Jessie and Clare Stephens are two extraordinary women. They’re twins. They’re both highly educated and have graduated with Masters degrees in their chosen fields. They both work at Mamamia Women’s Network where I met them as an intern in September 2015. They’re passionate, intelligent and unapologetically feminists. No stone is left unturned as we delve into mental illness, bullying, body shaming and feminism.
Sophia: What I’m trying to do with the blog now is transcend just recovery and body image into speaking to women who I find really inspiring. Who have ideas and values that are akin to mine. I think we need to develop a commerdery between women. The first question I wanted to ask you was, what was your experience in highschool? Because you were at a single sex catholic school?
Jessie: I definitely didn’t experience that (commeradery between women) and sometimes I think there would have been more commeradery at a cooed school than at a single-sex school. And sometimes I don’t know if it’s Australian or if it’s women, maybe it’s both, but there’s the tall poppy syndrome. And we’re extremely competitive. If you had a certain achievement then you were cut down so quickly. I remember doing a speech once that I really cared about and I had to do the speech to the school. I didn’t ask to do the speech, a teacher asked me. I went up and did it and the younger girls were amazing. They came up and went, “that was incredible I really liked it.” This one girl in my year just started speaking to people and would go, “arrogant. she’s arrogant.” I’d never spoken to this girl before but it was a way of her saying, “don’t think you’re better than me.” There was a sense of I’ve got to knock her off her high horse.
Clare: Especially toward the end of school I feel like it got so competitive and part of it I think was good but at the same time when I look back on it so many people in our year ended up with anxiety. I think alot of it came from that. In early highschool, it’s so bad. There was so much bullying. I hate that word “bullying” because it sounds like someone’s pushing you around in the playground, but there was psychological harm inflicted upon me.
Jessie: That we still dream about. We then go to talk about it with eachother and we can’t remember the details but we remember how we felt. I remember feeling just sick and isolated. But not remembering details is actually a feature of trauma. I actually think that I have erased certain memories because my brain is like, “don’t hang on to that.” They were comments about the way you look and think.
Sophia: This is something that I’m really vocal about. In school, we teach kids how to do their times tables but we don’t teach people how to be good to eachother. We just have to “learn” it.
Jessie: And bullying is treated as an inevitability in highschool.
Sophia: Now I want to encourage other women and I think something changes in adult women. There’s this comparison in highschool. It’s so toxic. I remember going to school every morning just feeling this sense of entrapment. Getting on the bus and panicking because I had to face another day.
Jessie: I think it’s also comes from real insecurity. I remember the way I felt about myself was so bad. I remember going a year and a half not looking in the mirror. I would over calculate everything that came out of my mouth. But you reach a stage where you just go, “I’m alright with who I am.” I’ve grown into the quirks and the things I would have wanted to change at 14. I look at the things that are consistent at 5, 14 and 25. Theyaesmall things but there are big things aswell and those are the parts I like most about myself. I reckon that since I was 5 I had a weird sense of humour. It isn’t particularly feminine. So guys got it.
Sophia: And girls hated that guys got it?
Jessie: Yeah. I was sarcastic and cynical. I’ve been cynical since I was 5. And I’m glad that I didn’t let things that were said stop me from doing it.
Sophia: Is that the same with you Clare? What do you like most about yourself?
Clare: Since primary school all through highscool I have this weird underdog thing. I’m really competitive. I set myself goals.
Sophia: I feel like when people see a pretty face they automatically assume that you won’t be smart.
Jessie: I think it’s being blonde aswell.
Clare: Blonde, little, caucasian.
Jessie: I’ve felt myself in social situations play to it. I know I”m not very good at maths so I’ll make a joke about not being very good at maths and then I’ll go, I’m playing dumb! Why am I doing that? Why am I making fun of myself? I think guys do it. They look at you and they assume you to be an idiot. That’s why the HSC was such a big moment for us because noone could argue with the results.
Sophia: I still feel uncomfortable saying rhat I’m smart. But I have to be to be here.
Jessie: I think people underestimate Mia (Freedman) enormously. The work that we’ve done with her, seeing where she comes from. There is a method to all of her madness. She knows. She makes women feel good about themselves.
Clare: People look at you as a woman and attribute your ideas to being the fact that you’re a woman. We have so many guys go, “well you would have those views.” And it’s like, no, I have those views not because I’m a woman but because I’ve really thought about it.
Sophia: Obviously you both identify as feminists. Why has “feminist” become such a dirty word?
Jessie: I was listening to a podcast this afternoon on feminism and I must say, my idea of what feminism is has changed in the last six months. It’s really changed. I read this article that changed the way I thought about feminism forever. I’m quick to judge, that’s my flaw. I see some things women do and I go, you’re not doing anything for us.
Sophia: I can’t support all women because I don’t support all people.
Jessie: So for example plastic surgery. I think when you get excessive plastic surgery that is really clear, yes you can do what you want to your own body, but everything you do is sending a message and you must think abut what it says. What socially you’re contributing to. I can understand the compulsion. My feminism has changed slightly because I read this article about how women’s bodies are not their own and we do the, “she’s too skinny.” And I’m guilty of doing that.
