posts a B/W selfie and challenges me, I’ll just do the same. Right? Except I didn’t.

When my friend challenged me, I passed. Good friend that she is, she asked why. I am all for women supporting women, but how do B/W selfies support women, exactly?

On the surface, the words sound right. Women should support women. We should challenge each other to grow, to be and do more, at times to do less in order to care for ourselves and others more. On the surface, there is certainly nothing wrong with women posting beautiful pictures of themselves – one of the hallmarks of social media, obviously.

But just as selfies are superficial, I’m digging down below the surface to clarify two things bugging me: inclusion/exclusion and competition/comparison. “Supporting women” means challenging them to post a selfie, and then the selfies themselves become an online beauty pageant? C’mon, ladies, we all know that we do and can do more to support one another in meaningful ways.

Playing tourist with the Strong Girl statue in NYC

Going way back, it reminds me of slam books in elementary school, handmade books with questions like, “Who is the nicest person in our grade?” or “Who is the cutest boy in our class?” You felt a secret thrill if a friend passed you their book and you hurriedly scanned the pages for your name scribbled there. You felt great – or, more likely, not – if you found it.

Our teachers had good reason to confiscate and trash those books: they tended to salute those already on top while confirming for the rest of us that we were as gross as the dried up chewing gum stuck to the bottom of our desks.

Another google search turned up indications that the # might be related to interpretations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s powerful rant against the sexist comments made to her on the Capitol steps (talk about a strong woman; now she’s inspiring!); or a years-old cancer awareness campaign (that makes no sense); or a Turkish campaign against femicide (more logical if yet ineffective).

The friend who challenged me was herself challenged by someone who is “competition” in her professional field. However, that challenge was intended as encouragement that they are both members in a professional community with a common goal. My friend also recognized that, as it’s not her typical style to post pictures of herself, posting a self-portrait was an actual challenge nudging her beyond her comfort zone (okay, that helps; I relate). And, as photographers, showcasing their skills is also a professional move.

Still, I’d rather see real women being themselves. I’d rather see women doing what they love, being strong, achieving or learning something, engaged in a favorite hobby, taking risks to grow. I’d love to see action shots that will inspire my own action. I’d rather see women truly challenging, supporting, and inspiring women. Wouldn’t you?

In the spirit of women supporting women, please check out the links below:
This may be one of the best #challengeaccepted photos I’ve seen – she’s doing something active, demonstrating her strength and sense of adventure; plus, she writes some stellar words about women supporting women.
And my friend who challenged me and then listened, my favorite creative collaborator has inspired me yet again this summer by redoing her beautiful website to showcase her immense talents.

Cover photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

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