Model and activist is trying to create safe spaces for girls and women to talk to one another. Gurls Talk, a non-profit organization founded by Aboah, is creating these spaces for the inter schooling benefit of state and private school girls in the greater London area, in England. The idea is for girls to get together in a place within the school where they feel comfortable to share in a “confidential and trusting environment”. The environment will act to help schools by providing a weekly program that focuses on the importance of being open and talking about emotions and experiences. By getting girls to talk in this way, in this safe space, the organization aims to empower them.
Gurls Talk works to create a community of girls from various cultures, religions and backgrounds that are able to share the experiences, thoughts and internal workings of what it means to be a girl in present day society. Not only does this show them that they are not alone, but by speaking with one another and opening up, they will be able to connect and feel less alone.
Adwoa’s website states that from “body insecurities to sexual relationships, home life issues, depression, joy and whatever else they might be experiencing,” professional and personal mentors and mentees in the programs will talk about it with one another. “It is about working together, empowering and taking the time to listen,” said Aboah. The organization will provide education on subjects that are sometimes over looked in traditional educational systems, such as mental health, addiction, eating disorders and sexual relationships. The idea is for girls and women to start talking about these things, learn about them from one another’s experiences, as well as each other’s knowledge of literature or other resources on the subject, and therefore be empowered through knowledge and unity. Not only that, but Gurls Talk also helps to expose girls to new career options, as well as introduce them to new, helpful, professional role models: “They can learn from a diverse group of women who can introduce them to new worlds and professions, and prepare them for life after school.”
On the organization’s website, gurlstalk.com, Adwoa Aboah explains why she created the program in the first place:
“There is a lack of pastoral care and mental health knowledge in the schools. I know I would have benefited a lot if I’d had access to a program like Gurls Talk. As a young woman, I suffered from depression and spent my school years and early 20s alone and with little understanding of why I felt the way I did. I felt an immense sense of pressure to just ‘get on with it’, and told myself I was too privileged to deserve such emotions. The reality is that sadness is relative, and something we all experience to different degrees at different times. No one is happy all the time.
Unfortunately, no one told me this until after I’d spent time in two treatment centres and a psychiatric care unit. These places gave me simple tools and a safe space where my problems were heard. It was here, through trust and sharing, that I learned many others felt the same way I did. This was a revelation.
Now, on the other side of this, I feel a huge amount of responsibility to impart these lessons to younger girls growing up in a world of gender inequality , social media, unrealistic beauty stations and cultural appropriation. I aim to break down social boundaries in creating a message that mental health and associated issues affect women from all cultural, social and economic demographics. I want to use my experiences as a platform to teach that with time, patience, and the right environment, everything gets better.”
Not only does the organization’s website talk about why they’re doing what they’re doing, it also has some tools itself. Out of three clickable headings on its home page, one is titled “Advice” and leads you to a contact form with a short note that says “Ask us anything! We are here for you!” It also lists a crisis text line if it’s an emergency.
Aboah also uses social media in order to send out messages of empowerment and good vibes. On an Instagram account dedicated to Gurls Talk, Aboah often posts pictures depicting the work the organization is doing, stills from the documentary she did partnered with Vice or even just positive messages. On a picture of Aboah looking straight on at the camera, the caption reads “Being ladylike means independence, power, responsibility and attitude. Dress however you want, sit how you want … Be whoever you want to be.” On another, she talks about Indigenous women in Canada and their fight against racism, sexism and assault:
“Gloria Steinems ‘Woman’ follows the stories of many women who have fled their reserves in British Columbia in hope of a new life away from sexual abuse. Sadly they are met with similar situations in downtown Vancouver where many are forced into sex work or even murdered. A poignant reminder that although Vancouver is a first world, desirable city it is still home to horrific violence against women. We can all make a difference in stopping violence against women and gender equality all over the world, whether it be in another country or on our doorstep.”
Aboah ends her caption with a link to Gloria Steinem’s website, where you can donate to the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Using social media in association with her prowess in the fashion industry is an important combination because it also allows her to potentially affect some of the issues in the presentation of the female and male body, and how it is idealized and sexualized. On that topic, Aboah said to Nowness, an online video channel, that “The idea of beauty is such a grey area, there isn’t enough diversity and that is so detrimental to how other girls and other men look at themselves – for me to be involved in that world and speak up on these issues that are connected to the fashion industry is important.”
Growing up, Aboah told the YouTube channel StyleLikeU, in their video featuring her entitled “A Model Rips Into Her Addiction & Comes Out With a Safe Space for Girls: Adwoa Aboah”, that she remembers being young and envious of blonde, white, blue-eyed, sexy girls. She felt “other”, but as she grew and developed she realized that many girls had experienced the same feeling, no matter their looks. Aboah noted in an article in Vogue that she had left Instagram for a period of time while struggling with depression and addiction;
“I went off Instagram for a year and a half, two years. I was in the process of rethinking everything I thought I was for the first time in my life … I needed time away from it to think about how I wanted to use social media. I do think that if you do it in the right way it can send a message to so many people from all different places from so many walks of life, but I’m glad I waited that long.”
In Aboah’s series partnered with the online publication Vice, she sits down with the artist, activist and runner of the London marathon while menstruating, Kiran Gandhi.