Sophia: I do that all the time. But when you know people who’ve had a mental illness you get cynical. It’s almost maternal.
Jessie: I look at her and I go, “you’re not well.” But at the same time I’m battling with this idea of your body is your own. Why do I deserve to have an opinion on your body?
Clare: I was thinking about this recently. I was on The Veronica’s Facebook page and I look at them and they’re so thin. I want to write about it.
Sophia: Can you PLEASE. They’re sick. Do you know how long I’ve been thinking that!
Clare: Their bodies have completely changed.
Sophia: Completely. It happens alot with high achieving twins. It’s very common and someone needs to say it.
Clare: The other thing is, that really skinny, prepubescent look. Some 16 year olds have it naturally. But they’re like 30. Nobody at 30 naturally looks like that.
Jessie: It’s the normalisation of the skeletal frame.
Clare: But then part of me goes, well it’s skinny shaming.
Sophia: But, unpopular opinion, Rebecca Judd worries me.
Jessie: There’s one that was on an American show. Jamie King?
Sophia: Guiliana Rancic is another one. Come on.
Jessie: I look at that and go, putting her on television is irresponsible. I feel if someone was sitting on television having a panic attack every night you’d go, for your own mental well-being… And we know part of what causes eating disorders is the exposure to the “thin” ideal.
Sophia: Alot of these actresses go, “it’s natural.” And I go, well no. Your body didn’t look like that five years ago. That is not what you look like.
Jessie: Lena Dunham has quote which I kind of agree with, it’s that vegetarianism is a pathway to an eating disorder.
Sophia: Don’t get me started on veganism.
Jessie: I’m sorry but if you have a list where what you don’t eat is longer than what you do eat, you have disordered eating.
Sophia: I was speaking about this the other day to someone. Remember when they put Cassi Van Den Dungeon on the catwalk? For Alex Perry? I just went, who the fuck made that call? Because that’s wrong. There’s a big difference between someone who’s thin and someone who looks sick.
Clare: The only time I’ve taken a step back skinny shaming is at the Grammy’s the other day Taylor Swift stepped out in her outfit. And Amy Schumer did a post and went, “Taylor that’s not a thigh gap. This is a thigh gap.” Part of me was like, Taylor just became the first female to win Album of the Year twice. She gave a fucking amazing speech. She’s always been that body type too.
Sophia: It’s also the amount of followers. For example, Bec Judd has tonnes of followers. And I don’t know her story. I don’t know if she in fact is naturally like that. It makes me a bit uncomfortable looking at her sometimes because I see bones and that scares me. I think perpetuating thinness as the “ideal” on social media is part of the problem. What’s your take on social media? Is social media the problem?
Jessie: There have been studies and very few studies to contradict it, that exposure to thin bodies causes eating disorders. That’s a fact.
Clare: And that viewing, I got told in a psychology lecture, a pro anorexia website you would be objectively more likely to develop an eating disorder. It has that element.A few years ago we had a debate about pro-anorexia websites. We banned them. We put up warnings and shit. Sometimes on Instagram it warns you. In some contexts we ban it and in other contexts we don’t and these people have hundreds of thousands of followers.
Jessie: There was a case in Fiji…In Fiji there were hardly any eating disorders. Then when the television was introduced in the 70s within a year eating disorders went through the roof. There’s no argument that media doesn’t have an impact because it does.
Sophia: Do you think that’s also perpetuated by the rise in ‘clean eating’ and the whole idea that food can be dirty and people judge you as a person because of what you eat.
Clare: You know when you’re a kid and nothing occurs to you about eating. That’s when you eat the best because you’re not thinking about it. You eat when you’re hungry. You seek variety naturally. You’ve read alot about Health at Every Size and that’s what it’s about. Giving up on the “rules” and eating what you feel like, you’ll naturally seek a variety and have a balanced diet.
Sophia: We attach guilt and negative connotations to food. Veganism and vegetarianism is a hard topic for me to gauge because I understand that slaughtering animals is pretty confronting but if I was put in a survival situation I would kill an animal to survive.
Jessie: I think there’s also a case for just accepting that your philosophies don’t always perfectly align with your behaviour. I always say I’m a philosophical vegetarian but realistically I eat meat.
Sophia: But you shouldn’t have to justify eating anything. Women in particular make excuses for eating certain things and it’s unnecessary. For some reason women have this idea that they need to attach emotion to what they put in their mouth.
Jessie: Say if I decided to go on a diet, I’m already thinking about food. What a diet is saying is food, food, food, food, food. That’s going through your head all the time. You overthink it.
Sophia: It’s very hard, especially when you’re in recovery, gaining weight when society is telling you to do the opposite. It requires alot of resilience an very thick skin.
Jessie: What the doctors are telling you is in direct contrast to everything society is telling you.
Clare: That’s why fat shaming, skinny shaming and obesity is more related than people think. All this discussion about being worried about obesity makes people more frightened about gaining weight, as if they’re not terrified enough already.
