The What I Be Project Will Give You The Holy Shits

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 4 Permalink 0

I am honored to be authoring the narrative of Steve Rosenfield’s book on his controversial What I Be Project. Entire communities, family units, and friend circles are being jarred as Steve shines a light on traditionally “shameful” topics. Participation requires courage as this often sets an uncomfortable path. This project is far from a gimmick.

It is changing lives in profound ways. People are boldly addressing their depression, rape, bigotry, coming out as gay, molestation, cutting, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, etc. Unfortunately, not every participant has survived their demons. But by encouraging participants to face their darkest insecurities, Steve’s project went viral in early 2014 and now inspires millions of readers, viewers, and participants alike. It usually takes a closer look, but when you truly start to understand the impact of the What I Be Project, you too, should have that “holy shit” moment. It usually comes with reading the overwhelmingly positive responses on the project’s Facebook page.

The format of the What I Be Project is simple. The title of a subject’s image always begins with “I am not my…” With that insecurity, story, or stereotype in mind, the subject bears an image or phrase on their skin to share their point of pain. Steve snaps the shutter and posts it online. The idea being that the subject DOES, in fact, identify with their insecurity. But they are also saying, “This is not the only part of me.” Rather a small fraction that doesn’t merit a full character judgement.

What I Be Project Website

I am not my amputation.
I am not my turban.
I am not my bulimia.
I am not my body image.
I am not my number.
I am not my gender.
I am not my adoption.
I am not my guilt.
I am not my abortion.

As a behind-the-camera person, it was very uncomfortable when he asked to photograph me. However, the message behind his efforts convinced my participation, and about two years ago, Steve captured the below image at my apartment in Orange County.  Two years went by and I still hadn’t written a statement about where my insecurity had come from (something Steve requires from everyone). I think mostly because I couldn’t have articulated what it was at that point. Now that we’ve engaged the book writing process, I’ve been forced to address what I’ve been avoiding for years. The people I’ve latched on to and the people I’ve abandoned.

Here is a sneak peak into what you can expect from the What I Be Project Book.

This is my image and my statement. Both of which pale in comparison to the bravery of other participants. I would encourage you to scour the thousands of images online. You’ll discover people who are going through the same difficult shit we think we’re alone in. Thank goodness for community. Thank goodness for **this** community.

And thank you, my friend, Steve.

Ben Renschen What I Be

STATEMENT (addressing my insecurity)

“I am not my self-indulgence”

You know how people say they have “types”? My type was the girl whose guts were scattered across a sandbox. I thought, “I can put this back together.”

I come from a cush life, cush family, cush everything. We were far from wealthy, rather, I was emotionally well protected. Too protected.

As I grew out of boyhood and into manhood, I dated bulimics, the anxiety ridden, and severely abused. I was a moth into the flame. It became a specialty. I was a fixer. I had so much positive to give that, surely, I can overcome the negative.

It started in college. I enjoyed getting girls to cry in our dormitory lounge about their problems because, to me, that meant we were developing a bond. It’s college, we’re supposed grow, ya know? I didn’t know much about pain or sadness at that point so it was like this movie I had to watch. I loved it and I got to pull all the strings.

What I didn’t realize then, was that I had started stirring the pot without any intentions of actually making soup. By getting someone to open up and share their story, I got to feel a bit of pain. I got fulfillment in that. But because I never wanted to see my own reflection in those conversations, I would just as quickly abandon those people. I would just stop talking to them. Easy. It scares me, still to this day, how easy it is for me to walk out on people.

Congratulations, me, and thank you, you. On to the next.

Years go by and I’m still doing the same because I’ve justified that I’m a learner, a challenger, a grower. So I started consciously speaking my desire for pain. I’ve dug around in wounds so deep that I got lost.

I was head-to-toe covered in a girl’s mess one time. I didn’t understand the twenty questions I was asking her without actually asking them. I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it. It took the wisdom of one girlfriend to tell me I had no business making her traumas my own. Not because she was unwilling to let me play in the sandbox, but because she’d spent her entire life building a sandcastle that worked. It protected her. It was her roof. It was her safety. There was this beautiful relationship between the way she cared for it and it cared for her. I knew it protected her inner child from the storms that I was busy brewing. I didn’t even care. I still wanted to knock it down. I had to if I was going to build a sandcastle big enough for the two of us. That statement alone tells me how selfish I am. It tells me how presumptuous I am for how things are “supposed to be”. I still think that way. Needless to say, we are not together.

But I am starting to get it.

There is no such thing as either party being free-from-harm when you penetrate the source of a wound. I told one girl that I wanted her pain. She laughed and said, “Ben, you can have it all. And if you don’t want it all, I have enough for the both of us.”

So, now, I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years consciously seeking other peoples’ traumas to use as my own learning curve. This goes for friendships & relationships alike. Friends, family, men, women – no one is off limits. I’m afraid it repels a lot of relationships as people get to know me. I’m always trying to be aware of this so I don’t do more harm than help.

I don’t know if it’s truth or ego speaking, but I can still say with confidence,

“I am, in fact, going to use you.”

That hurts me.

I hope if anyone is reading this that has been on the wrong end of my process, you can forgive me. I promise you that I’m slowly growing and I love you for what you’ve given me.


  • Marlee
    April 23, 2014

    I love this project. Always important to remember that everyone is fighting their own battles. Great job Ben :)

  • Jolie
    April 23, 2014

    I relate to a lot of things that you said and the insight you provided into some complicated emotions was incredible. Thanks for being willing to be so raw and honest. I’ll definitely be reading your posts!

  • Margaret
    April 23, 2014

    Ben, I admire your honesty and courage!

  • Anya
    April 30, 2014

    I am speechless. I love this. I too, took a few years to write my statement because I still don’t quite know if I understand it. Thanks for sharing. :)

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