To the women of the world

From one woman to many, a message of strength, perseverance, support, and love.

By Kelsey Fox

One woman has designed a photo project that is, in its own way, both a love letter and a rallying cry. Vanessa Marco-Willis was inspired by the daily inequalities she sees women facing, from the big injustices that are obvious to everyone to the smaller, more insidious issues that often slip in quietly and build up like snowfall, impeding progress forward more and more each day. Motivated by a desire for unity, support, and love, Marco-Willis spearheaded the project to communicate a strong message for all women: Love yourself and each other. You are strong. You are beautiful. You can do anything.

"The photo shoot was going to be entitled 'Women,'" Marco-Willis explains, "but as soon as I looked at some of the photos, especially the ones when we're all in a circle lying down together looking up at the camera holding hands, I thought, well this is for all women from every race, country, every culture, religion and background." It was then that the notion of inclusivity and breaching borders inspired, instead, Marco-Willis' final and more comprehensive title: "Women of the World."

Photographer: Masato Funahashi

Marco-Willis explains that her project promotes a concept she's held close to her heart since she was young. "That photo of the circle also brought back a memory from my childhood," she says. "When I was seven or eight, I won an art contest in school where the theme was children of the world, and what I drew back then was the Earth, and all around it were drawings of children of different colors and backgrounds holding hands, and there was a heart in the middle symbolizing love and unity. It's amazing that this creative project brought me back to that same theme and that I instinctively organized this photo in particular to have us all lie down in a circle holding hands in a very similar way to that drawing I made when I was seven."

I asked Marco-Willis what motivated her to arrange this particular shoot. She said the main reason she undertook the project is that she's "a big supporter of women." She thinks womanhood is something to be proud of, but knows that sometimes in our society, the word woman, as she puts it, "is sometimes linked to words like weak, fragile, inferior, hormonal, out of control, dramatic, unstable, whiny, needy, too attached, [and] too emotional." When asked about some of the issues women face as a result of these unfair correlations, Marco-Willis had no problem expanding. "Women seem to always have to work twice as hard as men just to be taken seriously. Our opinions aren't always counted as reliable. While men are applauded for being independent and having dreams, women are expected to know their place in the world, to fit a perfect mold of what were supposed to look like or act like, to never speak out of place or raise their voice or be 'too free,' because that may seem unladylike." With current women-centric shows out like Orange Is the New Black, a series loosely based on Piper Kerman's experiences in an all-female prison, or The Handmaid's Tale, a show adapted from Margret Atwood's novel of the same name which focuses on injustices women face in a fictional dystopian society, women's issues seem to be at the forefront of discussion today. But Marco-Willis' work, rather than the adaptation of Atwood's, for instance, focuses on the positive, the aspirations women have and the support women can show each other. Marco-Willis understands the negative pressures of the world and looks to counter that with her project, encouraging women to love one another and to push back together against unfair societal pressures.

Photographer: Masato Funahashi

The Handmaid's Tale isn't the only feminist work "Women of the World" shares themes with, however. Marco-Willis touches on important motifs reminiscent of Kate Chopin's classic work The Awakening as well when she gets on the subject of injustices in regard to marriage and motherhood. "Men who have children are expected to be successful," Marco-Willis explains, "but if a mother is independent and works a full-time job or continues to follow her dreams after becoming a parent, she is considered a 'bad mother' or not as committed to her children as she should be." Marco-Willis continues to describe how, for women, "our lives are controlled and manipulated from the moment we are born; 'she is a girl therefore she will wear pink, she will like dolls, she will be delicate and polite and will marry and have children.' Beyond that we are not expected or inclined to achieve more, and our goals, however great they may be, are acceptable to pursue as long as we achieve them before we have children. Once we become mothers (our true purpose for existing to some), our dreams are required to become secondary or completely pushed aside."