Jessie: They dovetail. As anorexia has gone up so too has obesity.
Clare: We just have problems with food.
Sophia: I feel with social media it’s our responsibility to say, “fuck the highlight reel”. Social media portrays this idea, it’s the same as photoshop, that people look a certain way when they don’t.
Jessie: People always say, “don’t compare yourself to women in magazines” but that’s actually not who I”m comparing myself to. I’m comparing myself to people on Instagram. Normal people. That’s the scary bit.
Sophia: There’s something critical missing in education. You teach all about safe sex but nobody teaches you to love yourself and not to compare yourself to everyone else. Role models are missing. We have so much potential to be the change.
Clare: But you don’t know how to do it and at the same time you’re plagued by your own insecurity. I have to keep reminding myself that what I’m writing about is important. You write an article about something important and you watch it go nowhere. And then you see Kim Kardashian and that’s what people are clicking on. That’s really disheartening. I want to write about things that I care about but I know that noone reads it. How do I make what I care about readable.
Sophia: But that’s what I love about what you guys are doing with Thinkspo. You’re writing about things with substance and you’ve developed your own platform to do so. To be honest I think alot of what’s popular is a result of click bait. For example, my two most successful posts are the ones that have been most controversial; the Victoria Secret article and the veganism article. No one really cares about my recovery journey as much any more and I get why because it gets a bit tedious and boring. You get over the story.
Jessie: But then I also think, what matters? We wrote an article on the weekend that I cared about and it got nothing but then I went how many people clicked on that and it changed the way they thought? That’s something that can’t be quantified. So say if only 5 people read your recovery post but it changes five lives. That’s so much better. The things that matter we can’t quantify.
Sophia: Getting messages from people who’ve read a piece and they tell me that because of my story they’ve been able to tell their mum or dad or partner that they’re struggling, that’s enough for me. Because I needed that and I never had it. I never had someone who inspired me to be comfortable in my own skin and I fucking needed it.
Jessie: How many times have you read an article and gone, “I fucking love that article” but not liked it, not shared it, not reached out? Now I read something and I go, I’m going to share it.
Sophia: I wanted to talk to you both about your body image and your sense of self. Has that changed over time? Do you go through stages of body insecurity?
Jessie: It’s changing. My direction and my commitment to that has been the greatest change. I have faith I’m going to get there. That’s something I never would have admitted when I was 18. I’m ambitious. This is who I am and i go with that. Because women’s value in society so often rises and falls on their appearance and that is a reality I can see. I spend money on clothes and make-up and I actually consider it to be smart. The reason I do it is because I can SEE how much it matters. I hear the conversations. I see the way women are received. I fucking hate it but I have to play in this game that I hate. No one wants to put make-up on. But there are social punishments for doing certain things.
Sophia: I get super refreshed when I see a woman not wearing make-up.
Jessie: People are just so self absorbed that we don’t even care. We’re not looking at anyone else. I never look at people and go, you have make-up on or you don’t. I never think that. It’s weird to think but since starting at Mamamia it’s in the weirdest way improved my body image and my sense of self.
Clare: There’s diversity in the office.
Jessie: The only thing that matters is the quality of their work.
Clare: I thought, if I’m going to be a part of this which is all about making women feel better about themselves I first have to feel good about myself.
Sophia: Do you feel comfortable in your skin now?
Clare: I think more now than before. In a weird way lately, this past week I didn’t wear make-up and I wore daggy clothes, and I couldn’t remember the last time I did that. And I didn’t care because I was just focused on getting things done.
Jessie: It’s also just accepting that these are my parts and they’re not something I might necessarily have chosen but I am comfortable with it. That’s just Jessie and that’s what Jessie looks like today.
Clare: I used to be scared when I was a bit younger of ageing. It gets to this point and I understand how people age comfortably because you just don’t care. There’s more important things. I don’t know why I love that Taylor Swift speech (at the Grammy’s) so much but I just do. I started thinking, once you do have that network of people around you who love and support you, you don’t really care what anybody else thinks. When I was a teenager I cared so deeply.
Sophia: What’s the end goal for you both? You’ve both got Masters degrees. You’re both very educated. You’re working at Mamamia. Writing, creating, being boss. What’s the ambitious goal?
Jessie: The goal has always been to do documentary film making which has been our thing. Social commentary. It keeps kind of changing. I’d love to write a book. I’ve wanted to write a book about the fourth, the fifth wave of feminism and what that looks like. I look at The Female Eunuch as this cataclysmic book that changed my life. It don’t think that that text has been created for our generation. We have new issues. Instagram needs to be de constructed in a way that it hasn’t been, particularly in academia. Someone of our demographic needs to write that text. Lena Dunham esqe with less self-indulgence. I’ve oscillated between doing it in a documentary format and as a book. Video is very now. We live in a visual culture. We’d also like to run our own website. We would love to. Not only for our own stuff but for other people.
Clare: I want to start a company with people who haven’t been trodden on by the industry.
Sophia: I’d better let you go because you’ve got to head off so thank you so much for your time.
To check out Jessie and Clare’s writing go to their website: