Culture 19 July 2018
Over four years ago, actress and writer Yvonne Wandera had a conversation that would change her life—and the lives of other women around the globe. “My friend happened to be of color and Muslim. This was at the height of Islamophobia and general fear. She was born and raised in a small community in New York that she loved and knew well,” says Wandera. “In our intimate conversations, she revealed to me that people she went to school with, grew up with, and saw everyday were now looking at her with fear in their eyes.”
This revelation moved Wandera to the core, prompting her to put pen to paper and write (plus star in) the groundbreaking and acclaimed short film InflatableK. It’s the story of how a spirited Muslim woman spends the last day before her wedding, touching on themes of isolation and loneliness. “This deeply upsetting sense of isolation was something I wanted to get across in the film,” she explains. “I’m touched that we’ve received messages from young women across the world, who feel this spoke to them and was telling their story.”
Yvonne Wandera, Lindsey McKeon and Shruti Sadana pose for a picture during the #OwnHero tour. Photo Courtesy of Janet Mayer
That nerve the film hit on became the catalyst to a bigger movement, a female war cry if you will, in the wake of the female revolutions sparking movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp. With women demanding for their voices be heard, Wandera knew the mission of InflatableK didn’t end with the final credits—its power needed to go on the road. With that, the #OwnHero Tour was born out of another profound conversation Wandera engaged in. This time it was with a young woman, incredibly moved after watching Inflatable K, who asked Wandera to define female empowerment.
“I could have strung some sentences together and added a few big words that sounded intelligent—or I could tell the truth—which is what I chose,” recalls Wandera. “I told her I’d spent my entire life marching and championing causes, but I had no idea what empowerment really looked like in my private space.” It was from there that Wandera set on her journey and brought together educators, collaborators, and ambassadors to curate the #OwnHero Tour curriculum and events. Wandera, with ambassadors including her InflatableK co-star Shruti Sadana and other inspiring women in media/entertainment such as Supernatural star Lindsey McKeon and actress Elisa Donovan (Clueless), now take these events to universities throughout the USA—with broadcasts to female groups in Malaysia. The goal? Light the spark for deep and honest discussions about female empowerment: what it really means, how it really shows up and the meaning it places in our daily lives. The curriculum provides tangible tools for the attendees to bring home and put it into motion.
Deeming it the #OwnHero Tour summed up what Wandera and her ambassadors want their participants to take away from the events. It’s a challenge to find their inner strength while reassuring these women that when all else fails, they can always depend on themselves. “There’s no knight in shining armor coming to save you. You have to stand up and save yourself—sometimes that means from your own thoughts and feelings,” says Wandera.“Being your own hero is about practicing every day to recognize the signs that may cause issues in your life and to address them. It’s an astute state of mindfulness and empowerment.”
And in the setting of the tour, #OwnHero is also about creating a shared space to learn from others while imparting your own experiences and wisdom. As Wandera explains, “A problem shared will no longer be a problem, as it will turn into multiple solutions.”
Being part of the solution is what drew the attention of young Hollywood into joining the #OwnHero revolution. McKeon wants to empower women to support each other and break away from any resistance fueled by jealousy and insecurity. “We must be able to recognize another woman’s beauty, creativity, strength, and importance and not feel that we have to cut her down in order to build ourselves up,” she says. Showing support and overcoming that fear of speaking up is a choice more and more women are leaning into. Sadana is proud to be part of that shift. “Let’s go back years ago, maybe to our parents’ generation, where women were supposed to get married and take care of the kids while their husbands went to work. Who came up with that idea? This is what we’ve been brought up ‘to believe,’” she says. “Today, women are more outspoken and overcoming a fear of ‘being heard.’ We are choosing to create something different. We recognize that we have the power—and have had it all along.”