To continue, Marco-Willis makes a powerful point when she identifies an unfortunate truth about how correlations often don't work in women's favor. "The word ambition and women are rarely seen as to words that belong together. It's almost like it is not appropriate for a woman to be ambitious and be beautiful as well as kind and smart at the same time." This is a theme women have been pushing back against since as long as women have had a voice to speak their minds. Much how Chopin gave us Madame Ratignolle, the mother-woman who loved her role just as much as Edna Pontellier wanted to escape hers, Marco-Willis knows women are diverse and do not have one homogeneous desire. Each woman is unique and has aspirations and ambitions which should be celebrated, whether that passion is to raise a family, run a company, neither or both. However, all too often, society tells us women are all expected to fit into one neat little box, and this is a concept Marco-Willis' project is fighting to change.

Photographer: Masato Funahashi

I asked Marco-Willis what some of the biggest problems that remain out there for women are today. She says, "right now our biggest threats are sadly the same threats that we've always been faced with. It turns out this country isn't as advanced as we'd like to think it is. We continue to be objectified by society, not just in the United States but in many cultures all over the world, including mine, Latin American culture. And part of the problem is that we as women have had to learn to accept it and deal with it and a lot of the time, we allow it and fall into the lie because we feel powerless against it." So one goal of her project is to remind us that women are not powerless, and they do not have to accept it. Women can stand up together against these unfair and unjust norms.

Marco-Willis continues, "women rights, of course, is a very controversial topic right now. Our rights as citizens of this country and as women are being threatened by the very people who are supposed to protect us and be our voices. We have the right to make our own choices with our bodies, and to plan for our futures." In that same vein, the obvious connection is drawn between women's boldly autonomy and access to medical care and reproductive options for women. Marco-Willis uses Planned Parenthood as an example, explaining how lawmakers often use scare tactics to paint the organization as evil and harmful. "They want people who are scared and confused," Marco-Willis says. "These clinics are health clinics that guarantee that every women of any financial situation can get the health care that she needs, including cancer prevention, pap smears, and sonograms, which are extremely important and necessary, and without these clinics, a lot of women wouldn't be able to [access these services]." Referencing the narrative that Planned Parenthood is an organization that exists primarily to perform abortions, Marco-Willis says that generalization is extremely damages, and goes on to explain that "saying these are evil places where babies are being murdered is not only false but misleading, manipulative, dangerous, and above all an abuse of power." Marco-Willis reminds us of an issue that is anything but new as she continues, "it is also extremely condescending when all the decisions that are made in this regard, decisions that will entirely affect us women, are made entirely by men." Along these lines, her project exists to remind us of the beauty of women, but also their power. When we stick together, we are a formidable force, capable of making real changes toward equality.

Photographer: Masato Funahashi

Marco-Willis has a strong message for everyone out there reading this article and viewing her images: "[Believing you have to accept these injustices] is wrong; you are more than your eyes and your breasts and your hair and your figure. And we all need to demand better from both men and women." She reminds us that it wasn't even until the 1920s that women had the right to vote, which wasn't that long ago, and we've made incredible leaps and strides since then, but still have a long way to go. "It is necessary that the views of the world continue to evolve because we cannot fully progress if the opportunities for us are not there. But women are relentless and we will continue to fight for our rights and to prove our worth." Marco-Willis urges us all, "Be the example! Fight the norm. Don't allow your friends, family, or anyone tell you that you can't do something or that because you're a mother or a certain age or weight or color that what you want isn't possible or appropriate. You say, 'watch me.' Don't let them control you."

Going forward, Marco-Willis has some strong advice. She urges all people, women and men alike who care about equality, that "if you don't like the way women are treated, then get outraged when you see the kind of injustice I'm talking about. Fight against it! Your life doesn't have to be written out and planned out for you-- you and only you can write your own story. Don't let the world tell you how to live or how to dress or where to go or whom to marry. You are a free should and are capable or things beyond anyone's imagination."

To end, her message is succinct and powerful: "If we want our children to think differently and the future women of this country to be our leaders, to be strong and fearless, we have to change the way we look at women now and be the example for the next generations. Yes, we are women," she says, "and we are all beautiful and unique, but you will not tell us what we can and cannot do. We are the captains of our own individual ships and no one has the right to write our story for us."

See the rest of the beautiful and empowering photo shoot in the slideshow below:

Women of the World

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