While exploring the lectures and events on Claiming Williams Day, you may have been startled by a t-shirt that stuck out among the typical sea of Patagonias and furry parkas. For a split second, it looked like a varsity sport shirt with “WILLIAMS” printed across the chest in capital block letters above the telltale cow insignia. However, a second glance would have revealed letters printed in an acid yellow rather than warm gold, the slot typically reserved for a sport replaced with the word “DEPRESSION” and a cow that looked like it had seen better days.
These shirts are the work of Erin Hanson ’19, who designed the first Williams Depression t-shirt for herself last spring as a satirical way to cope with her own mental illness. “I designed it on CustomInk one night, when I was literally [in the] fetal position on my bed, like ‘I need a shirt about my neuroses,’” she joked. After receiving support for the shirt while wearing it around campus, Hanson partnered with the Williams College Feminist Collective and the the Dively Committee for Human Sexuality and Diversity to help distribute 150 shirts for free to students at a special launch event the day before Claiming Williams. The project was in part a continuation of the satirical marble slabs petition Hanson created in October, in which she suggested the administration sell some of the marble slabs adjacent to Hollander Hall to fund a new therapist at the College.
While the t-shirt began as a personal parody, a statement of the struggles affecting Hanson’s own mind and body, it has since grown into a larger protest against the inadequacies of mental health resources at the College, specifically issues concerning the paucity of full-time therapists relative to demand for psychological services and lack of therapists who are of color or members of the LGBTQ community.
“Often people articulate mental illness and struggle in sort of universal terms so we are all equal and anyone can be affected by mental illness; [however,] it actually does affect different demographics differently, including people who are marginalized already in terms of race, gender, sexuality or class,” Hanson said.
Finally, the shirts serve as a highly visible symbol meant to unify those on campus living with a condition often suffered in secret and isolation. “Shifting the focus [of depression] from individual shame to collective internet humor … a collective parody … was something I was interested in doing,” Hanson said. “And I think that’s how activism starts, realizing that a problem that you think you’re suffering alone is actually a structural problem.”
To Hanson, every fragment of a Williams Depression t-shirt captured in an official Claiming Williams Day photo is a small disruption of the veneer of perfection and unimpeded love for the College that promotional materials depict. “If Williams is going to make this performance of diversity, community, inclusion, and so forth, we want them to show us the receipts in terms of providing psychological services for its marginalized students,” she said.
The most startling aspect of the shirt — their resemblance to the gear that spirited new Ephs and their proud parents purchase from The Williams Shop — is what makes them so effective. Like a pop artist, Hanson has taken a canonical, familiar image and added a humorous — and in this case, dark — twist.
While the shirts are a reminder that for many students here, getting through college is a far more difficult matter than simply finishing their homework, Hanson clarified that they are not meant to be an attack on those who have not experienced mental health issues or marginalization at the College.
“I think there are people at Williams whose experience here is unproblematic, who don’t struggle and who feel like it’s a very good place … and that’s totally fine. I’ve had that at different times,” Hanson said. However, she wants the shirts “to serve as a kind of flag or reminder that this place isn’t [always] what it seems … if you think [Williams] is perfect, think again, because it’s not.”
As serious as the shirts are, it was never a question for Hanson whether they should also be funny; its design was a natural extension of the irony-saturated, meme-filled social media content that she both consumes and produces on a regular basis. A former Frosh Revue director and Combo Za member, Hanson is no stranger to parody. However, as her illnesses made participating in extracurriculars increasingly difficult, she gravitated towards social media sites like Twitter and Instagram as outlets for both humor and frank, confessional admissions of pain she has experienced.
That mental and physical wellness are far from mutually exclusive is obvious to Hanson, whose experiences with chronic illness and depression at the College left her with little choice but to see such a divide as a mere construction: “Being physically disabled on this campus is so hard, it has made made me mentally ill.”
Erin Hanson ’18 sports her “Williams Depression” t-shirt. Photo courtesy of Janeth Rodriguez/Photo editor.
Correction: Feb. 15, 2017, 2:40 p.m.
A previous version of this article misstated the amount of shirts Hanson, the Feminist Collective and Dively Committee distributed to students for free. The number was 150, not 100.