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Stepping briefly out of my self-imposed book editing exile (it’s more fun than you’d think!) to say a few words on the latest Hugo Schwyzer controversy. Probably not anything that will come as a great revelation to anyone on Tumblr, but comments I feel a need to make nonetheless, because they fly in the face of much of what has been said in mainstream forums about his “retirement” from the internet.
Specifically: Hugo Schwyzer was not controversial in the feminist blogosphere because he is a man. He was controversial in the feminist blogosphere because he was Hugo Schwyzer. That is to say, because he was a particular type of man, with a particular combination of traits: one with a history of gendered violence and sexual exploitation; one whose recent commercial writings have been marketed primarily at young women (rather than at men); and one whose presence and promotion in mainstream feminism made many women feel uncomfortable, violated, and angry.
I say all this as someone who has been a quiet supporter of Schwyzer’s. I’ve never hired him and I haven’t shouted his praises from the rooftops, but I have tweeted him, emailed with him, quoted him and met with him for coffee last year in LA. And at times I will admit I have felt uncomfortable doing so, just as I feel uncomfortable writing this paragraph now.
Bloggers whose work I enjoyed and respected – Flavia Dzodan, for one – had written multiple posts against him. People I knew “IRL” had tweeted about what a douche he was. What were they seeing that I wasn’t? But I discovered Hugo’s work back in 2009 or so, when he was just another person blogging about what I thought were insightful ideas on sex and gender; before he was either a pariah or a feminist posterboy. And that was the Hugo I couldn’t bring myself to turn on – the one who was more human than he was Professor Feminism.
But my professional relationship with Hugo Schwyzer isn’t really the point of this post. The point is that despite that relationship, I think that stepping away from the internet, and from feminism more generally – if he can manage it, which he hasn’t yet – is exactly the right thing for Hugo to do right now. Not just for his own mental health, but for the movement at large. (The wrong thing to do? To give interviews to major internet outlets and continue posting to your blog after you’ve said you’re quitting the internet.)
Here’s why. It goes without saying that if you position yourself as a public figure – particularly one who talks about politics – there are going to be people out there who do not like you. Hugo has acknowledged this himself: he may be a target of continued derision, but he hasn’t been threatened with rape, for example, the way that many female feminists have.
But there is a difference between being attacked by people who are your political opponents and being attacked by people who you perceive to be your comrades. The latter is a more bitter rejection, I would argue. I know I’ve felt it: “Can’t they see that we’re on the same side???”
But if it happens over and over and over, as it has for Schwyzer over the past year and a half, it’s a good indication that maybe you’re on the wrong track. If the people you profess to be speaking for – if not in the sense of “on behalf of,” then at least in the sense of “in service of” – keeping telling you that you don’t represent them, maybe you should take that as a sign that you don’t represent them. Maybe you should find new people to talk to; people who do want to hear what you have to say, and to whom your words can be useful.
There is a certain (read: strong) strand of narcissism to commercial internet feminism, as there is to all internet celebrity. And there is a lot of repetition of ideas. It’s not that the ideas themselves doesn’t matter – of course they do, and in sum they matter a lot – but that, particularly in the churn of online debate, a lot of us are just recycling the same ones, because the emphasis is on being heard, rather than on saying anything useful. But this emphasis on being seen and heard above all else leaves us ultimately replaceable. Remove one voice, be it Hugo’s or anyone else’s, and the void will quickly be filled with another.
All this is to say that I don’t think the Hugo Schwyzer story is the story of a man run off the internet by some angry feminists who don’t want men in their movement. I think it’s the story of a man who had particular traits that were abhorrent to many women within the movement, who persisted in writing nonetheless, and whose contributions eventually became more about the shoring up of ego than about the sharing of ideas. (Which to be fair, is the case for many writers.)
I’m a feminist because I care about women’s experiences, of course, but I’m even more so a feminist because I care about the effects of gender on experience. And gender isn’t the sole provenance of women. It’s something that impacts men as well. I suspect this is a position many modern feminists share, and I think that if Hugo had been a different man, he would have been received differently.
So, I absolutely think there is a place for men in the feminist movement. I want men in my feminist movement, reflecting on the role that gender plays in their lives. I don’t want men in my feminist movement telling women what to do. And when Hugo Schwyzer does return to the internet – which I hope for his sake won’t be for a while – I hope that the former is the role he chooses to play. Helping to popularise gender politics in the male sphere, rather than writing for women who have indicated loud and clear that he does not speak for them.
