Madison Drew | 29/12/2023
We might have all just scrambled together our New Year’s resolutions, but activist, speaker and writer Gina Martin is evolving all year round- personally and in her work.
Gina reached a new level in the public eye after her pivotal upskirting campaign that set social media alight. Resulting in upskirting now being illegal in the UK as the Voyeurism Act- alleviating women of all statuses of some fears when in public. However, the reality of being engraved on that legacy holds a considerable weight, something that Gina had to overcome.
“I think with activists of any type. Especially if you've been very visible in a campaign, which I've been super visible in my campaigns, my first campaign especially, you are constantly called strong, resilient, all the time or like a change maker or all this language that is about how much you have done and how much you have withstood and what you've fought... usually, we're talking in those terms about activists, or advocates, and the subtext of that is “how much shit can you handle?” she says.
“How much can you go through at the hands of other people?” It came to a point where I had to be like; I don't just want to talk about being abused online and being stalked and being sexually assaulted. I do so much work. And that is kind of what people are asking about all the time. And I didn't realise for a long time, I thought, well, those stories are important because they're people's hearts and minds in the reality of what women are experiencing.” She says about her experiences within activism after the Upskirting Bill. “It just makes people believe that I'm really strong on a level that they can just put as much on my plate and ask me as much as they want. No one deals with you more softly when you’ve been called strong or resilient or changemaker, or they don't deal with you more gently. They ask more of you.”
“The whole point is that they're trying,” Martin continues. “the best way to engage with an activist is to do it yourself. It’s to listen to what they're saying and engage yourself in your own ways that you find challenging.”
Like Margot Robbie’s Barbie, Gina has always been on her own path. She said no to an OBE, steering away from the UK politics scene and moving to Australia. Her move down under may seem confusing (and daunting for herself), but Martin is more concerned now about tackling issues than ever- in her new approach in bringing meaningful action for herself and society. Since living in Melbourne, she feels so much better working in a place where she’s fought back from the pedestal the world put her on.
“I started this work on the ground with people in an office job on 25 grand a year. And I started the campaign, sitting at my office, and then I'm going to rooms of survivors and victims, and we're talking about experiences, and then I'm writing, I'm interviewing them, and then I'm, you know, creating campaign ads, and I'm running focus groups. I'm just in rooms with people who live this reality….
Because my first campaign was so successful, I changed a lot. I just got put on a pedestal and I got moved from those people; I was in lots of rooms with very important people, which was very exciting and great. But there was a feeling of ‘hang on, why am I not with these people anymore?’ There was no in-between, and there was no normalcy; there was no walking into a room and people- very rarely -people not knowing about my work or not knowing who I am,” she explains. “And I really need that because if we're going to have conversations around gender, we're going to have these really difficult conversations that are going to help people and move their lives along and move their mental health along. They need to meet me on a level. We need to go in there zero to zero.”
“It's been a really special and really joyful to be back in where I started when I was twenty- five/twenty-six, which was being real to people and talking about this reality and building something person from person to person to person, which is grassroots change, I love that it's a really joyful place to be.” Gina says on her new work in Australia.
HATC talks to Gina Martin about dealing with the responsibilities of being an accomplished gender equality activist in her thirties and why sometimes saying no can be the right action.
HATC: You're based in Australia, big move. How are you finding it?
G: Yeah, it's really interesting. I think it's like one of those things where it was always going to happen for me and my partner, and there's nothing that can quite prepare you for adequately moving that far away, especially if you have super strong bonds to your family and friends.
The move took about a year and a half for visa and everything, and I shipped everything five months before and just lived in a house with like one spoon. It was really a wild relocation. And it just took such a long time to settle the other side. But with everything, it's been way more challenging than I thought and at the same time, it's forced me to grow and reckon with stuff that I wasn't wanting to reckon with or think about. So, I'm really navigating my way through everything from being away from family and friends to what it means to try and create community as an adult, build a community and support system and navigating culture with my work and how they do this type of work over there.
