At 5-foot-10 with glossy black hair, dark eyes and a spunky Bombay accent that could charm just about anybody, Sarah Sham is the kind of girl that commands the spotlight.
Dressed all in black and surrounded by a dozen other women, the sophomore stands front and center on stage in the East Duke building, breaking the silence as her accent tumbles out of her mouth and fills the room.
"Have you ever burned your bra?" she asks. "I've tried."
The audience titters slightly. So far, the women on stage have taken them up and down emotionally, speaking about everything from fish fetishes to marijuana use to a haunting abortion.
But this monologue-the final one before intermission-isn't supposed to be a downer. This one is supposed to make them laugh.
As Sham continues-her story eventually culminates with Duke Student Government President Elliott Wolf tossing said bra into the women's basketball bonfire and asking her on a date-the audience does laugh, captivated by the lively woman performing in front of them.
Like Sham, all of the actresses on stage in the play All of the Above are performing monologues, each of them written by anonymous Duke women, so that people will laugh. And so that people will cry. And, most importantly, so that people will listen.
"We are so quick to judge on campus who these people are," says senior Gul Tuysuz, one of the three directors of this year's production. "These are not things that happen to not just one type of person, they're things that happen to all women, funny or sad. I want the audience to know that what they're judging people with is not necessarily what they really are."
Five years ago, there was nothing to hear. There were no voices, no monologues and no audiences. All that was there was a cause for concern.
Spurred by then-President Nan Keohane's Women's Initiative, published May 2003, "effortless perfection" became the catch phrase used to describe the ultimate goal of the ideal woman on Duke's campus. Through research involving both current Duke students and alumni, the Initiative identified several pressures that regularly wear on undergraduate women-particularly the pressure to present an outwardly flawless image.
Growing up in India, Sham had never heard the phrase "effortless perfection" in her life before she arrived at Duke.
"I didn't see it at all at first," she says. "I was like, 'Effortless perfection? What is that?'"
Two years later, though, Sham-also a Baldwin Scholar-is more than just aware of the cultural influences that affect women on campus-they are something she sees around her every day.
"We're just expected to wake up in the morning every day and walk out the door and have perfect skin and a perfect ass and look perfect and get straight A's," she says. "And if for some reason we can't do that, it's just like-shit. And the reality is everyone is struggling with this."
Donna Lisker, director of the Duke Women's Center and a member of the Women's Initiative Steering Committee, says the issues that affect Duke women are not unique to the University, but rather represent long-term challenges that colleges across the country are trying to tackle.
"There are things we try to do to address it, but we all understand that we can't measure the success of the Women's Initiative by asking, 'Well, has effortless perfection gone away?'-it's not going to," Lisker says. "All we can do is intervene and try to get the message out that there are more important ways to judge oneself than by how thin you are or what you wear, and we're not the only ones that are trying to deal with that."
Five years post-Women's Initiative, Duke's best strategy to address the issues of undergraduate women's identity on campus has been to work toward fostering a sense of awareness and a supportive environment.
The administration's direct response to the Women's Initiative report was the creation of the Baldwin Scholars program in the fall of 2004. The Baldwin Scholars, which includes 18 undergraduate women in each class starting with the Class of 2008, is a group dedicated to inspiring and supporting women in academic, social and leadership roles on campus.
Through mentoring, dialogue, guest speakers and individual projects, Baldwin Scholars at Duke are working to create an environment of respect both within their own group and across campus.
"We've sort of had the task of finding what we want our definitive mission to be," says Nathalie Basile, a junior and a Baldwin Scholar who has acted in All of the Above for the past three years. "We're all headed in separate directions, but we're all headed toward the same goal. It's such an amazing support group."
The administration, however, was not the only group to take action and respond to the stir the Women's Initiative report generated on campus. Enter All of the Above, the brainchild of Mary Adkins, Trinity '04.
"Everybody was talking about it, including my roommates and I," Adkins remembers. "One of my roommates and I thought it would be interesting to do something presenting a collection of monologues from anybody who wanted to write one, and also to try to bring a group of women together that included people from different segments of the University that wouldn't normally overlap."
Like the support network provided by the Baldwin Scholars program, the visible product of All of the Above is just half of its contribution to improving campus culture for women.
For Basile, the personal experience of sharing another woman's story-a narrative the writer may not have had the courage to publicly share on her own-was valuable in its own right. Basile says one of her monologues-a story about a woman who loves vintage dresses but is concerned about the message they convey-helped her overcome her own conflicting thoughts on the social pressures women face.
"It was like a light came on," Basile says. "It's difficult to try to be the all-encompassing woman because you're questioned on both sides. It's important to just do what you want to do and be who you want to be. The only way to dispel these thoughts is to just suck it up. And that's what part of being a Baldwin Scholar is really about-breaking down these barriers."
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