“I had gotten to the marathon start line and, like any of us who have found themselves unprepared to start their cycle, I just started going through my options,” said Gandhi. “What if I use a pad? Hell no, I’m going to chafe for 26 miles. No man I know would take a bunch of cotton, stick it between his balls and run 26 miles. Then I thought, am I going to use a tampon? No. Am I going to hold one extra tampon to run the whole thing and then stop and change it – there’s no privacy on a marathon course either.”
The more she ran, the more she thought about the choice she had presented to her to reject her own stigma. Not only that, but Gandhi saw the opportunity to reject her own oppression.
“Millions of girls and women around the world do not, and that’s when I realized how profound it is that we can’t talk about our own bodies and our own menstruation and our own sexuality and our own masturbation, or any of these things,” said Gandhi. “It’s awful.”
“I think that we teach young women to internalize that shame and hold onto it,” she continued. “Women are taught from a young age that their main value is derived from their looks. Yes, you can go to college or whatever, but unfortunately all the subliminal messaging is – but you still have to look good.
“Breasts, yes, we love. Make up on the face, yes, love that, hair styled and done beautifully, we love that, big booty, yes, love that, beautiful clothes and heels, yes, we want all that. Menstruation? No, please, don’t ever tell us that that’s happening because that’s not for the sexual consumption of men. It’s not enjoyable. It’s not a turn on.”
In her documentary, Aboah also speaks with a group of female dancers and discusses stripping, pole dancers and sex work. As pole dancers, these women often find their expression of sexuality under scrutiny.
“When I was younger, I rejected sexuality because I felt it was being thrust upon me,” said Shayla, one of the pole dancers. “Now, I love being sexual, I don’t mind looking sexy, because I’m doing it because I like to feel sexy. You have to do it for yourself. I do it for myself and people respect that. They admire that.”
Aboah and Shayla also discuss the freedom dancing gives women to be financially independent – to dress themselves, buy their own car or pursue other passions. Due to the stigma placed on strippers, dance studios often do not want to be associated with stripper culture. The treatment of these women is due to the way present day society treats the female body in general, leading, for example, to the victims of sexual assault being blamed because of their “provocative” clothing. These discussions are exactly what Gurls Talk aims to encourage.
In the article with Vogue, titled “Why Model Adwoa Aboah Has Girls Talking,” Aboah says that the goal is to get women to speak openly about their experience, whether the subject matter is dark or not.
“I’ve had people write to me and sometimes the subject matter is dark or sad, but often they aren’t looking for answers or a solution, they just want someone to talk to,” said Aboah. “That is exactly what it is all about. I want women to talk about their experiences without fear or judgment. I don’t think you have to be a counselor to talk about what you’ve been through and experienced. It’s starting a conversation and giving a space where these girls can be heard and communicate with each other about the issues relevant to them. Instead of it coming from someone superior like a teacher, they get to speak with someone on the same level, a woman or girl they can relate to.
“I had this very English, pessimistic view that I would have to wait until I was much older to start this, but I spoke to a friend in L.A. and they were like, ‘You just have to do it now.’ That gave me the confidence. Long-term, the dream is to have my own space, a place where girls can come, but by the end of 2016, early 2017, I’ll be working with a few schools where I can go in weekly and do these workshops with them. That is the first bit, and I’m really looking forward to that.”
In the W Magazine article, “Real Talk With Model Activist Adwoa Aboah: The Calvin Klein face is empowering young women through her Instagram account and forthcoming website Gurls Talk”, saying that being in and out of hospitals after her recovery from serious addiction, she came to the realization that she had a responsibility to give back because she had been helped by so many women throughout her journey.
“There was this newfound realization that I’d never been taught any of these things at school,” said Aboah. “The concentration is only on the academic side of things. And I wasn’t academic at all. I just really believe there has to be a middle ground between dealing with emotions and educating on mental health and addiction and eating disorders, as well as teaching kids how to do their times tables. So I think that’s where it started.”
On how she is looking to build the organization, Aboah had this to say:
“The long-term plan is that I want it to be part of schools, to be part of the curriculum—an hour or half an hour out of one day where these girls have someone come in and workshop and mentor [them] on self body image; and to also bring in women from other walks of life. But I don’t want it to seem like I’m bringing in someone or putting someone on my website who’s just lecturing at these girls, telling them who to be and what to wear and what’s appropriate. It’s about opening up a conversation and getting people from opposing sides. So [if] I want to do something on cultural appropriation, and I’m still in the middle on where I stand on that, it’s not about pointing the finger. When I put up a [Instagram] post about the Kardashians, I thought long and hard about it because it’s not about me going, ‘They’re in the wrong. They shouldn’t be doing that.’
“A lot of the girls [I shot for a series of videos] talked about beauty and all these things that are not in schools anymore. So it’s really interesting for me to hear what’s going on, and also to hear about things from when I was in school that are still going on. When I went back on Instagram [after being off the Internet while in rehab] I started putting out, in my opinion, good content. I started thinking carefully about what I was going to put out there. And taking into consideration that I might have girls of 13 and up following me, and maybe looking up to me and looking to me maybe as a role model. I started finding people who were inspiring me, an artist or an activist or an 18 year-old girl who lives in Canada who speaks about her sexuality, what happened to her when she was younger—this openness. And I think there was part of me when I first got sober that was so against social media; it was really interesting to talk to all the girls I’ve been meeting through it. I’m building up this amazing team of women, which is what it’s all about. Instead of fighting it, you may as well use it in a good way.”