It's the weird things. Just, you know, missing Halloween and bonfire night because it's so warm, I forget that it's even on. But I still think it’s the absolute right decision to move, and I'm really glad I've done it. I think I'm going to grow a lot as a person because of it. It’s, definitely one of the hardest things I've done, but definitely the right thing to do.
HATC: What is something that you're enjoying from the move that you didn't necessarily think you would?
G: Everyone will be like, “Well, obviously, Gina!” because this is all anyone ever says, but I genuinely didn't rate this as a big thing. I'm a winter person. I love cold weather. I love being cosy. I love the culture around winter. I don't like summer clothes because I don't feel comfortable showing my body loads. So, winter has always just been my thing. We've moved to Australia, and everyone's like, “Oh my god, the weather makes such a difference to the mood”, it does!
I've never been a morning person to the degree that everyone around me who is a morning person thinks "Oh god, you can’t get out of bed.” I’ve always set nine alarms and always struggled. And then in Melbourne, I'll get up at like eight, and it's just so sunny. I walk the dog before work and want to be up in the morning, and I feel like one of those people who's got their lives together a bit more which has just never been how I’ve felt!
HATC: It must be nice to have some natural things, like the weather, be so effective for your lifestyle.
G: I can’t believe I’m saying Melbourne is sunny but you know, compared to Britain, there's no real summer days and winter days.
The other thing that's just life-changing is just how much space everyone has. I think that can seem like a simple thing, but you can pick your own pace. And you can feel comfortable at that pace all day. I was living in a one-bed flat in London, and now I'm living in a three-bed, two-bathroom house with a garden for the same price. And just on the streets, when you're in the busiest part of town, it's not so stressful. It's buzzy, there's loads of energy, but there's just something about having that space, and not being on top of everyone. In outdoor spaces, fresh air and sunshine just make a difference. We need that.
HATC: We live in a world and society where social media has such an impact- negative and positive. It must’ve been such a nice thing creating the Vitamin P series online that people looked forward to, but also for yourself.
G: Ultimately, [Vitamin P] started in COVID as we were talking about collective care around COVID. We were talking about isolating and doing whatever was going to keep people alive, right? This is where vitamin P began.
I just wanted there to be a sort of respite from how difficult social media is and also, more importantly, a glimpse into what we're trying to look after as a society. All these people are all funny and unique and loving and complicated. And they’re getting on with it in different ways.
I think it has now kind of turned into a slightly different reason I do it, which is recognising how much we have left to fight for because I think activism can feel like a zero-sum game. In the public, people who aren't engaged or awake to social justice can look at activists and be like, ‘You’re only doing it if you can change it.’ ‘If you can stop climate change, then okay, I'll join. ‘If you can solve sexual violence, then yeah, I'll join. '
And I think a lot of us, if not most of us, are in this work with a realistic sense of optimism. That is, there isn't a world in which we stop all of this stuff. But there is a world in which every project campaign action makes a difference. If you could commit your entire life to climate justice and be part of a team of biologists who repopulate a certain species in a certain area, that would be enough. Because it's about all the small incremental changes and all the things that we can say, that we can advocate for, that we can give more choice to, or that we can give safety or welfare to, and all the individuals that are impacted by our work. It's not about solving all of it, or saving everyone, or keeping everyone safe or giving everyone a choice. We'd love that. But it might not always happen that way.
And so, Vitamin P became a way to be like, look at all the beauty in the world, and then create fun just for themselves in our living rooms and have silly moments of connection with that. There's so much worth for us to fight for. And you have to remember that because we don't see that in the news. I think we really would do well to remember that and, more importantly, consciously fill our brains with that. So, we're not just becoming completely full of everything that’s served in the news about how awful everyone is and how messed up everything is, although there’s a lot of that, we need to really heed the messaging of it.
HATC: It does have an impact on someone, even if it's like a short moment or a few seconds, where someone has watched something that makes them smile. We underestimate the small things in life.
G: I think so. I think joy is a really big part of this work. And hope and joy really are part of what keeps me going. I haven't done [Vitamin P] consistently for the past few months.
