Beauty may only be skin deep, but hurtful labels can leave wounds that last a lifetime. For the second year in a row, however, Southeast Missouri State University students have found healing and strength by participating in the Department of Communication Studies’ Skin Deep Project.
The Project is the brainchild of Instructor Jeanne Harris who, last year, became concerned that students didn’t understand the impact certain words can have on people’s lives.
“A few of my students didn’t believe that words could leave lasting scars,” Harris said.
At the same time, she noticed that various students “hid” in her class, which was focused on interpersonal communication. The Skin Deep Project developed as a response to both issues. According to Harris, it “encompasses the psychology of self-esteem and how words impact us.”
To participate in Skin Deep, students are asked to recall words that others have used to define them, and then to reject those labels with words of empowerment. The words are written with grease pencil on the students’ skin, clothing, or printed on paper cards. Students are then photographed showing their “old” self before revealing who they have become.
This year, the photographer was Mai Campbell-Nowlin, a senior from Memphis, Tennessee, who will graduate in December with an interdisciplinary studies degree in psychology, communication and photography. Campbell-Nowlin was enthusiastic to be able to make Skin Deep her senior project.
“After taking the photographs, I will be assembling them to maximize their emotional impact,” she said. Noting that the students approve the photos before they are made public, Campbell-Nowlin said she was “excited to portray everyone as they want to be portrayed, rather than how I might choose to portray them.”
Diamond Donaldson, a sophomore from St. Louis, was excited to be one of Campbell-Nowlin’s first subjects.
“When I was a kid, everyone said I was moody. Now that I am older and am getting to know myself better, I have realized that I am not moody, I am dynamic!” she said.
Donaldson said she rejects the label she was given as a child and is happy to move forward without “all that negativity.”
Participant Zoey Logan, a freshman from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, stated, “You can be who you set out to be not who others say you are. Your label should be personal not something the world puts on you.” She rejected the way some have defined her, opting instead for the label, “passionate.”
According to Instructor Harris, a significant element to the Skin Deep Project is that it helps to correct past bullying by allowing the subjects to outright reject it.
“It’s very cathartic,” she said.
Participants agreed. Matt Rowling, a sophomore from East Prairie, Missouri, said this erased “all the things I’ve been called in the past. The final label is what makes us who we are, not what other people say.”
Madeline Lebeter, a recent Southeast graduate who participated in the project last year, returned to lend a helping hand this year.
“This brings closure to the past and strengthens us for the future,” she said.
Campbell-Nowlin’s final artwork will be displayed in the University Center from Sunday, Nov. 6, through Friday, Nov. 11. Cards and markers will be available with the exhibit, giving all those who observe the art an opportunity to participate.