Image: Me, circa 2004. Me, circa 2013.
I’ve been soaking myself in nostalgia this past week or two, reading over old diaries from my early-mid 20s. And in amongst all the good memories, not-so-good memories, and general hilarity (seriously – I was so much funnier back then – or my writing was, anyway), there are a few things I’d like to go back and tell myself as I was then.
1. Stop worrying about how ‘fat’ you are. Firstly, because you’re obviously not. But more importantly, because it’s tedious. I’m not going to go all Nora Ephron on you and tell you to spend your entire twenty-second year in a bikini, but this obsessing over minor, possibly non-existent, fluctuations in weight is pointless.
Your value lies in more than the width of your thighs. And they’re never going to look like Miranda Kerr’s no matter how little you eat anyway, so you may as well just get over it now. Accept what you have and work with it.
2. Quit it with the aesthetic “armour.” I’ve noticed that whenever you feel particularly sad and hopeless you retreat into artifice. You know what I’m talking about: high heels, Elle Woods pink, overpriced haircuts that don’t even look as good as you think they do.
You believe that in order to be loved you need to be beautiful, and in order to be “beautiful” you need to cynically fit a formula. Secretly, you know that fitting this formula won’t win you the love you desire, but you figure that checking the boxes means no one can ever say it was because you weren’t “good enough.”
But the truth is that armour doesn’t protect you. It hurts you. Because you can’t shake the feeling that without it, people would treat you differently. That all the good things you currently have in your life would go away. They won’t. (And honestly? If looking good is your priority, the best thing you could do is stop frying your hair with bleach and start eating properly.)
3. Insecurity is a waste of time. Easier said than done, I know. But reading over your words, it strikes me that you spend a whole lot of time worrying about things that aren’t actually problems, to the point of self-sabotage.
(Case in point: “[Redacted] and I have an odd dynamic. We banter, touch arms, constantly glance at each other…” Meanwhile, a few days later: “And it occurred to me that if I continued to have a crush on The Boy I’d only start feeling sad about the fact that I didn’t think he would ever like me - not because of any obvious inherent flaw in me, but because he just… wouldn’t.” Right, Rachel. That’s logical.)
I know that, like your aesthetic “armour,” you engage in these thoughts to protect yourself. It you don’t get your hopes up, they can’t be dashed, etc etc. But here’s the thing: you’re dashing your own hopes all by yourself. Insecurity doesn’t protect you from disappointment. Insecurity guarantees you disappointment – because it holds you back from going after the things and people you really want.
Fun fact: The photo on the left was taken on the same day I met the man who is now my husband.
Related: Advice for my 22-year-old self.
Willow asks: I’ve been writing a book (a novel) for the past three years now. I expect to be finishing up within the next six months, which is very exciting, but I’m also starting to realize how little I know about this process. When I started writing, the plan was to self-publish, but now that the beginning of the publishing process is so much closer to where I am on this timeline, it’s harder to tell if this is the most practical option.
I want to have 100% creative control of my book, and I really like the idea of receiving 100% of the profit, but I’m not sure if I will be able to generate all the money I would need for the startup of that kind of thing, especially with no guarantee that my book will ever leave complete obscurity. Why did you choose to go through a publisher? Would you recommend that path, and what steps did you have to take to secure your book deal? I’m just a little out of my depth here so I was hoping you could shed a little light on this process for me.
Hi Willow. First of all, congratulations on being so close to finishing your book. It sounds fascinating, and I can’t wait to read it, whichever route you choose.
As I wrote in our email exchange, whether you decide to self-publish or traditionally publish depends on what you want to do with your book. Is the goal to get it out there so that people can read it? To reach the largest possible audience? To become the next Jennifer Egan or Zadie Smith? To just have the glorious (and sometimes heart-breaking) experience of having published a book?
For me, publishing The Sex Myth with a traditional publisher was a no-brainer. I wanted to write a Big Ideas Book that would change people’s hearts and minds, and I wanted to get it in front of as many people as possible. (Lofty goals, much?) I chose my publisher - or more accurately, I chose to slave my guts out to get the publisher I did, because let’s face it, it’s not like big publishers are banging on first-time authors’ doors begging to publish our work – because I thought they would put me in the best position to do that. They would offer me credibility. They would force me to do my best work, and draw attention to ways in which my work could be improved that I either would not have noticed or would have been too tired to tackle after finishing my manuscript (sometimes ceding a little bit of creative control is not a bad thing). They dominate the front tables at Barnes & Noble, and they have the connections to get my book plastered on the TV, the radio, newspapers and magazines for at least a week or two.
