Annie Wade Smith (they/she) is a content creator, model, self-professed Charity Shop
Queen, mentor, LGBT+ ISVA and hairless guinea pig parent. We sat down with her, on a
sunny afternoon to talk pretty privilege, body positivity and neutrality and online versus in-person activism.
Annie’s smiling and immaculately made-up face welcomed Ellie and I into their warm and
colourful abode and we immediately dealt with priority number 1: stroking and holding the naked piggies in awe and bewilderment. Whilst I hunted for charging cables and selected a “femme fatale” playlist on Spotify, Ellie shot Annie with her usual speed, finesse and creativity. Then it was time for the interview portion of our day. Annie chose some neon pink glasses to fill with water (as she should) and we jumped straight in on the topic of social media, vulnerability and community.
CW: Passing mention of suicide, conversation surrounding sexual violence prevention work,
Sav: How would you say you balance online activism work with making a difference on the ground, within in-person communities?
Annie: I think because of the pandemic, when we all had these digital personas, activism could only be carried out by digital means and people forgot about in-person community work.
Annie spoke in a considering tone that draws one in, with slightly lilting cadences hailing from her upbringing in West Yorkshire.
Annie: I’ve very much always been someone involved in community projects and work and I think
the voice of the community is incredibly important. Sometimes social media activism takes
away from that… but sometimes it creates digital communities.
Like, if you’re closeted then you’ve got access to communities that you may not yet have
access to in real life. Or let’s say you're not yet 18 and you can't go to the club scene you want to yet, or you're disabled and the places you want to go aren’t accessible.
I think there’s definitely added inclusion and massive positives in the digital world but also there’s a lot of lip service. Take mental health. There’s a lot of “It's okay not to be okay” but how many people are actually holding spaces to support one another? The therapy waitlists are so extreme -
Ellie: They’re ridiculous aren’t they.
A: So how can we respond to that? Peer support would be amazing but everyone’s
exhausted. If everyone could figure out balancing rest with developing peer-support spaces, I think that would be great.
S: Yeah like it was Men’s Mental Health Month recently and I saw a lot of “Guys its okay to open up and lean on each other, even if it's just going to the pub and grabbing a pint with a friend and having a chat”. I see this (important) messaging so much but I don't hear about people pushing themselves to lean on their friends as much. If you want your friends to be vulnerable with you, it can be helpful to lead by example and show them that it's a safe space.
A: Definitely. I think it's so easy to give people advice and not take your own.
E: Story of my fucking life.
S: What’s your take on body positivity and body neutrality? Do you prefer one over the
A: So when it comes to social media hashtags, I'll stick to ones like #bodyconfidence
#bodylove #selflove and #bodyimage. I know that if I use #bodypositivity I’ll get like, a million followers overnight, because that’s what people are looking for. Although I did start off using labels like body positivity, I kind of learned that, no, this is not a space for me to take up.
I grew up in a context where I didn’t fit the beauty standard and I would be defined as fat. I don't necessarily use that label for myself now because I’m a size 18 UK so I’m not fat and actually, if I’m to put myself in that marginalised group then I'd be at the very privileged end of it - it’s not appropriate for me to be the voice of fat people, at all.
The body positive movement was created by fat black femmes to champion marginalised bodies and it’s now been taken over and co-opted by thin white women who are bending over to force fat rolls. So the question of body positivity or body neutrality is a big one. I think these things mean different things to different people but we have to be aware of these patterns of co-opting within wellness.
I believe what we really are all aiming for is body neutrality. Like, we say “love yourself” but you don't have to love yourself, just don’t hate yourself. Sometimes I look at myself and have some kind of visceral reaction but most of the time I actually look at myself and am like ‘okay there’s my reflection!’ Like, there it is, it’s gonna get me into work today or it's gonna get me on holiday next week. I think the best way to feel about your body is absolutely nothing. I think that's what sometimes confuses people. Like “do I need to feel obsessed with myself?”
No you don't.
S: I feel that so strongly. So often I see people talking about desirability, being proud and
bragging about their pretty privilege, which, y’know, is like an umbrella term for lots of things that most well-adjusted people and compassionate people would avoid being openly prideful about. Like “Oh I’m really proud to be light-skinned or white or thin or straight”. I think there’s an awareness by now that the social rewards for these things tend to come at the expense of some other group. I find it so fascinating how people are, like, spreading this message that the aim is to essentially feel better, relative to whoever. Learning about body neutrality kind of changed my life, like “oh I don't have to be in love with everything I see in the mirror or to feel like the most attractive person in the room to be worthy”.
E: It reminds me of the new Calm campaign “just do what gets you through”. Like, every time I feel like shit, people are like “oh well why don't you try meditating and why don't you try this and that” and I’m like… I actually don't want to. I don't like it and what I really want to do is have a crunchie and sit in my bed for the rest of the day.
