Unanticipated Impacts // Becca Fonville, M.A.

While conducting clinical psychological work on a small private college campus this spring, the Counseling Center hosted an event called, “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes.” This event has become very popular on college campuses, and has been running for over ten years. The purpose of the event is to raise awareness of sexual assault, gender issues, and violence against women. During the event, men are asked to put high-heeled shoes on and walk a mile to gain perspective. The event was driven from the old adage that says that one cannot understand the experience of another until he or she has spent time in that individual’s shoes. This event has been hosted several years in a row at this college, and had been discussed by the Counseling Center’s staff all year. I was looking forward to being involved in this event because of my own interest in the topic clinically and professionally, but also because I have personal investment in it. As the Center for Disease Control reports, 20% of all women will report experiencing some kind of sexual assault in their lifetimes (2012). I happen to be one of the 20%.

Just like with any event, disagreement and differing views are prominent. I have heard arguments about the use of high heels- is it promoting the idea that sexual violence only occurs to those who fit conventional and traditional beauty ideals? Is it promoting victim blaming by pairing the idea of sexual violence to an accessory? And many other issues commented on: How can walking a mile in some high heels- something some women do daily- be promoting sexual assault awareness or giving a participant a taste of what it is like to encounter sexual assault? How are the two even remotely similar? I have heard all of these statements before, and I agree with some! Regardless of my opinions and feelings, I was incredibly excited to participate in an event that’s sole purpose is to bring about education and awareness – two necessities in changing systems of oppression. No event can be perfect, or really, truly, communicate what sexual assault is like to those who have not experienced it – especially because experiences can be so vastly different.

The event itself did not go as I expected. I expected many many participants- I’m not really sure why. Isn’t promoting sexual assault awareness all anyone cares about and wants to do? Apparently not. Convincing people to participate was much more difficult than I anticipated. Typical responses to not participate were that they had class, a meeting, needed to go eat lunch, needed to check their mail, had homework, etc. . . . Of course all of these responses are realities of college student life, but because of my training and background, I thought it was important to think more deeply about what simply walking by and not participating meant to themselves personally, and also what it was communicating to the community. From my perception, this did not go over so well, which may not be surprising. Most people became defensive and seemingly felt guilty. To me, these reactions are more positive than the few who seemingly showed no remorse for not participating or care for the subject matter. Guilt communicates that some level of emotions are involved.

I was very aware of all of these reactions in the moment. What I was not consciously aware of, however, was my own personal feelings and reactions. I was so caught up in the meaning making of the reactions of potential participants that I was not tuned in to myself. I didn’t realize that my thoughts about others and myself had begun to change in an unhealthy way, and that I had began making the entire experience more personal than necessary, pulling me down. I did not take a break, though it was offered to me several times by my supervisors, but continued to work the whole event. I chose not to care for myself, which made the whole experience much more emotionally draining than necessary.

What I think is so important about this experience is not about the lack of participation in the event, or even about my disappointment in the outcome. My point is it so incredibly important to take care of one’s self, especially in situations like this. I have been told this time and time again. Self-care is crucial when in the helping profession. But until this day, I had never experienced why self-care is discussed so frequently, and why it is sometimes pushed onto individuals still in training. I am also very glad that I had this experience while still in training so that I could have the opportunity to process it with my supervisor. Of course there is meaning behind one’s decision to participate in any outreach event, but there is also meaning behind my actions too. Perhaps I should have tuned into this meaning as much as I was tuned into the meanings of other’s decisions, and I may have taken better care of myself psychologically. I believe I still would have been struck and disappointed in the event as a whole on multiple levels, but the experience may have been less tumultuous, and I may have been able to maintain a more rational mindset.

Additionally, I believe that it is important to keep in mind how decisions such as to participate in an event or not may impact others. I was heavily impacted by the overarching ambivalence of the student body, I believe mostly because of my personal investment and experience with sexual violence. The impact this decision to not participate did not seem to even cross the minds of potential participants. While working the event, I remember wondering if their response would have been different if they knew they were talking to one of the 20%. At the same time, I am sure my disappointment and frustration was coming across to potential participants as I talked to them too, and I was also not thinking about the impact my words may have had on them. Perhaps sexual violence was personal for them as well, and they were still too emotionally raw to publically participate in an event such as this. All of this is to say that I hope I - we can be more gentle with each other, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, and also compassionately encourage each other to think about how our behaviors and words can impact the other.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes is a heavily debated event, which is not surprising given its nature and what it is advocating for. However, no event is perfect, and there is no perfect way to advocate for any systemic issues. I do think it is important for all people to consider their choices, what they advocate for, participate in, and what meanings may be behind these decisions, even while in the process of advocating for a cause close to the heart. When these meanings are considered, one may have the opportunity to richly learn about herself, in turn, garnering a deeper understanding of how to care for one’s self and others in the future.

If you’d like more information about the organization and events, their website can be accessed here: http://www.walkamileinhershoes.org/

Written by: Becca Fonville, M.A.

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