Now, it’s worth noting that the division between self-publishing and traditional publishing isn’t quite as clear cut as I’ve made it seem in the above paragraph. There are plenty of books that spend a couple of weeks on the front tables of Barnes & Noble and get written up in the New York Times that don’t make an impact at all, and get sent straight back from the bookstores to their publishers within a month of going to press. Mine may well end up being one of them. Even if my book ends up being a mammoth success beyond anyone’s expectations (say, I sell 1 million copies – does that even happen in ideas-based non-fiction?), that would still be but a small fraction of the reach of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book that was initially self-published. And traditional publishers certainly don’t do all the marketing work for you.
Still, the metrics are different. If I self-published my book and it did really well, it might reach, what, a couple of thousand people? And I say that as someone with a lot of journalist friends and contacts, and a sizeable readership on this blog. Realistically, I could end up reaching as few as a couple of hundred people (there is a big difference between people who like your work enough to subscribe to your blog, and people who like it enough to want to buy it). If my book “fails” with a traditional publisher, I’ll still reach the same number of people I would have in my best-case self-publishing scenario. And I’ll have been paid enough to have had something of a financial safety net for a couple of years.
All of this makes me sound very anti-self-publishing (or at least very pro-traditional publisher), and that’s not the case. The truth is that traditional publishing is hard. It is slow, you have to jump through lots and lots of hoops, and you put the matter of whether your work ever sees the light of day in some else’s hands. If you do choose to traditionally publish, you probably won’t see your book in bookstores (or on Amazon.com) for another 2-3 years. And you may want to skip the pain and get your book out there for people to read as soon as possible.
Self-publishing is a great option for people who want to take control of their own creative path and make sure their writing gets read by someone, regardless of whether it fits the mould of what traditional publishers think will sell. It’s a great option for people with large and engaged existing online audiences, and whose book is closely aligned with the content they are publishing online. It’s a fantastic option, from a monetary perspective, for people who are writing self-help oriented content: people who write on how to be fitter, happier, more productive (this kind of content seems to do brilliantly on the internet). And it’s a great opportunity for very young, early career writers like you to learn more about how the publishing process works and experience it first-hand.
In the long-term, I suspect self-publishing is increasingly where book publishing will head. I’ll probably try it myself someday. (Arguably, I already have. I published my own first novel online when I was in high school – covering similar themes to your own, it would seem – and thoroughly enjoyed the process. It never occurred to me send it to a traditional publisher: I just wanted to get it straight into the hands of the people I was writing it for.)
So, what should you do? My first piece of advice, upon finishing your book, is to get a professional to assess your manuscript. It will cost you a couple of hundred dollars (and I understand that given you’re still in your teens, you’re probably not flush with cash), but it will give you a good indication of whether you’re ready to send your work to an agent if you decide to try your luck with a traditional publisher, and it means you’ll have a better book if you decide to publish yourself (trust me when I say that good editors and smart second opinions are invaluable – I wouldn’t have gotten my book deal without them). I highly recommend my writing coach, Brooke Warner, who has worked as an editor in a traditional publishing house and now helps guide writers through the self-publishing process, but whoever you go with, make sure you choose someone whose history as a writer and editor you respect and (this is so important!) someone who really knows the industry.
My other main piece of advice is to really get to know your options. As well as her coaching and manuscript assessment services, Brooke also provides cost-free advice to writers through her Facebook page, which will help you understand the publishing landscape better. I can also recommend The Unconventional Guide To Publishing, which offers a pretty comprehensive insight into both traditional and self-publishing. (NB: I have no financial relationship with either Brooke or Unconventional Guides, except for the fact that I hire Brooke.)
Whatever you choose, good luck, and like I said – I look forward to reading. And let me know if there’s anything else I can do to help or guide you.
Does anyone else have any advice or resources to offer Willow? Or experiences to share on self or traditional publishing?
Over the past few days, I’ve developed a minor obsession with Gwyneth Paltrow. I know, I know – the only kind of “obsession” it is acceptable to have with Gwyneth Paltrow is an obsession founded on loathing. And yet, here I am.