A: Yeah try being severely depressed or anxious and doing a meditation, like, it's just not
going to work. The fact that people have experiences of UK crisis teams telling them to try having a hot bath or a cuppa is just unbelievable. When one of my clients gets heavy news, we’ll go through things they can do to look after themselves. If they happen to enjoy a hot drink, that might come up as a suggestion, but I’m never going to tell someone who’s suicidal, “have a hot drink”. And look, I’ve done work for crisis teams in the past so I’m not sure exactly how some of these wires have gotten crossed. These are self-soothing things but that's not a way to deal with a crisis.
A: I’m an ISVA (Independent Sexual Violence Advocate), and within that, an LGBT+ and children and young adult’s ISVA - which is quite a specialist role - I don't know how many of
us there are in the UK.
E: How did you train for that? How do you avoid taking baggage home with you?
A: I’d already worked in mental health, in youth work and in sexual violence support work
and I still do quite a lot of queer advocacy work too, so this job kind of combined them all.
But you actually start the ISVA job before you start the training *chuckles* so -
S & E: (in unison and with concern) Wowwww
A: So yeah you kind of have to figure it out. The training wasn’t too intense; it was like two days a month for six months and then you qualify.
It is really intense and I think the mentally draining aspect has peaks and troughs. A lot of it comes down to how resilient you are as a human, at the time. I don't think it's a constant kind of characteristic. Our resilience goes up and down all the time.
S & E: *murmurs and sounds of agreement*
A: I like visualisation and I visualise resilience as a shield. Like sometimes it's up and it's
strong, sometimes your shield is a bit worn away…When I’m feeling vulnerable, my
boundaries aren’t as good. When I’m in a good place, my boundaries are.. stunnin’. They
call me “boundary queen” at work so -
E: That's a good title!
S: I think the shield thing is powerful because it really illustrates that even when you go
through phases of feeling shaky and vulnerable, the feelings that crop up aren’t necessarily a commentary on your whole character or your overall strength or anything. It’s not a permanent state of being.
A: Exactly. When it comes to self-care and separating work from my personal life, I do stuff like, creating routines for myself. I start the day in a certain way and finish it in a certain way. My client call phone is only on during my working hours and at the end of the day I'll have an hour for admin and then an hour to wind down.
I've actually also been getting into the gym, like I’ve become a bit of a Gymbro!
I’m joking but I have genuinely found that lifting weight has helped a lot with stuff like chronic pain that's been made worse by trauma - including the vicarious trauma you get from other people.
E: How does that work? Is it a release or something?
A: Partly, but it's also just making me a lot stronger. Before, a lot of my muscles were quite weak as I have stuff including hyper-mobility, a curved spine and fiber…fibro… I dunno man, all these Terms. My sexuality terms are enough as it is.
*laughter erupts once again*
A: Because of that, I get flare-ups and at times I'll be bed-bound for like 2 days. Doctors
never really helped me, they’ve just told me to lose weight -
A: Anyway the weights have helped me get stronger and manage pain like that. But also it’s definitely a release. Those things just help me switch off and have fun like…JoyJoyJoy. I've actually reduced the amount of time I spend on social media doing activism stuff because I was experiencing zero joy. I was just spending 9-5 doing trauma, sexual violence, heavy content and then logging into instagram and doing a whole evening of mental health, trauma, intersectional feminism and like… it’s just too much.
E: Do you get any hate on instagram?
A: To be honest I’ve put in controls so that I don't get so much hate anymore. So, like, you can only comment if you follow me, that kind of stuff - because I just couldn’t be arsed with it. I got so much hate and it was just like, sad men on the internet who need therapy and friends! Incels and stuff.
S: It’s wild because “incel” (involuntarily celibate) is such a dramatic term, but the ideology has trickled into the mainstream in such an insidious way.
E & A: *murmurs of agreement*
S: Like men are - well not to generalise, but a lot of men and boys are being radicalised in these online spaces without even really being aware of it like.. these podcast bros.
*cue groans from all three of us*
A: Yeah I’m never going on Reddit and searching my name. Like, I just don’t need to know! Incels are like our friends’ boyfriends and shit. I’ve had friends no longer speak to me because their boyfriend has said they don’t like our relationship because I’m a “bad influence”. For example, I’ve had friends start accepting their bodies and stop trying hard to change themselves and suddenly their boyfriends will be like “why the fuck have you stopped doing xyz? Is it because of this girl?”
And these are people’s lovely :) boyfriends :) and everyone likes pictures of you because you look so good together :) and it's like… Incels aren’t just unsocialised people behind computer screens, they are people we know -
S: In real life. Who are charismatic, who have a community of people who love them and
know a very sweet version of them.
E: I think it's kind of a spectrum because incel is such a specific term, whereas sometimes I think it's actually just... Misogyny.
A: Of course, misogyny.
S: Good ol’ misogyny.
Annie Wade Smith X SHAG
Written by Sav Moyo
Photographed by Ellie Softley