Sometimes, it's hard to do [Vitamin P] when I'm having a really bad day. So, I've tried to be more intuitive about what I do now. But I have people who messaged me and like, ‘We gather around, me and my son and my daughter watch vitamin P together and his teenager, and I don't really see him that much. We get together and watch this, and we laugh at that stuff. And I love it, and I just want to thank you for that...” well, yeah, of course, and it also keeps people off of TikTok who just feel like another platform that would ruin their lives!
HATC: I think joy is the first thing we forget sometimes.
G: Yeah, it's the first thing to go. And I think that's because of the system we live in is created for that to happen. We're not meant to be prioritising joy and connection. We're meant to be prioritising labour, and what role we’re put under, what role is given to us in terms of capitalism, and the ways in which we're controlled by capitalism.
But I also think because of that system, we think of hope as a nebulous thing. And actually, it's something we create for each other with the actions we take, like me doing Vitamin P or, the way someone treats you, you know, in the shop or someone asking for help and then someone showing up in ways that are unexpected from someone they don't know. Those things are what create hope, and a proliferation of hope throughout communities. I think social media can give you that or it can give you the opposite. But we recognise how valuable and important it is to have that kind of hope and joy. And we also don't realise that we can create it for each other.
HATC: The label of a political activist. I can imagine that, as wonderful as it is, and I'm sure it has a heavy responsibility. It must be hard to always switch off, and have it leak into everyday life?
G: That's probably the biggest challenge, I would say. It's a constant personal struggle. There's a level of responsibility. And for years, that level of responsibility really impacted me.
For years, I would be like, these problems are so big, I have to work for them. I work at them all the time because there's never going to be enough that I can do that would be enough to solve or pay my dues in terms of these issues. So, I can't really ever switch off. And I didn't think about that consciously. It was just sort of subconsciously happening.
I was working in advertising before I became an activist. So, I was working in an office with no money, and then I suddenly tripped into activism. And I feel like I didn't have the tools to navigate it. So, I can understand why 25-year-old me was like, ‘You have to work really hard all the time.’ And it's that kind of hustle mindset but applied to something that shouldn't be like that.
Because it's unsustainable for you to be staring these types of things in the face and working on 100% capacity, and trying to fire on all cylinders, all the time. Especially because you're living in the reality of those problems, too, so, you're living in the world, as a woman, you're dealing with the reality of lots of misogyny and sexual violence, all kinds of things that you've already experienced. And then, on top of that, you're trying to both change those systems and educate everyone around you about them. And it took a few years, I'd say about four years, for me to fully internalise and understand the reality of taking breaks and rest and leaning into joy and not applying this work as some kind of punishment for my privilege. That's the way it actually has to work because if I don't navigate this work like that, I will give up. It’s too hard. And if I want to dedicate my life to this work, I have to find a way to be present in this work without giving up. It took a long time for me to realise that those breaks, or not feeling – if someone messages me about something that's happening in the world – that I have to spend ten days information cramming so that I can speak on it, because I have to speak on it because they want me to speak.
When your work is just your belief system and the way you see the world, it becomes even harder to tap out. I've done a lot of work in therapy on that.
HATC: Putting boundaries on work can be tough.
G: And that doesn't look like what we always think. It's not like taking a bath for an hour. It's not just about moving my body into different situations in which I'm not working. It's also about, like, saying no to a bunch of stuff or being okay with letting people down. I have to be safe in the knowledge that I'm doing enough. And I get to the end of the day to be able to look in the mirror and be like, you did enough today, and I know how you feel genuinely in your heart about this work and how it activates you and how much research you put in on certain projects.
And so if I had to look in my mirror and be okay with that, I'd be comfortable with how much I'm doing and how much I know about different things and the ways in which I'm showing up, and if I can do that, then it makes it a lot easier. To say no to stuff makes it a lot easier to tap out or not try to meet other people's expectations. That's a hard thing to do.
I think for a long time, there was an evaluation for me of, like, is this by this guilt? What is this like white guilt as well as this like guilt about my privilege? Which is why I'm pushing myself to a level that is unsustainable in this work. And is that actually what anyone's asked for? Has anyone asked you to do that? Has anyone said that the best way for you to help is the ways that you're showing, not because they're coming from guilt and they involve shame and the ways that you're showing up and not showing up for the right reasons?
