When users search image banks for the word “girl,” these two words are most likely to accompany it: hot and sexy.
So, it’s no wonder that, even if you aren’t searching a stock image site for pictures of “sexy girls,” the results for “girl” are still full of beautiful women and picture-perfect models.
Hot and sexy. Is that all we expect from girls? And is that how girls want to be represented?
Not exactly, it turns out. So, as part of Plan International USA’s We Are the Girls campaign, we partnered with Unsplash and a group of girls in the U.S. to rewrite the algorithm and fight back against gender stereotypes.
Why stock photos matter
Stock images are more common than you might think. Creators all over the world use them in everything from magazine covers to Facebook ads to news stories, and sources range from free sites like Unsplash to paid services like Getty Images. And because a stock photo must communicate a specific message quickly and clearly, these image banks provide a unique perspective on our stereotypes and expectations.
Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, famously said that “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Imagine everything girls could be if they saw themselves authentically represented in the images around them. Now imagine if the world around them saw that too.
Drumroll please: Introducing Girls Out Loud
Here at Plan International USA, we believe in the power of girls. We’ve been cultivating young leaders since 1937, and we’ve seen what they can do when they work together.
That’s why our We Are the Girls campaign focuses on bringing girls together to create change. In the U.S., we’ve gathered a group of girls between the ages of 13 and 18, who we’re calling Girls Out Loud, to help guide this effort. Through our private Instagram account, these girls safely share their thoughts and feelings about the experience of being a girl today — and talk about ways we can create change together.
The first topic the Girls Out Loud have tackled is representation of girls in stock imagery. Plan USA partnered with Unsplash, the internet’s source of freely usable visuals, to rethink the way girls are seen and revamp stock images to represent girls on their own terms. To start, we shared some of the top pictures of girls from Unsplash’s giant library of high-quality photos with the Girls Out Loud, and asked them whether they truly represented what it means to be a girl today.
Their freeform responses were insightful and poignant, using words like “bold” and “strong,” and celebrating self-expression. In feedback about photos they thought were not representative, the girls talked about unrealistic beauty standards and pointed out poses that looked staged. They also noted how photos of “girls” often actually show women, and that girls don’t always have to be portrayed as traditionally feminine.
Improving the algorithm
Unsplash took this feedback to their community of photographers, along with a challenge: submit photos of real, confident girls that break barriers and promote gender equality. From Aug. 15 to Sept. 15, hundreds of photos were submitted to Unsplash’s “Girls vs. Stereotypes” topic. Then, we took the submissions back to the Girls Out Loud to select their top 10 favorites.
So, without further ado, here are the winning photos!
Beyond inspiring photographers to submit a new portfolio of authentic photos of girls to their library, Unsplash is also making these changes more impactful by changing their search algorithm. To combat the societal biases that artificial intelligence perpetuates through search results, Unsplash is adding diversity tags to images, which will drive more inclusive photos to the top of the results. Because when you change the algorithm, you change people’s perceptions of what a girl is, how she (or they) want to be seen and the power of authentic representation.