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Nicole Zajac was at home Tuesday morning, when an anonymous email landed in her inbox.
Shannon Birchard found out the next day, when a friend contacted her to break the news about images that were starting to blaze across social media and would soon ignite a firestorm in the hockey world and beyond.
There were 55 images in all: screencaps of messages sent to a private Instagram group of Winnipeg hockey players, including Washington Capitals fourth-liner Brendan Leipsic; his brother Jeremey Leipsic of the University of Manitoba Bisons; Florida Panthers prospect Jack Rodewald; and University of North Dakota forward Jackson Keane.
Some discussed cocaine use and sexual exploits. Mostly, though, the men insulted women.
They shared photos of other players’ partners or women they knew — including Winnipeggers Zajac and Birchard — and targeted them with insults that were misogynistic, demeaning and degrading.
At first, Zajac handled it the best way she knew how: she contacted some of the men directly. She was dismayed to learn the messages came from people she knew, but not shocked by the content itself.
"I’m sure there are hundreds of group chats like this," she says, chatting over Zoom on Thursday.
Zajac, 22, has long confronted that sort of negativity. For years, she has fearlessly documented her own journey to body-positivity on social media. She writes frankly and eloquently about topics from sexuality to self-esteem; she is open about the ups and downs of how she has learned to embrace her own curves.
Over time, that honesty earned her more than 25,000 followers on Instagram, allowing her to turn the platform into a full-time job. It also prepared her to meet a moment like this.
She knows her own worth, and she wants others to feel the same.
"I’ve been through this for years," Zajac says. "I do find it’s prepared me to react in a positive way. Rather than taking the negative from this scandal... I want to take some of the positive from this, and empower other people to feel happy about their body, and happy with themselves — because we’re not all the same."
First, there would be consequences for the men involved.
By Thursday afternoon, the NHL had issued a rebuke of the "inexcusable conduct," Jeremey Leipsic had been released from the Bisons, and at least two popular Winnipeg restaurants had banned the hockey players from their premises.
As this unfolded, Zajac thought about what her response should be. At first, she says, it was more upsetting the messages had gone public: the women hadn’t consented to that either. She also saw, with her platform, she had an opportunity to change the conversation.
On Wednesday, she posted two photos to Instagram. In the first, her face is drawn into a frown: around her are pictures of the cruel things the men said about her body. In the second image, she is smiling brightly, surrounded by missives of love and affirmation from friends and supporters.
"No point focusing on the terrible things people say about you when there are way more positive things that you can be celebrating," she wrote.
By Thursday evening, her post had garnered more than 900 comments, a flood of support.
One by one, other women who had been insulted in the texts also stood up to be counted, and were met with an outpouring of appreciation from all over the world.
Birchard, a two-time Canadian women’s curling champion currently playing second for Team Kerri Einarson, has learned to steel herself to the slings and arrows of social media; at first, she wasn’t sure if she would speak publicly about the leaked messages.
"Women are beautiful, diverse and strong as hell and that is how I know we’ll get through this.” — Shannon Birchard's Instagram story
"Being a higher-profile athlete, and just being a woman on social media these days, you learn to expect a certain amount of negativity and criticism," she says. "In the past, I haven’t chosen to engage. But... it wasn’t just me, but other women I knew personally were being targeted. I felt a great responsibility to stand with them."
Birchard made her own Instagram post, calling out the misogynistic content of the messages. The behaviour, she wrote, "Speaks to deep rooted issues involving hate in our society... Women are beautiful, diverse and strong as hell and that is how I know we’ll get through this."
It is telling, without exception, the photos the men singled out for mockery were images of accomplished women being happy. A woman enjoying a day at the beach; a woman spending Valentine’s Day with her partner; another woman considering the changes of her pregnant body, but excited to welcome her first child.
"What they’ve said really says more about them, than it does about us," Zajac says. "The photos that they were commenting on really were just us women being happy in our bodies, being happy in a moment, being happy being a mother."
“What they’ve said really says more about them, than it does about us. The photos that they were commenting on really were just us women being happy in our bodies, being happy in a moment, being happy being a mother.” — Nicole Zajac
So a story about men behaving abominably became a story about the strength of the women they sought — and failed — to tear down.
Birchard hopes the incident, and specifically the voices of the women impacted, will help trigger change. It starts with people bringing more kindness into their everyday lives, whether in the way they interact with friends or with people they meet on the street, she says.
"It begins with a lot of self-reflection, and just having open conversations, and talking to one another, and potentially confronting a friend if you feel that they’ve said things or acted in a way that is disrespectful to others," Birchard says. "I think that’s the only way to really start the change."
Zajac has received apologies from some of the men involved. She chose to accept them, but that was not what she was seeking. She has her own life to live, and the cruelty of the messages will soon retreat into the rear-view; it’s the lessons learned from them she hopes will linger.
"Speaking up about it and making sure the other women feel seen and heard and beautiful is all I really wanted," she says.
For all the women who saw the messages and felt a confirmation of their fears about how women are seen, Zajac offers a few words of grace: "I try and tell myself all the time, for every terrible thing that is said about you, there are a thousand amazing things about you. Really celebrate the things you love about yourself."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Thursday, May 7, 2020 at 10:28 PM CDT: Adds embeds
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