Meet Three Kiwi Girls Who Are Unapologetically Redefining Womanhood In The 21st Century

If the future is female, then pass us the fast-forward button


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Jess wears Converse All Star 70 High Top in White. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

Here’s to the female rule breakers and bad-asses; the activists and the accomplices; the thrill-seekers and the change-makers. Here’s to the stories of the women that came before us, and to those who will come after us.

Do you ever wonder what stories your shoes would tell if given a voice? Accompanying you on every escapade and adventure, as well as the silent observer of every heartbreak and triumph, there’s one shoe that’s been interwoven into millions of stories over the past century — Converse.

The iconic sneaker has grown to become a cultural marker of sorts — spotted on the feet of a diverse mix of women who stand firm in not only them, but in what they believe in. To commend the changing tides and the growing impetus for gender equality, converse is celebrating remarkable women and their stories in their latest campaign, All The Stories Are True.

From the streets of Los Angeles to right here in New Zealand, All The Stories Are True seeks to shed light on powerful women who zig where others zag.

To celebrate, Viva chats to three Kiwi women who are redefining what it means to be a girl in 21st century New Zealand.

JESSB
Rapper

She’s torn up the stages of some of New Zealand’s biggest festivals, rubbed shoulders with international superstars, racked up more than one million streams on Spotify and carved a unique space for females in the New Zealand rap scene. But for JessB (born Jess Bourke), she’s sick of being pigeonholed, rather opting to live outside of any form of gender definition. “Defining what something IS signifies what it ISN’T, and I think that we need to move away from this idea that we need to define,” the former professional netballer explains. “The biggest misconception about being a ‘girl’ is that there is just one valid or acceptable way to be a ‘girl’.”

She is, of course, referring to the growing awareness for gender binary and diversity in New Zealand. As a supporter and MC for FILTH, a series of events for people who identify as queer and trans, JessB hopes to inspire people who can relate to her by sharing her story. “I don’t think that I have a responsibility to speak out specifically about what it means to be a woman, because I believe that this is different to different people. I just try to be as unapologetically myself in all the ways I can be. I stand strong in my story, in what I stand for and believe as a woman of colour,” she says.

Jess dropped her first EP, ‘Bloom’, early last year, which featured tracks celebrating diversity and equality in all its forms. It’s the people around her who continue to inspire Jess to pursue music, and she counts herself lucky to have befriended people from all walks of life. “I have been surrounded by amazing women and non-binary folk who have all given me something special on my journey in music, but have been so valuable in my life,” Jess says. These sources of influence on Jess have inspired her to drive the message home about how to embrace your true self. “I look up to people who dare to be themselves!”

Defying common fallacies around the lack of females represented in the Kiwi music industry, Jess says she’d love to see more “women and non-binary folk (particularly those of colour and from the LGBTQI community) represented and given visibility in the music industry.”

Jess has spent much of her week recording new music. But while the 15 hour days are taxing (not to mention expensive) her music is the ideal avenue for Jess to express herself creatively, and to inspire others. “It gives me lots of motivation to know that somewhere in Aotearoa, there is youth watching [me] and seeing themselves represented in what I’m doing.”

Jess wears Converse All Star 70 High Top in White. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

BONNIE BROWN
Fashion Illustrator

Artist and fashion illustrator Bonnie Brown turned her passion project into her dream business. Growing up in a low socio-economic sector in Wellington meant then 17-year-old Bonnie was thrust into university to study something “serious” over heading to art school “because there’s no income in that”. Ignoring her creative impulses, Bonnie studied a business degree for three years, before arriving at the realisation that she couldn’t spend her life doing something she wasn’t truly passionate about. So, Bonnie took a chance, picked up her paint pots and art pens and reignited her fervor for illustration.

She’s since built a business centered on her exploration of the diverse female form, fashion and whimsical florals. She’s collaborated with some of the biggest brands in Australasia to create bespoke works in her signature bold and colourful style.

Her reimagining of the 21st century girl goes far beyond paper and prints. Bonnie makes the most of her opportunities to share this depiction with her 5000 followers on her Instagram page @studio.bon, but is aware of its challenges. “In light of the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp there have been a lot more women speaking out about what they believe in or what is right, so [women] have got more of a voice in the 21st century. But I think alongside that there is also the challenge of having to ‘do it all’ — have the perfect career and the perfect life and be the perfect mother and do all of these things in conjunction together, but make it all seem easy.

“It’s an interesting time because we’ve got more of a voice now, but there are challenges that come with that,” she explains.

Bonnie is keen to shift the dialogue about being a 21st century woman by redefining what it means to be a girl. “Anyone who identifies as a being a girl, is a girl, but broader than that you can make your own definition. When you’re a teenager there are a lot of challenges for girls growing up today, especially with social media. I can’t even imagine being 12 years old and having the influence of Instagram,” Bonnie says.

That being said, Bonnie has a lot to thank Instagram for. The platform acted as the perfect springboard to connect with her highly engaged audience, who look to her feed for inspiration. “If they are seeing themselves in [my artwork] a bit more and that helps to showcase a more diverse range of women, or women doing different things, then that’s really cool. I’m really excited to be able to do that,” Bonnie says.

