What I See project: how asking women to look in the mirror is empowering

Women are asked the simple question ‘when you look in the mirror what do you see?’ and they share their aspirations, achievements, struggles, ambitions and hopes


If seeking to promote strong self-esteem, confidence and empowerment in women, most people would start with pep talks about educational achievement, setting high career goals, avoiding or postponing commitments to family domesticity, and participating in politico-feminist activism.

Not many people would ask women to start by looking in the mirror. Promoting female focus on their visual appearance has been the root of many evils linked to the subjugation of women globally, and internationally.

For example, the No More Page 3 campaign highlights the negative societal impact of the objectification of women through use of the visual. Further, the image obsessed fashion industry stands accused of imperilling the self-esteem of normal women through selecting to depict and promote a body type that is unhealthy, and it also has questions to answer about the lack of racial diversity on international catwalks. Looking at the media, the successful legal action by Miriam O’Reilly laid bare the reason for the disappearance from our screens of experienced women media practitioners such as Moira Stewart and Selina Scott, as they aged, while their male counterparts are still going strong.

So, why is a female empowerment project asking women to look in the mirror? The What I See project aims to promote the global empowerment of women by asking them to look in the mirror. This seems counterintuitive to female empowerment, but the project was set up by entrepreneur Edwina Dunn specifically to illuminate the shadows where women’s positive contributions and achievements are hidden, and amplify their voices. Despite her considerable achievements in the corporate world, as the founder of the Tesco Clubcard programme, she observed and experienced a lack of commitment to hearing the voices of women in the boardroom.

She set up ‘What I See’ as a not-for-profit project, as a global online platform for women to contribute their stories to inspire and motivate themselves and others. Women are asked the simple question ‘when you look in the mirror what do you see?’

Now with more than 500 contributions, from women in 11 countries, participants are showing they are able to look beyond the visual. Women talk about themselves as people, their aspirations, achievements, struggles, ambitions and hopes. Contributions from women incorporate their lives in science, motherhood, politics, fashion, and sport.

Women taking part in the project have looked beyond their own visual representation and differences of ethnicity, age, disability have all been powerfully uncovered in video stories. 

A clear finding of the project has been the changing themes of issues for women according to their age. The socialising effects of women’s engagement with their visual appearance holds less resonance for women as they grow older and focus on their place in the world.

What about women who are unsighted, are they excluded? Indeed not, as evidenced by the contribution of Hannah, a partially sighted academic who examines other ways of being, when not reliant on the visual.

Women can also participate in the Twitter web chats using the hashtag #WISPchat to join conversations such as the recent debate about whether women are affected by Imposter Syndrome where people can be plagued with self-doubt and negative self-talk which undermines or prevents them progressing to the next step, or to value their achievements.

The possibilities for this project are exciting, as women learn from the contributions of others in the project, and then share how they use this learning to improve their lives.  As the project is formally launches this month, it will continue to be available as a nurturing, online community.

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