The year is 2016, and the social media envy is real. The negative feelings elicited by everyone else's picture perfect Instagram posts have been heavily scrutinized and discussed. But amidst the cacophony of think pieces on Millennial narcissism and the evils of social media, The White T-Shirt Project stands out.
Created by photographer-writer Isabel Klee, the project is, in her own words, a "desperate attempt to bring something real to social media." In an effort to counter all the carefully curated posts on Facebook, Instagram and the like, Klee photographs women and asks them to share experiences that have shaped them as women.
The result is a powerfully intimate trip that touches on issues like body image, sexual harassment, love, self-doubt, and bullying.
Klee, who is also a senior at Marymount Manhattan College, first came up with the idea for The White T-Shirt Project when she was writing a piece about how Instagram affected young girls' self esteem.
"We scroll through our Instagram feeds and see the same thing over and over again — expensive clothes, tropical vacations, fit bodies, 'perfect' relationships, the list could go on and on," she told A Plus. "For a few summers I was a camp counselor for 13- and 14-year-old girls, and a lot of them follow me in social media. After writing that paper, I realized that I had the ability to either perpetuate the image they were constantly seeing of the 'perfect life,' or I could do something that would actually make a difference. I wanted them (and all women) to realize that they shouldn't be ashamed to be who they truly are — whether it's how they look or the stories they have to tell."
Though Klee did not give the women any prompts, they ended up raising issues that were similar to each other.
"I think the beauty of this project is to see where the women take that and the stories they tell from it," Klee said, adding that these topics were relatable precisely because women share so many experiences.
"Earlier today I had a friend of mine telling me how liberating it has been for her to write for the White T-Shirt Project, but how nervous she was to share something so personal," Klee said. "We discussed how often we censor ourselves because we don't want to make other people feel uncomfortable, yet these are OUR stories. They happened to US. These women are finding power in the openness that comes with that project, and that is something that just inspires me even more."
Klee stressed that she is not "bashing" social media or anyone that uses it. Rather, she had grown weary of the "idealistic versions" of people she followed and wanted to bring something different to the table.
"I couldn't scroll through my feed and see anything that resonated with me, and that made me feel like I was the only one with a life that was messy and ugly sometimes," she recalled. "I realized that I had been holding in so many stories for fear of not seeming like I had my shit together, and how ridiculous that was."
Though the project is still brand new, Klee said that the response has been overwhelming. Many women have expressed interest in participating; some have thanked her for creating something extraordinary on social media.
But, Klee said, the most surprising part has been the men that reached out and applauded her effort, "saying how important it is for them and other men to hear the painful stories that all of these women have to tell."
Considering the positive feedback The White T-Shirt Project has received, Klee said that she plans to expand the series beyond New York City, where she is currently based. But now, she's focused on sharing more women's stories.
"I just want people to understand that social media is largely just a highlight-reel of everyone's life," Klee said. "There is so much that we hold in and so much we don't talk about, and for what? To keep up this false sense of perfection? Our stories are how we connect, they are how we see ourselves in other people. It's so important for us to be open for so many reasons."