Donovan concurs. She joined the #OwnHero Tour and movement because in her past she fell victim to shifting everything—words, wardrobe, her true spirit and more—just to be, what she perceived, more likable. “Although it made me adept at reading situations and people, I lost so much of my voice and who I am in those negotiations with myself,” she recalls. “Imagine the infinite power we can harness when we step out of that false skin and create from the purest and strongest parts of ourselves? It is colossal. And it is beautiful!”
And, Donovan doesn’t believe that means shutting down or overpowering men. It means finding a way for both genders to come together and exchange ideas and support on an equal playing field. “There’s so much to be gained on both sides from one another, and when we don't have this pre-determined hierarchy of who is allowed to do and say what—that’s when monumental and awesome things happen.”
As the #OwnHero Tour continues to inspire and empower a new, fearless and outspoken generation, the tour ambassadors are using it as an opportunity to heal the frustration, shame, and even silence their younger selves had to endure.
McKeon wants her teenage self—and all teens joining the #OwnHero movement to just hold on for this ride. “It doesn’t matter whether people like you or support you— find what you’re interested in, wear what you want, and fucking be unique,” she says. “If you have no friends? Throw yourself into life. There’s so much here for you. So much more than playing in societies made up games. Oh, and break the damn rules!”
Wandera, however, wants to put those feelings of loneliness and despair into perspective. “I’d tell my 17-year-old self that what you feel isn’t a reflection of reality. There were always more people than I ever imagined who cared for me, had my back and were joyful I was in their life,” she explains. “It's easy to let your feelings and thoughts overwhelm you, but at that moment when you’re in your darkest place—open your eyes and literally and look at your phone. At least one person in your phone book will pick up your call and remind you that you’re valued and loved.”
That’s all it takes to gather the strength to be your own hero! To watch the film that started it all, check it out here.
" Too often, we criticize ourselves more than being our own biggest fan." -Shruti Sadana
My hope for Inflatable K was to reach audiences that felt like they could relate to the story. The isolation one feels but chooses not to talk about. The idea that someone who might seem happy on the surface is going through much more than you can even imagine.
You might think people may not understand what you’re feeling or going through especially when you’re seventeen. More often than not, someone else is probably feeling the same way you are. Remember, there are people in your life who truly care about you and want to be there for you. Most of the time I think people just want to be heard, have someone listen to them, or give them a hug. Reach out to someone you trust and someone who really gets you whether it’s a friend, a family member, or a teacher. And, find creative ways of expressing yourself whether it’s through writing, music, acting, painting, drawing, or whatever it might be that sparks your soul.
My hopes are that we encourage women to become their biggest hero instead of their own worst enemy. Too often, we criticize ourselves more than being our own biggest fan. I was invited to join this tour by two incredibly brilliant, beautiful, and smart women: Yvonne Wandera and Emeline Rodelas (Floor-RW) who created this inspirational curriculum. Yvonne and Emeline were behind Inflatable K, and the film is what transpired the movement. I am so grateful that I had the chance to be a part of this project. They were so passionate about what they wanted to do with the #OwnHero tour and asked if I would speak at their events.
I’ve my own hero by becoming confident and happy with who I am, by being comfortable in my own skin, and not being afraid to show it. Regardless of the criticism, rejection, the struggles and everything I face—I’ve learned so much and I continue to evolve and strive to be the best version of myself. I think others can be their own hero by being honest with themselves and not judging themselves for every mistake they’ve made. By not being afraid to share a piece of their truest selves with others. You’re beautiful in so many ways. Acknowledge your light, your love, your laughter, your kindness, your strength, and your truest self. Those around you see it and you should see it for yourself as well. You probably have no idea the amount of lives you’ve touched in a positive way by being who you are.
Female empowerment – Why are women being heard in ways they never have before? Let’s go back years ago to maybe our parents’ generation where women were supposed to get married and take care of the kids while their husbands went to work. Who came up with that idea? This is what we’ve been brought up “to believe.” Today, I think women are more outspoken and overcoming this fear of being heard. A lot of it has to do with fear. Women might have thought their voices “didn’t matter” because of the way society portrayed them in the past. It takes one person to speak up and then it creates a ripple effect! Now, we are choosing to create something different. We recognize that we have the power and have had it all along.
