Bar bathrooms are dark, dingy, and surprisingly omniscient. Sammy Smith became privy to this long-kept secret of toilet-side wisdom when she moved to NYC. She was in her mid-twenties, fresh out of college in the Golden State, and searching—as every twenty-something is—for answers. Answers to the questions that can’t properly be verbalized. Essentially, answers to life. Her answers appeared while she was at a bar on Hudson Street. “I was in the bathroom and I looked up and there was something so poignant on the wall, and I was like, ‘That’s it! That is the answer to everything! This is going to get me through my twenties!’ And I went out and wrote it on a napkin and I put it in my back pocket,” Smith recalls with a laugh. “I pulled out this wad of napkin from my back pocket the next morning and couldn’t read anything on it, but it was my first introduction to it, to the amazing content out there from all different people. If you think of it now, those were the original status updates, like on Facebook or Twitter, but hard copy.”
When given the key to life, albeit in an unexpected form, there’s only one thing to do: publish a book. Smith couldn’t hog all of that knowledge to herself, after all, but she needed some time to decide binding up her findings in print was the best next step. It took moving back to California—San Francisco—and her best friend gifting her a book in which to write down all of the bar-bathroom messages she encountered. Soon Smith realized writing them wasn’t enough, it didn’t sufficiently capture the walls’ scrawls. “I realized one of the best parts of it was the penmanship and the banter back and forth and the spelling or lack of spelling,” Smith says. “And so I started taking pictures of them. I borrowed my dad’s Canon Rebel, which I loved, and I went out with this big bulky camera shoved in a purse because I didn't want to be too conspicuous walking into a bathroom.” Smith is not a classically trained photographer, but she has the eye for it and sees value in the moments snapped and crystallized.
“I think from being a history major and lover of history, really I love to capture time,” Smith says. “To me, photography is about capturing moments and capturing time. So there are a couple different sides to my art I think. There’s photography and writing and social history and all of that.”
“I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there. I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it"
Smith reveals her preppy fashion sense—picture plaid on plaid—did not blend in with the punk-rock dive bars she was photographing, but her personality won over bartenders and patrons alike. “I would always get a drink and then by the end of it I was friends with the bartender or someone else sitting there,” Smith says. “I’d tell them about my project and they’d love it. Guys would lead me into the mens room probably thinking they were getting more than me just taking photos. I was like, ‘No, I’m just here to take photos, really!’” Thanks to her sociability, Smith got more than cocktails from the bartenders while scoping out the bars, she got the true inside scoop. Bartenders would excitedly show Smith their own favorite bathroom messages, pointing out things she might not have noticed otherwise. Who knows what words lurk in the corners of the walls better than the bartenders?
“I was just in Seattle and I took a bunch of pictures in this one bathroom. I loved this one that said ‘bitches get shit done’ and it had two cherries above it, and then below it somebody had written ‘but they can’t be president,’ and someone had written below that ‘that’s the damn truth.’ I just love that dialogue. I was looking through all my film and I saw another one that I hadn’t noticed before that said ‘witches get shit done,’ and I thought it was hilarious next to the other one. There are little hidden gems all over.”
“It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts"
In 2015, Smith compiled her eclectic photographs in a book of nearly 300 pages and cleverly titled it, Advice From John. Self-publishing was the name of the game, Smith having gotten a loan from her dad, and she found a printing company in Minneapolis. She describes Advice From John as a “coffee table book,” quite a wonderfully atypical one at that. “It’s broken down by love and heartbreak, and there’s a section on pizza versus tacos, and one about body parts—people love to draw and talk about body parts.” Anonymous wit, humor, and wisdom from those whiling away in restrooms paints each page. There are no limits in what striking content can be stripped from a stall.
“I thought Advice from John was so cool as a book, but then when I was looking at some of the pictures, they’re layered and have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid, like one was ‘I like your face so hard,’—I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with vibrant colors.”
"When I was looking at some of the pictures in there, they’re layered and they have all this color and these poignant things that they say—some sad, some profound, some of them really stupid. I needed them to be bigger, so I blew them up and printed them on metal with all these vibrant colors"
Smith says that self-publishing is not the hard part, rather getting one’s finished product out there is, especially with a day job keeping you busy. Smith is a personal assistant with unpredictable hours, a blessing and a curse. “It’s definitely not a 9-5, which is great...sometimes,” Smith admits. “I just got into a relationship a couple of years ago and got the work-life balance talk from my girlfriend recently. I haven’t been balancing it well, but I’m going to try to again. It’s a lot. Like I said, I love my job and that everyday is different, but if I’m not working on my own creativity and passion projects, then what’s the point of it all?”Luckily Smith’s boss encourages her artistic endeavors and allows her the freedom to take a couple days off here and there to make important leaps with her art, and he isn’t the only one, Smith’s parents offering their support as well. “I have a great support system,” Smith says. “My mom and stepdad were [at my show in San Francisco], holding the easel for me. I worked so hard on making the book, I didn’t want all these copies sitting in my garage, so this year I made a commitment to myself that I was really going to take more time to work on it. I’d say I’d given it probably 25% more of my time factoring in my day job. I probably need to give it 50% more for it to really push off.”
What’s next for Smith’s art? “I’m really trying to contact hotels, restaurants, and those kinds of places,” she says. “I think it’s the kind of thing that’s instagrammable. Everybody wants to take a picture with a giant neon sign that says ‘I do what I want.’ There’s a science to it.” Smith also dreams of being an art model, her pieces on display in all of their neon glory in a funky city like Miami; from there, she hopes her art will sell her books. Her ultimate goal would be to make her dreams her day job, dedicating all of her time to Advice From John and her art.
Now, thanks to Smith and that bar she stumbled upon years ago, you know to never underestimate the messy, silly, meaningful etchings on a bathroom wall. Your eyes might catch sight of the very thing that changes the course of your life.
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.