I blame her month-long PR assault, which started with her cook book, was followed by a string of premieres for the new Iron Man flick, and culminated last week with her being named People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman.” I also blame my favourite celebrity gossip blog, Lainey Gossip, which consistently depicts Paltrow as a Hollywood “queen bee,” who always sits at the best table, hobnobs with only her coolest fellow celebrities, and basically serves as an arbiter for what’s hot and what’s not, while being simultaneously beloved by all in her industry (if not by the general public).
All of which makes her sound like a high school Mean Girl, I am well aware, but work with me here. I have a point, and I’ll get to it.
Either way, the result is that I must have uttered the words “Gwyneth Paltrow” about fifty times in the past week, peaking with Mr Musings calling out to me from the living room as I lay in bed on Saturday morning, “Did I just hear you muttering the words, ‘Gwyneth, Gwyneth…’?” And indeed, he had. Although in my defence, I was muttering them because I was writing this post in my head, and I often quietly talk to myself when I write.
I am fascinated by Gwyneth not because I covet her film career, her body (actively flaunted – I think the word may be justified in this case? – in recent weeks to entice the masses to buy her book and hire her trainer), or her ascetic lifestyle (although I have long found people who lead highly regimented lives intriguing – see also Wintour, Anna, with whom I always associate the sound of a whip cracking whenever I read or hear her name). What I covet - and what I am so intrigued by - is her enormous self-confidence. That she appears to unreservedly like herself. Like best pal Beyonce, Gwyneth is a queen, and she makes no apologies for it.
It wasn’t just her looks, but also her presence that so captured me. I was frantic, anxious, and insecure; high-achieving, yes, but never satisfied. I blurted out answers in class (very unladylike) and feared that my appetite for food was insatiable and out-of-control. Gwyneth, in contrast, seemed characterized by an aura of calm entitlement, i.e., the opposite of frantic insecurity.
As Kjerstin goes on to say, that “calm entitlement” is born of a multiplicity of privileges. Of having been born into a wealthy, influential family. Of inhabiting a tall, thin, blonde body that is computed as “beautiful” automatically and without thinking. Of “being privileged in every possible way that a woman can be, and feeling as though you deserve it.”
But that “calm entitlement” is also, I would argue, a product of Paltrow’s own doing. Gwyneth Paltrow isn’t “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and she knows it. She may have won an Oscar at 26, but she’s not exactly a leading actress of her generation, either – she’s no Kate Winslet or Cate Blanchett. But she carries herself as though she is all these things - beautiful, supremely talented, sitting at the best lunch table (the “best lunch table” being, by definition, whichever lunch table Gwyneth is sitting at), and the world responds to her accordingly.
(Beyonce is remarkably similar in style, but is received differently because, let’s face it, she has established her as one of the leading performers of her generation, possibly the leading performer.)
Gwyneth, perhaps, takes this further than is socially desirable, edging over from confidence to sanctimony, but I still think there are lessons to be learned for those of us who, like Kjerstin (or me), err more towards anxiety and insecurity. Lessons which have nothing to do with working out for five hours a day, or going gluten, dairy, sugar and egg-free.
Which is the reason for my Gwyneth obsession over the past few days. Whenever those petty insecurities rear their head - as they do several times a day - I ask myself, how would the Gwyneth in my head deal with this? And every time (this being an imaginary Gwyneth and all), the answer is that she wouldn’t give a toss. She would feel secure in the quality of her work. She wouldn’t complain about looking “fat.” She wouldn’t worry that “everyone was hanging out without her,” because she would be confident that wherever she was was the best place to be.
And imaginary or not, it has made me approach the world rather more calmly.
Related: How to be fabulous in three easy(ish) steps.
Elsewhere: Why I’m Breaking Up With The World’s Most Beautiful Woman: Gwyneth Was My Thinspo. (Mirror Mirror Off the Wall)
Just a quick note to let you know that the next London Feminist Discussion Group, hosted by Sarah Graham and I, will be held on Tuesday May 7 at 7pm, at LEON on Old Compton Street in Soho. We’ll be talking about the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ Sketches Campaign.
All women (and interested men) welcome. We are a trans-inclusive group. Just RSVP to email@example.com (or join our Facebook group) by Thursday May 2 so we can book an appropriately sized space.
