Words are powerful, and some words can cut deep. In the fourth annual Skin Deep Project, Southeast Missouri State University students are learning how to take control of the words that define them by proclaiming words of empowerment and redefine who they really are.
The project is part of Instructor Jeanne Harris’ “Interpersonal Communications” class. The students write words that have been used by others to define them on their skin, clothing or a piece of paper. They are photographed erasing those words and displaying words that they choose to define themselves.
The project is both cathartic for students who participate and motivational for those who observe, Harris said.
“This is an opportunity for them to clarify, redefine and challenge what others have said about them or what they think of themselves,” she said. “It’s also an opportunity for them to connect with one another, sharing their experiences, and even counsel and inspire one another.”
A’keal Slaughter, a junior criminal justice major from St. Charles, Missouri, said some people think he’s too outspoken.
“I think it’s good to be outspoken about what you believe in, and I’m just being honest and myself,” he said.
Slaughter wanted to show others it’s possible to reclaim words for themselves.
“If it’s what you believe in, keep speaking your truth,” he said.
For Byron Brownlee, a senior social work major from St. Louis, Missouri, the project is an opportunity to share who he is with others.
“I’m a strong introvert, and I think it takes a lot of courage to throw yourself out there, and there are some really brave people who have done this before me,” he said.
Brownlee shared how other people’s words have mislabeled him.
“I’ve always been a person to think through things first before jumping into action and doing something, but people have thought I’m just sitting back being lazy,” he said.
Cassadi Christenson, a sophomore psychology major from O’Fallon, Missouri, participated in the project to contribute to something meaningful.
“It makes people realize that everyone is going through or has gone through something hard in their life, and we should keep that in mind before judging or placing labels upon them,” she said.
She chose “pleaser,” a label that carried negative ideas for her.
“Growing up, I often let others walk over me and was scared to stick up for myself,” she said. “My ending words were ‘supportive’ and ‘joyful’ because I feel I am someone that looks out for the good of others.”
The students will put together their photographs in a collage and video. The final collage artwork will be displayed in the University Center from Nov. 26-Dec. 7. Cards and markers will be available with the exhibit, giving those who observe the art an opportunity to participate.
The video and photos will also be posted on the Skin Deep Project’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, giving others the opportunity to respond and share.
“The project promotes empathy,” Harris said. “Viewers can see that other people have stories too, and they are relatable.”
Another goal of the project is to encourage people to carefully consider their own use of words, said Harris.
“As we have seen on the national scale, words have incredible power to wound and divide,” she said. “My hope is that, through this experiential learning exercise, everyone can reflect on how words impact their own lives and learn to use their own words to more effectively communicate across their differences.”