We found Jen Smith on TikTok. The one doing sick roller skating tricks in TomboyX -- sometimes just undies? That’s Jen. We got to sit down with her for an interview and talked religious upbringing, survivor stories, and empowerment through education. She might be the smartest person we know.
Jen Smith: I was raised in a devoutly religious home, and I was homeschooled. The church was incredibly strict about gender roles, and I think that made me feel a lot of pressure to fit into the heteronormative stereotype of what it means to be feminine. There's this Old Testament verse they would throw out to the congregation, that says a woman shouldn’t wear anything pertaining to a man. I looked at the verses around it and there was another that said you shouldn’t wear mixed blend fabrics, so I asked my youth pastor, ‘So if this verse is correct, what about this verse over here? Does it mean that polyester-blend suits are wrong in the eyes of god, too?’ He wore a lot of polyester suits. Not long after that, the head pastor told my parents I was an abomination.
The answer to every query was, “god did it!" -- which made me want to ask more questions. I think that’s where I developed my insatiable curiosity as a communicator.
I started out as a music major. Then I got a job as a copy assistant at my local newspaper at 18, and very quickly my career path turned to journalism. I fell in love with the newsroom. I learned about this big wide world I’d been sheltered from.
These days I’m working in higher education managing marketing and communications for a division at a public university in the Midwest. Hopefully I’ll graduate with a master's in communications this year. Next, I’m thinking about going for a terminal degree, or at the very least continuing my education. Long-term, if I could pursue my most fanciful dream, it might be to learn and earn degrees at esteemed institutions -- in locales around the world that have skate parks and roller derby teams!
TomboyX: What’s your thesis topic?
JS: It’s a content analysis examining media coverage of a specific event. What I’m trying to get at is, how are the stories of trauma survivors and victims reflected in news content? Late last year, several people tragically died in a vehicular rampage through a holiday parade in a Milwaukee suburb. The suspect was out on bail after allegedly running down his intimate partner with the same vehicle and severely injuring her. My research seeks to quantify how much of this original story is giving context to the narrative surrounding this larger tragedy, and explore the differences in how domestic and community violence are covered as private versus public matters.
TBX: Do you have a favorite story you worked on as a journalist?
JS: Just a year out of college as a young reporter covering crime and courts, I met a woman about to finally see some justice for sexual abuse as a child by her stepfather. She asked if I was going to write an article about his sentencing, and wanted to know if she could be identified and tell me her story. That’s not something journalists usually do -- print the names of survivors, let alone give them a centerpiece article -- but the editors at my small-town newspaper agreed to help this woman raise her voice. Prosecutors had reached a plea deal where her abuser would be incarcerated, and she felt safe enough to speak out. Giving her a platform to explain the persistence of her painstaking journey to a conviction felt like one of the most important things I had ever done.
Even so, I don't think I comprehended until years later when I was living through domestic abuse how much that could mean to someone to get it right and to give them a voice. Because that’s the first thing that you lose when you’re victimized: you lose the ability to speak out.
Skating and learning to love myself again by moving and not worrying about what I’m wearing has just been so liberating. That partner was very controlling of my body and appearance. Being free of all that and just rolling in the breeze and not covering up like I always used to, it feels really good. I’m working on healing these days.
TBX: How did you find roller derby?
JS: I discovered derby by happenstance in 2006, taking the train into Chicago to go to the zoo with friends. This huge group of mostly women got on and they were loud and laughing and a few of them were carrying their skates. I was just like, ‘who are these people? Because they seem really cool and they have neat tattoos and they say what they want and wear what they want.’ They told me about roller derby. I loved skating -- I was a rink rat growing up. It felt rebellious because I never played sports as a kid (it’s kinda hard when you’re homeschooled). I got home that night and I immediately was just searching everything I could find about roller derby and figured out that my hometown was starting a league that summer. I went to my first practice at the rink and I just got hooked. Roller derby has been the fixture in my life that has outlived just about any job, relationship, anything. I play with the Barbed Wire Betties in DeKalb, Illinois (it’s the birthplace of barbed wire; that’s our claim to fame).
TBX: Tell me about your relationship with clothing, through all the identities you’ve had in your life.
JS: I think a lot of woman-identifying individuals would say they’ve had a love-hate relationship with clothing. Growing up, I hated how clothing was, and still is, very much gendered. And of course, I was bothered by the litany of church-enforced rules policing modest dress for girls and women, lest we cause a man to lust. I didn’t even own pants or shorts until I was a much older teenager. So, I suppose I grew up expecting what I wore to be weaponized. And being a person of size also made me believe my body was a problem. I would dread going shopping, because none of the clothes in the junior's section seemed as though they were made for me. I felt shame wearing anything more fitted, because it felt wrong to show the shape of my body.
Honestly, I was still really scared the first time I wore just one of your bras and 9” Boxers on the bike path last year. It was like a hundred degrees, and I saw this older gentleman jogging shirtless without a care in the world and thought to myself, y’know, if that guy can do it and he can feel confident about his body, what am I waiting for? So I tried it, and had the sense to record it, and that’s the video that kind of blew up. TomboyX has really changed how I see my body's expression through clothing. You paved the way for all the gender neutral brands -- it’s a good revolution.
TBX: What does your perfect world look like?
JS: If everyone had free access to an enlightening education, I believe we would be well on our way to a perfect world. Making school and college more equitable means more humans being empowered by limitless learning. Obviously, better funding education at all levels is a good start in our current reality.
As an aspiring feminist scholar, I am growing into understanding that the greatest benefit to humanity comes from addressing power imbalances between hegemonic groups and "othered" outsiders. The more I learn, the more I rethink everything in our global society driven by borders, the bottom dollar and an imagined gender binary.
After struggling into my 30s before coming out as pansexual, seeing compulsory heterosexuality increasingly disappear from the ideals of the generation coming of age now may be the most personally meaningful way I see the world being made more perfect now. Gen Z is doing a lot of work driving social change beyond gender and sexuality, too, and their intellectual labor is so inspiring to this old Millennial. I hope all of us older generations will help them save the world, or at least get out of the way.
You can (and should) find Jen on TikTok at @RainbowConnecJen.