Credit: Asia Croson | Courtesy

As voices roared from within Pinkies Up salon, Megan Cali grew anxious at the front of a line that wrapped down the block. The venue was bursting with hundreds of people. Strangers and close friends alike stood pressed against each other’s backs, sides and shoulders. With hardly enough room to move, the liberal studies senior wondered if anyone else could feel her heart pounding like a jackhammer. She was terrified and vulnerable yet proud to be among the “Girls Who Handle It.”

Last March, 45 women displayed personal stories of hardship alongside images of their Instagram profiles in the art exhibit “Girls Who Handle It.” Cali was among the women who revealed that their social media presence did not reflect their life story.  

“Actually writing [my story] down, having to put it into words, was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” she said. “From this experience I feel empowered, and that’s as simple as I can put it.”

More women will be able to experience that same sense of empowerment when the art exhibit “Girls Who Handle It” (GWHI) returns to center stage Nov. 30 at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.

Discussing life and work schedules, Croson and Freet make time to take Girls Who Handle It and turn it into a nonprofit. Megan Albee | Courtesy

GWHI was first debuted as a senior project by Cal Poly graduate Julia Freet and local San Luis Obispo photographer Asia Croson. The project focuses on open sharing, acceptance and public vulnerability to encourage meaningful conversation both in person and online.

“We don’t need to share more or share less, we need to share differently,” Croson said. “We’ve been trained to think that we know people’s stories and we don’t. That why GWHI is so important.”

At the event last March, dozens of black and white portraits decorated the walls of Pinkies Up salon. The framed faces of 45 women looked ready to share narratives of sickness, family dysfunction, sexual assault, mental illness and sudden loss. Hardships, which captioned every photograph, were laid out in contrast to the girls’ social media profiles.

“We need to communicate with people online just like we do in person,” Croson said. “We need to communicate more openly because we’ve stopped asking each other questions.”

GWHI explores the effects of what Croson calls, “tequila and sunset” posts, a social trend where women managing extreme trauma or grief only share the highlights of their lives online. The founders of GWHI warn people against assuming they know others based off of what is portrayed through social media.

“Social media’s a powerful tool for positive change,” Freet said. “It’s not about critiquing this medium. It’s about asking how can we use social media better.”

At the start of the project, Freet and Croson expressed to the participating girls that they were unsure how participating in the event would feel. Synthesizing their experiences, laying out their social media profiles and sharing their portraits took bravery. For many of the women, displaying their personal lives to strangers was an act of public service.

“I was hoping that by sharing my story, I would be able to inspire someone else to speak out about theirs or get the help that they needed,” Cali said.

Girls Who Handle It started as a senior project displaying photos of girls who are facing struggles in life and keep their social media presence a happy “reality.” Asia Croson | Courtesy
Girls Who Handle It started as a senior project displaying photos of girls who are facing struggles in life and keep their social media presence a happy “reality.” Asia Croson | Courtesy

Women in the exhibit received text messages from friends, classmates and peers who attended the event. For some, participating in GWHI marked the first time they had shared their experiences with anyone. The emotional response to the showcase was astounding. But Croson said, “The event didn’t even need to happen. The community that we built around these women, who were sharing these stories with each other, was so powerful.”

The level of support for GWHI has well exceeded Croson and Freet’s wildest expectations. On the day of the first event, the two frantically created a Venmo account for audience members pushing donations. The project was only ever intended to be shown once, but Freet said, “I feel like we just hit a nerve.”

GWHI began accepting submission for the Nov. 30 showcase on Tuesday, Oct. 16. Applicants submitted a brief summary of the story they would like to share on the GWHI website. 50 women were selected on a first come first serve basis for the exhibit. Participants will soon have their signature portraits taken to complement their two-page story.

“The San Luis Obispo Museum of Art is pleased to exhibit these two women’s work to a wide audience,” said executive director Karen Kile. “We want to be relevant to our community. This museum is an accessible organization open to ideas, creativity and important cultural, societal concerns.”

While Freet and Croson’s focus is currently fixed on preparing the second showcase, they expressed bigger plans for the future. The two recently brought on Cal Poly communications studies senior Maddie Leber as a communications coordinator. Sitting cross-legged in Croson’s office in downtown San Luis Obispo, the women revealed their hopes of becoming a local nonprofit.

GWHI supports engaging in deep conversation, practicing acceptance and de-stigmatizing life’s challenges. Amid a swarm of positive messages, Freet returned to the phrase, “Don’t compare your behind the scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.”

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