Her Instagram community has grown to the point where her audience will blow the whistle on any copycat work that bears semblance with Bonnie’s. “I’ve had issues with plagiarism in the past. I’m at the point now where my audience can recognise my work — someone will send me a pic of something and ask if I did it. It’s almost like a protective unit,” she says.

More than that, Bonnie’s work engages a number of people from different backgrounds. “There’s a dialogue happening both ways. I’ve had quite a few messages from people who have been excited if I’ve drawn someone from their culture and they haven’t been represented in that way before.” On a deeper level, Bonnie says her avenue can help point people in the right direction to resources to help them if they’re struggling with bigger issues.

Bonnie counts illustrating greats Kelly Thompson, Jasmine Dowling and Laci Jordan as her biggest design influences, explaining that each of them has contributed something unique to the design industry. “Laci Jordan is an African-American woman who’s really vocal about showing diversity in her work, and using her background to fuel what she does,” Bonnie explains. “But she’s not humble in her work. She’s worked really hard to get to where she is, but she also isn’t afraid to recognise she’s done well.”

It’s pretty typical of Kiwis, Bonnie explains, to knock down our own work. And if Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well, then it’s working to our detriment. Los Angeles-based Laci brings fresh energy and self-confidence to the art world, Bonnie notes.

Every print she creates depicts a powerful woman, often at odds with the common misconception that women are weaker than men. “I think it’s such a strange thing that this is how some people think. Mostly because the women I know are some of the strongest people that I’ve met,” she says.

Through her art, Bonnie hopes to open people’s eyes to a different point of view. “Everyone is different, so the more people who share their stories, the more people who are growing up in New Zealand will see there’s no right way or wrong way to do things,” she says.

Bonnie wears Converse All Star 70 Love Graphic Low Top in Black. Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

ZARA GILBERT
Multi-talented Creative

Five minutes is all it takes for Zara Gilbert’s infectious energy to rub off on you. She’s effervescent and authentic, not to mention engaging. It’s not hard to see why she’s succeeded across numerous fields — namely photography, filmography, theatre and music.

But discovering this level of confidence and self-assurance didn’t come easily to Zara, who attended an all-girls school in Waikato. Although she was successful in the arts world at school, the girls around her “didn’t like it. And I doubted myself. I was always told to stop singing so I did. If I earned the top mark in acting it was because I was the teacher’s favourite or some bullshit like that,” Zara recounts.

“But then I started realising that I was talented and I deserve recognition for what I do, we all do. We need to stop pulling each other down. We keep living in fear and we can’t progress or create a community.”

Wise words for someone who only recently celebrated her 21st birthday. Zara confesses she only discovered her confident mindset “about a month ago. I’m here. It’s been a journey… and I’m not going to be sorry for who I am,” she says.

And she certainly isn’t. The self-confessed “loud and outspoken woman” isn’t afraid to speak out about what she believes in — namely women’s rights. “So many times I was told to be quiet and to stay in my place, blend in with the rest of the crowd, and I got sick of it. I got told all the time to shut up and be quiet and I just... got louder,” Zara says.

Zara uses her social media channels to be that loud voice for women, and the more she speaks out about issues women face today, the more people join her — including men. “There were so many guys who were unaware that women are in a place of disrespect and they don’t realise how much more of a struggle we have. It’s only been 125 years since we had the right to vote, and it’s been an even longer struggle since then to have more rights and equal pay. But we’re progressing and there are a lot of powerful women out there who are sick of being put in the shadows,” she says.

She never set out to amass a 3000-strong Instagram following, but women gravitated to Zara to be their voice when she started speaking her truth. “So many women came forward saying that’s exactly how I feel, and I’m thankful that you’re the kind of person to represent those girls who don’t have the voice to say it,” says Zara, who curates her Instagram feed to ensure it only spreads positivity.

Like so many girls who look up to her, Zara finds her inspiration in the form of activist, model and spokesperson for Gurls Talk, Adwoa Aboah. “She speaks out about women’s rights, and she’s made it cool. It’s a nice thing to make these hard discussions cool,” Zara explains. Gurls Talk is a platform that supports women by inviting them to celebrate how they look or explore their creativity in a fun, modern way. Finding her voice in among the noise was a slow burner for Zara, who aims to break down societal norms by redefining what it means to be a woman. “The word ‘girl’ to me sounds so young and innocent. The minute we enter adulthood you have all these restrictions and rules.

That’s why I started redefining the word woman. I don’t see myself as a girl anymore, I see myself as a powerful woman of history — of scars and bruises. I’ve had my past as a girl, and now I’ve bloomed into this strong woman,” she says.

“I hate the term ‘throw like a girl’. What does that even mean? Like being a girl is a problem. It’s not! I hate being viewed as the support person to men. You see it in fairy tales and movies. But I want to play complex female characters that prove that we’re not just beautiful — we’re flawed and we’re not perfect. Women can be both powerful and beautiful.”

Available online at Converse.com.au, instore at Converse Sylvia Park, Converse Manukau, Converse St Luke’s and selected retailers across the country.

Photo / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

 

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