This time last year, I entered my freshman dorm and met the initially intimidating group of girls living on my hall. I felt like everyone was smarter and more accomplished than me, richer than me and definitely prettier than me. I went from the familiar solitude of my house to being in a hall of smart, accomplished, rich and pretty girls. Duke girls.
The issue, though, is that I never saw myself as one of the girls surrounding me. We all attend the same college — literally living in the same dorm — and I didn’t think I could measure up to them.
But for most women, that doesn't stop us from trying.
This July, Duke sophomores Riley Hicks and Claire Kraemer launched The Coop, an online publication created by Duke women, for Duke women. The bold orange site features a beautiful blend of satirical articles and serious conversations about equality and image, all designed to bring Duke’s women together and reject the unspoken competition between us. After examining existing publications and noticing a lack of freedom and inclusivity, the founders decided to launch their own site over the summer.
“We didn’t feel like there was a place for people to publish whatever they wanted, a place where they don’t have to abide by a certain culture or censor the image they’re supposed to uphold,” Hicks said in a virtual interview. “We wanted to have an unfiltered space where people could post what they want and any version of anyone’s self is accepted.”
They started reaching out to students who were already involved in publications, talking to people from past classes and posting their application on Instagram — merely in an attempt to find contributors. What they discovered, however, was a variety of perspectives and styles searching for a stage without restrictions.
“Everyone had something to contribute,” Hicks explained. “Everyone has a different voice and no one’s writing about the same thing. Everyone’s coming from different places and backgrounds, which is what we wanted. The goal for us is to create an environment where people feel like they aren’t alone in their thoughts or opinions. That someone else is writing something — maybe it’s vulnerable, maybe it’s funny — but something that somebody else can connect to. I think it’s especially important for women in general to have an all-inclusive community to fall back on.”
Community is often a source of stability, especially in a school of eager students looking to climb the ranks through a stressful (and to most, seemingly impossible) combination of courses and activities. This competitive atmosphere extends to physical appearance, and consequently, eating habits. Women at Duke are more than twice as likely to suffer from anorexia nervosa than the general population — a dangerous trend not uncommon at elite universities. To avoid feeding into the masked disorder, the indulgent recipes featured on The Coop’s “Chow” section are intentionally anti-diet. One writer, Betsy Blitch, addresses the importance of nutrition to brain health on her own blog, “Smart Girls Gotta Eat.” These recipes — simple as they may appear — normalize enjoying cookies and lasagna, encouraging readers to view dishes as art instead of a necessary evil.
“There is enormous pressure, but it’s very much under the radar. It’s just something that we’ve accepted,” Kraemer said. “There’s always been the unspoken 'effortless perfection' of Duke’s campus, and opening a really honest dialogue about mental health, eating disorders and this pressure is really important. Especially since we can’t be together physically, creating an online platform where we can create some sort of community is really important.”
The Duke social scene is not immune to perfectionism either: Greek life and SLGs are infamously built upon exclusivity. As Coop writer Olwyn Bartis writes, the superficial and classist process of joining Greek organizations “establishes an unhealthily competitive and destructive environment, in which members’ mental health and personal wellbeing becomes compromised.” The expectations involved in rushing these organizations often enforce a silencing conformity and anxiety over status. The Coop is providing a platform for women that is more focused on their voice than their image.
“I feel like The Coop could become something really important that you don’t have to sign up for, you don’t have to rush for, you don’t have to apply for,” Kraemer said. “You can just go on and interact with people. That’s what I see the future of Coop being: an all-inclusive community.”
Their bold orange is representative of the effortlessly unapologetic nature of The Coop: from the playful and pensive photo series of their “Capture” section to articles confronting mental health stigmas, the blog’s honesty and enthusiasm provides a sense of comfort during undeniably uncomfortable times.
“I think women can be more competitive just because we are very strong in general, and at Duke we have a very strong voice,” Hicks said. “We want to keep voicing our opinion and voicing that we are doing everything amazing, that we can’t let down our communities and society. We need to be doing things constantly to prove ourselves. That should not be the case, because that’s not reality.”
What stands out to me, however, is not merely the presence of a female-dominated space, but how reading through a female-dominated publication helps me realize what we’re capable of when we’re unafraid to say whatever we want. Each article and photo series on The Coop not only presents vibrant individuality, but a desire to connect with and understand the world — even if it’s through “exciting” quarantine activities or a Carrie Bradshaw analysis.
We are sorority girls and women in STEM and entrepreneurs and cool Coffeehouse indie chicks. We can be simultaneously all of these and so much more. We’re smart, strong, caring and radiant girls. Duke girls.
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