I met Vanessa in one of my short-lived day jobs. In fact, we only worked together once. Yet in that time she struck me as a young woman who was really switched on to what is happening around the world. Not one to shy away from tough topics. I knew I wanted to sit down with her and chat more about the ways she is helping to bring light to minority groups and educate those around her. Captivated by her casually cool style firstly I had to start with the most poignant question.
L: So, tell me why did you shave your head?
V: My whole life I've had long hair, I'd never even coloured it. I'm a very safe person, in that sense. But I was never thrilled with the way it looked. I had been thinking of shaving it for a few months, as I believe every woman should try it once in her life. I just didn't know when was the right time. With International women's day coming up I thought it would be symbolic because there's so much identity in hair. It's such a big deal that women are supposed to be beautiful and "feminine", which includes certain hairstyles. I wanted to see how I felt without it, what would change if I didn’t conform to the conventional beauty standards. Shaving it felt like a fuck you to everyone's expectations. I want to be whoever I want to be, and I don't really care what you think.
L: I completely agree. I got a pixie cut from having really long hair. And for me, it was the exact same thing. My identity was entirely tied up in my hair. I'd always had that girl-next-door vibe, and I was sick of being seen that way. I was always seen as really young and not taken seriously. So I chopped it off. It was crazy how differently I was treated. Have you noticed that difference?
V: Yes. I feel like people wait for me to tell them who I am. Rather than just assume. I always wanted to define myself. But whenever I would interact with anyone, they would create this narrative of who I am that was comfortable for them. But I don't think I'm the most feminine person or the woman people think I should be.
L: I think you are, what would be feminine to you? How do you see yourself?
V: I have no idea to be honest. I feel like I'm not traditionally feminine by today's standards. Although, I'm not super interested in quantifying myself by those standards. But I wouldn't say I'm masculine.
L: It's this weird grey area where so many women sit in this "normal category" I'm not feminine, but I'm not masculine either, I'm just me. "Normal people" When really you are just not acting up to this hyper-sexualised version of what society tells us women should be. Somehow that's not feminine.
V: Exactly. In many ways, I think gender as a whole is kind of bullshit because it's just a social construction. You have to figure out where you land on that socially constructed spectrum. And I think a lot of men struggle with that. It's sort of a universal thing for men who grow up in Western societies. They think they're across feminism and ok with being feminine because they learn about it, or because of the female relationships that they have. But with these type of men you can sense are all twisted up inside because they're not actually at peace with the femininity within themselves.
L: What is being a feminist to you? Do you call yourself a feminist?
V: Yes. To me, it’s supporting other women and non-binary people. I think feminism for me nowadays is a lot about intersectionalism. Trying to educate myself as much as possible on other people's experiences, because I am aware that I'm a privileged person in a lot of ways. I could never fully understand the adversities and struggles that other marginalised people face, because I don’t have that lived experience.
One of the most effective ways to help people in marginalised groups is to take the initiative to go learn and educate your self. That way you can become a good ally to those who need it. At the end of the day, white feminism is good for no one. So I’d like to use my privilege and platform as a tool to support others.
L: We can't change our skin tone, or what privilege we are born into. So how do you challenge that?
V: I try to be respectful to everyone that I meet and not just presume I know what people are going through. I think it’s a responsibility that you have, as a person born into privilege, to listen. And if I see a teachable moment with someone who is being racist or bigoted, I will do my best to take it. I think its really one of the most important things you can do. We should all be using our privilege as a tool to raise other people up and let their voice be heard. That's why sometimes I'm uncomfortable speaking and being the centre of attention because I'd rather sit back and listen. Or spend my time advocating for others. It's so easy for someone like us to take up more space than we probably should in movements that aren't necessarily ours. But at the same time, you should not be passive.
L: It's definitely a hard balance. I wrote an article just recently about Mardi gras entitled Dear straight people. My whole point was around how supportive people are around Mardi Gras. Suddenly everyone is gay-friendly, and everyone's okay with gay love, and there are rainbows everywhere. Then the two weeks ends, and everyone goes back to normal. Why does it need to finish after two weeks? Where do you all go? Is this just an excuse for you to dress up and have a good time? Do you really stop that conversation when someone makes a gay joke or calls someone gay because they're acting in a non-masculine way? I think from that point of view, what you're doing is valuable. You are continuing the conversations or stopping the ones that shouldn't be happening.
V: I try to educate people as much as I can. My approach is usually a soft one because that's who I am. I like to think that there's value in people coming at topics from all angles and tackling racism and patriarchal structures. Trying to enlighten others and inspire change in their own way.
L: I think as well it's trying to expand the people that are around you. So if you're white, don't just be surrounded by straight white people. I took a step back the other day and realised all my friends are white and slim….Wow. I am living in a bubble. It made me really wake up to my own privilege and fatphobia.
V: Yeah, I agree. I follow a few Instagram accounts where women will post pictures of themselves posing in deliberately “unflattering” positions and angles. You find yourself thinking, "oh that's so brave". But is it? They are just being themselves, does that need to be considered a brave act? They are just showing their body as it is. And that shouldn’t have to be a “brave act”, but in a patriarchal society that is obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and forcing them to all fit the same mould, it is. It’s activism. A lot of white people are just very comfortable. Which is no accident. They are the norm, they don't need to be uncomfortable unless they choose to be that way for someone else's benefit.
I could have spoken to Vanessa for hours but knowing I had chatted her ear off for four hours already, I left her sunny Bondi apartment with a sense of hope. We have another ally on our side.
Keep up with Vanessa on instagram @vanessaswederus
Photos by Lila Marvell.