I would love to see females continue to use their voice. Your voice is one of the most powerful tools you have. Sharing your story could change someone’s life and also empower them. You never know how or who you’re impacting when you speak your truth. I’d love to see these new changes around the globe.
"It’s easy to let your feelings and thoughts overwhelm you, but at that moment, when you’re in your darkest place—open your eyes and literally and look at your phone." - Yvonne Wandera
Unfortunately, there are still many countries in the world where women don’t have as much freedom and feel like they can’t use their voice. I think anything comes from practice and continuing to do it. Change is also a process—it takes time. Each step does make a huge difference though. I think we’re headed in a whole new direction.
About four years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine who happens to be of color and Muslim. This was at the height of Islamophobia and general fear. My friend was born and raised in New York, in a small community she knew well and loved. In our intimate conversations, she revealed to me that the hardest thing about it all was the fact that all the people she went to school with, grew up with, and neighbors she saw every day looked at her with some fear in their eyes. his revelation moved me to the core.
This deeply upsetting sense of isolation was something I wanted to get across in the film. I’m touched that we’ve received messages from young women across the world, who feel this spoke to them and was telling their story.
What I would say to my 17-year-old self, who like my character in Inflatable K, created a sanctuary in the car is: what you feel isn’t a reflection of reality. What I mean by that is, in reality, there were more people than I ever imagined who cared for me, had my back and were joyful I was in their life. It's easy to let your feelings and thoughts overwhelm you, but at that moment, when you’re in your darkest place—open your eyes and literally and look at your phone. At least one person in your phone book will pick up your call and remind you that you’re valued and loved.
"Imagine the infinite power we can harness when we step out of that false skin and create from the purest and strongest parts of ourselves? It is colossal."- Elisa Donovan. Photo Courtesy of Rodrigo
I love #OwnHero because it engenders action. It compels people to be participants in the cultivation of their own aspirations and goals in life. It ignites an accountability to create, move, speak, behave, in the ways we would like to see the world evolve. It empowers all of us as individuals to say 'How I move through the world matters. It has an effect. I can inspire and touch others the way those I look up to have inspired and moved me.'
Female empowerment in action: I see this as all females being able to express themselves fully and without reservation. To me, this means shedding that previously impervious layer that we all have carried around with us in order to make ourselves more appealing/less loud/less complicated, so that we take up less space. For so many years I either consciously or unconsciously shifted my stance, my words, my wardrobe, my intelligence, my humor, my spirit-- in order to be likable. Although it made me adept at reading situations and people, I lost so much of my voice and who I am in those sorts of negotiations with myself. Imagine the infinite power we can harness when we step out of that false skin and create from the purest and strongest parts of ourselves? It is colossal. And it is beautiful! To me, this is not about overpowering men, or shutting down men. Quite to the contrary-- it is about all of us coming to the table and exchanging ideas and talents on an equal playing field. There is so much to be gained on both sides from one another, and when we don't have this pre-determined hierarchy of who is allowed to do and say what, that is when monumental and awesome things happen.
Why has #MeToo had such an impact? Because it is a reality that has touched nearly every single female that I know. When the door was opened by these brave women who came forward first in a very public way, all of us felt our own floodgates open that had been kept shut for so long. And when they were opened, what came out was a tidal wave. What I have discovered in talking with men about this (I am obviously talking about good, respectable, awesome, men here-- not predators) is that many of them simply didn't really understand the volume of it, the breadth of it, how this resonates with every female on the planet to varying degrees. And secondarily, many didn't really understand the shame involved and the repercussions. They didn't understand why women don't report it or even talk about it. And that is a failure of our culture. Our silence has perpetuated that. This is why this movement is so vital-- it is shattering that belief system, de-stigmatizing abuse, which I believe will lead to massive change for the good.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.