How a simple tweet sparked an international sexism debate

It’s probably not the best statement to make as I’m just about to jump back into freelance work, but sometimes, I really fall out of love with social media. Maybe it’s the clients who insist on over-commercialising every post, compers, trolls, serial twitter complainers, or just the fact I’ve been working in social media for six years, but sometimes I feel like snapping myself out of the endless scroll, deleting all my apps and living a simple, off-grid life. Maybe there’d be a pottery wheel involved.

However, if the storm-in-a-teacup that was this week has taught me anything (other than that I really, really need to learn to drive), it’s that social media really is a powerful tool to get your voice heard when you speak out about something you believe in.

After tweeting about a poster promoting emergency contraception by Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, I didn’t in anyway expect it to end up being printed in one of the nationals, being discussed on national television or debated at length on twitter by people around the world. The original tweet itself didn’t even get a retweet. The two accounts I tagged, @NHSEngland and @EverydaySexism, didn’t reply. So it came as a bit of a surprise when I received a DM from a journalist asking if she could speak to me about the tweet and the story behind the poster.

I had a telephone interview with her where she asked where and when I spotted the poster and how I felt about it, plus seemingly unrelated details (how long my journey was, my marital status), but on the whole she seemed to agree with the views I aired; that it alarmingly promoted the outdated idea that there’s a certain way mothers should look.

After chatting through the details of what had led me to share the disgruntled tweet, she then asked if she could send over a photographer to take some headshots to go with the story. Having previously worked full-time for two PR agencies, I knew that the photos would help the story get picked up, so I swallowed my fear of having my picture taken and agreed. I even let them take the cringe feet-up-on-the-desk shot. You’ve got to play them at their own game and give the tabloids the fodder they want!

Perhaps helped by the fact sexism was high on the news agenda, after the recent Serena Williams story, the poster story was picked up first by the Mail Online, and then The Sun. Both of these articles put me at the centre of the story; my reaction, my journey, my photos (that still make me cringe to look at), rather than the poster and the stereotypes it risked perpetuating. Unsurprisingly, the readers of these sites weren’t very kind. I started reading the comments but stopped again pretty quickly for my own sake!

Both articles did, however, include snippets of the response from the NHS trust responsible for the poster. According to Nicola Wenlock, director of sexual health for Walsall Integrated Sexual Health, the posters were aimed at the teenage pregnancy audience and meant to promote the emergency contraception services the trust can offer.

I think educating the young female audience in Walsall of the free services they have available to them is an excellent initiative, and it’s great to hear that according to their official statement about the posters, the trust is succeeding in their efforts to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies and they also offer a top-rated service. It’s also reassuring to hear that they apparently worked closely with their target audience of teens when putting the posters together.

I can see the message they were trying to convey; becoming a mum changes your whole life. I’m not a mum myself, but having lived for a while with my sister and her newborn son, I’ve witnessed firsthand how difficult looking after a baby can be. Yes, you do have to make sacrifices. Yes, you do have to put the baby’s needs above your own. Yes, you have less time to spend doing things for yourself. But no, there is nothing about your appearance or your clothing that needs to change if you don’t want it to. Mums can look how they want and dress how they want, no matter how old they are. If the designer of this poster thought the only way to visually represent the baby-free life of a teenage girl was through a stiletto heel and a lipstick, then perhaps they shouldn’t be designing posters.

If the other version of the poster I’ve seen doing the rounds on twitter is genuine, targeting male teens and promoting the use of condoms (complete with a blue dummy compared to the pink dummy in the other poster targeting girls), then I definitely think they should put down the stylus for their graphics tablet and step away from their keyboard.

After the story about the poster made it into print, it was also picked up by The Pool. Hats off to them for giving it the proper write up it deserved. They made it less about me, and more about the missguided way women had been represented in a public-facing, government funded campaign, which is the whole point I wanted to make when speaking out about it.

Since ‘going viral’, I’ve had so many messages of support from other women; some from school, some I’ve worked with and some who I’ve never met, which has completely validated this whole experience and reminded me how important it is to speak up and use your voice.

I really hope this has taught the team responsible for the posters to consider all the different types of women who might see their publicly visible campaigns in the future, and to realise how important it is to think carefully about how they represent the women they’re trying to help.

And to the weird and wonderful world of social media, sorry I ever doubted you.

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