And it takes years to get to a place where you start to see a difference. it's usually in how you react to people that you see the difference. I see the difference in how I react to people when they ask things. Now, I'm very calm, and I'm very comfortable saying, like, I'm doing too much yesterday that I don't need to do this right now. In the beginning, it felt cold-hearted. But now I recognise this is an act of love. Because I'm saying, I won't be able to continue this work in the way that I do in a way that's genuinely effective for people on the ground and genuinely effective if you don't allow me to make my own decisions about how show up and how much I do.
HATC: Your book, “No Offence, But..”, tackles some of the most common conversation-stopping pauses and tries to help people equip themselves in order to deal with these. Was the book something that you felt was really important to bridge that gap and give people the confidence to deal with certain situations?
G: Yeah, I think exactly that. I think it was less about “if you do these ABCDEFG things then the conversation will go great”, and more about giving them a space where they could go and recognise where these phrases were coming up in our lives. It was really important that I created something that was what I'd been asked for, like six years, which was every event I've ever done. Every inbox I have is women saying like, “How do I respond to this misogynistic thing without crying? I actually don't know what to say or know if I'm right. But it's like, every time I try and speak about it, I just get frustrated, and the words don't come.”
So, I'm going to take 10 of the most frustrating, misogynistic, sexist or common phrases that we hear that stop conversations. And I'm going to respond to those and show you how I kind of think about them. I think the more we understand where the phrase comes from, where the language comes from, and what the ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and culture are behind it, the easier it is to pick it up and have a conversation about it. And then get ten other writers, advocates and activists who I have learned from, and write on phrases that we hear in culture and in the media all the time. It's a way into conversations around social justice, that can often feel quite scary. It’s unpicking where they come from, where those risks come from, why we say them, or what they do in conversation. I think something that just allows you to build confidence in why you feel the way you do when you hear them. And why do you want to say the things you want to say when you hear them?
The culture and the society we live in, that's completely normalised that is the default, like racism, and transphobia, and sexism, ableism, and all these things are the default. So, the person who is disrupting that becomes a real problem. We wanted to create a book where readers felt like there wasn't so much of a problem, ultimately, and where not only could they understand where these phrases showed up in culture, but they could also start to think about how having a conversation about them can be more constructive than that frustration, and that escalation, which happens every time.
HATC: What's something that you’re enjoying for yourself right now?
G: I work in schools. I work with year 9’s, 10’s and 11’s on programmes and their schools that are around what it means to be socialised as a woman today, and all the pressures that they're dealing with, and we go through activities and build tools for them to take up space and use their voices. And however hard those rooms can be, and how beautiful they can be because a beautiful a lot of the time has lots of opening up and you know, lots of support and lots of honesty and vulnerability, and they put trust in me and the other facilitators to hold that space for them for a few hours. It's just really beautiful to see people showing up, and the people I work with in Melbourne are… I’ve genuinely never worked with a group of people who are so compassionate in my life. There's only a small group of us, and they are, so conscious, and all working on themselves and showing up to these rooms with unending patience and unending compassion.
That brings me so much joy because for a long time, I was in rooms of politicians, and rooms with commercial people who, you know, care about it, but don't really care about it, they don’t commit their lives to it. And they might respect it, but I always felt like the odd one out. Now I'm in a room with people who care every day, and that's given me so much joy. It's bringing me a real, I find, I really finally feel like I have a place in Melbourne. I found my people, and that's really special to be able to wake to want to wake up at 6am and go into schools for these people. It's really purposeful.
Gina’s book “No Offence But…” is available now.
Follow Gina Martin’s work over on socials (@ginamartin)
Words Madison Drew
Creative Alice Gee
Photography Betty Oxlade-Martin
Styling Beatriz Francisco Severino
Styling assistant Izzy Taylor
MUA Charlie Murray
Hair Charles Stanley
Gina Wears Shoes by Pleiades and Jacket & Pants (Denim) by Kata Haratym