“What Was I Wearing” Exhibition: Unveiling the Power of Survivor’s Stories

Oftentimes, the conversations that are the most needed are also the most difficult to have. While discourse involving the stories of survivors of sexual and domestic violence may feel uncomfortable to talk about, conversation is paramount to raising awareness, creating community, and validating survivors’ stories. On April fifth, Students Teaching and Empowering Peers (STEP) hosted a reception at the Kruizenga Art Museum that featured their annual “What Was I Wearing” exhibit, which displayed the clothes worn by survivors of sexual and/or domestic violence. The goal of the exhibit is to dismantle the notion that provocative clothing is the cause of sexual assault and that sexual assault can be prevented by the survivor alone. Each survivor who chose to have their outfit presented at this exhibit also wrote their stories, which were displayed alongside their clothing. Anonymity of the survivors was maintained, yet their stories fostered immense emotional connection from viewers. 

STEP’s program advisor, Cassidy Bernhardt, who is also Hope’s Victim Advocate and Prevention Educator, elaborated on how the exhibit works to disprove the idea that clothing choice causes sexual assault, and that assault can be prevented by the survivor alone. “Truely, just when you read the stories of the survivors, there becomes no question in your mind that anything that they wore, anything that they did, caused them to deserve it,” they said. Bernhardt referenced one of the displays at the exhibit– a child’s nightgown. “When you read that story, it affirms what we have been telling folks all along– that there’s no way that this is that person’s fault.” In addition to the nightgown, other displays featured pajamas, sweatshirts, and jeans. 

At the reception, there was an opportunity to decorate a denim square with messages to survivors to show their support. The idea behind this activity stretches beyond Hope’s campus. April 24th is National Denim Day, which asks people to wear jeans as a sign of support for survivors of sexual violence. This day remembers the experience of an Italian woman who was denied justice because of her jeans. “The Italian Supreme Court overturned a rape conviction because the justices felt that since the victim was wearing tight jeans, she must have helped the person who raped her remove her jeans, implying consent (‘DOI Denim Day Campaign’).” Following this decision, members of the Italian parliament attended work wearing jeans, showing their support for the survivor. Bernhardt mentioned that on Denim Day, the denim squares from the reception will be made into a quilt to exemplify the ongoing support for survivors of sexual assault on Hope’s campus. 

The stories presented at the exhibit conveyed vulnerability and strength, even with the authors being anonymous. Bernhardt commented on how important it is for survivors to share their stories. “I work with survivors everyday through my role as a victim advocate, and one common theme in different theories of healing is storytelling,” she said. “Oftentimes, we see that when an individual has the time and space and capacity to narrate their story, it becomes less of a physical and emotional burden on them. It allows them to feel a little freer . . . So many times in violence, choice is taken away, so having the choice to tell their story is such a powerful and healing thing.”  

 Walking through the exhibit, viewers may have noticed an empty hanger among the featured outfits. Next to the hanger, there was a post that read, “This empty hanger represents all of the survivors’ untold stories.” Ashley Trainor (’24), a member of STEP and a Committee leader for the exhibit, expanded on how these stories can create hope for survivors who have not spoken about their experience. “. . .[The exhibit] might inspire other survivors to come forward and tell somebody. Sharing their story might lift that burden off of them.” Trainor also provided a student perspective on how the student body can be more accepting of survivors and their stories. “I think being open to listening to those stories is largely important. . . . Learning and receiving education, and also taking the issue seriously is really important,” she said. Bernhardt expanded on this by explaining what spreading awareness looks like. “I think we overcomplicate raising awareness. Raising awareness is simply leaning into that intentionality into not making these conversations taboo,” they said. “I want to normalize that it’s okay to talk about hard things . . . If we could do that on our own, that would be amazing.” This explanation from Bernhardt outlines the impact of simply having conversations, and emphasizes why events like the “What Was I Wearing” Exhibit are vital in fostering this conversation, and withdrawing the taboo nature of the topic. 

Finally, Bernhardt commented on how this event is creating community: “By having this event, we’re allowing folks to take back some autonomy. I think people should come to this event because I think that hearing someone and listening to them is one of the most profound acts of compassion that we can do between humans . . .At Hope, we strive to create this intentional community. To have almost one hundred people hear your story and take time out of their day to honor and listen to you, that’s community to me.” Trainor shared her thoughts as well: “There’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone, and people believe you, see you, and hear you.” This is a unique connection: Even with the barrier of anonymity, connection is developed and an inclusive community is brought to fruition. The exhibit will be open until April 13 at the Kruizenga Art Museum. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence, reach out to CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services), a victim advocate, or Resilience’s Sexual Assault Helpline at 1-800-848-599. If you would like to get involved in STEP or know more about what they do on campus, their email is step@hope.edu.

(Featured image source: Sadie Quakenbush)

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