A few articles you might want to take a look at before the meeting:
Dove vs Science: Thanks, But We Are NOT Our Own Worst Beauty Critics (Mirror, Mirror… Off The Wall)
Why Dove’s ‘Real Beauty Sketches’ Video Makes Me Uncomfortable… and Kind of Makes Me Angry (little drops)
The problem with the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign (Eat The Damn Cake)
One Narrative Fits All: Dove and “Real Beauty” (The Beheld)
Dove’s ‘real beauty’ sketches ad deserves some praise (The Guardian)
And there are plenty more where that came from if you care to Google.
Hope to see you there!
L-R: Conventional Selfie; “Ugly” Selfie; Totes Fug Selfie.
“Why aren’t you on Instagram, Hachel Rills?” a friend asked me over dinner on Saturday night.
“I’m on enough social media platforms as it is,” I replied. “And I don’t want to have to always be photo-ready. Besides, I’m not a very good photographer.”* But you don’t have to take photographs of yourself, my friend retorted. You can take photographs of your life.
But the truth is, I don’t want my life to always have to be “photo-ready,” either.
It’s a funny thing, this life on camera. When I’m out interacting with people and getting on with life, I generally feel confident and attractive, like the world is smiling upon me. It’s only when somebody whips a camera out that I become suddenly conscious that my body could be more willowy, my face more beautiful, my outfits more exactingly put together.
The same principle can be applied to my life in general. When I’m living it, it seems beautiful, exciting, something that I’d like to share with the world. When I whip out a camera to actually record it, the colours seem duller and framing all wrong. My life may be awesome, but like most people’s, it lacks the aesthetics of a popular lifestyle blog (or perhaps more accurately, I lack both the will and the investment to make it look like a popular lifestyle blog). And if I was on Instagram, I would free pressure to present it that way 24/7.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about over the past few months. The extent to which the photograph has infiltrated our lives, and how easily self-documentation can turn into self-surveillance. As I wrote in my Cosmo article on iNarcissism a few months back:
The internet allows us to control the way the rest of the world sees us like never before: you can be a model, an up-and-coming author, or a celebrity fashionista with a few strategically angled photographs and a well-written Twitter bio. But the ability to control our image comes with a price of increased self-consciousness. We don’t just play at being “celebrities” on the internet; our lifestyles increasingly resemble theirs, whether we like it or not, as anyone who has ever been tagged in an unflattering Facebook photo can vouch.
We document ourselves – and each other – in this way not just because we want to share our experiences with our friends, or because we enjoy the attention of a good Facebook “like” or Instagram “heart,” but because documenting our lives gives our experiences meaning. It makes them more real. The adage “pics or it didn’t happen” doesn’t just apply to the strange and improbable, but to the details of our lives themselves. Pics, or maybe that party wasn’t so great after all. Pics, or you’re not really in love. Pics, or no one will ever know how awesome your hair looked on that particular Wednesday afternoon.
But as my Cosmo quote states, self-documentation comes with increased self-consciousness. We are compelled to record our lives to prove they happened, but we also need to shape their presentation in order to make them worth recording. To make them worth looking at.
Enter the Ugly Selfie, which I wrote about for NYMag.com’s The Cut last week, and about which I think (but cannot be sure, since I am on the wrong continent to track down a copy) I have a story in Australian Cosmopolitan this month.
I first stumbled across the Ugly Selfie through Clementine Ford, who features in both stories. Clem started taking ugly selfies last year, following a text message exchange with a couple of friends in which she admitted “that any photo [she] uploaded online was usually the best of about 40 different options,” and then sent them through an “ugly” version as a joke. They thought it was so funny that she decided to keep doing it, taking an intentionally grotesque photo of herself whenever she uploaded a conventionally attractive selfie.
It struck me as both a brilliant act of satire, drawing attention to the constructed nature of the self-taken photograph, and a clever rebellion against the idea that our lives and faces should always be enviable and appealing. So naturally, I wanted to write about it.
In the middle of researching the story – days after I had submitted the Cosmo version and as I was getting ready to pitch the NYMag version – the Ugly Selfie went viral, mostly a product of the Reddit thread Pretty Girls, Ugly Faces, which was the subject of a sudden flood of coverage across Buzzfeed, xoJane, The Daily Mail et al.
But something about the tone of the coverage – and about the Reddit site itself – rubbed me the wrong way. Where Clementine’s “uglies” had struck me as a form of satire and rebellion, the joke here seemed to rely on the “ugly” photo being accompanied by a more conventionally “pretty” photo. Indeed, the focus of much of the press was: “Look at these hot women who can also pull ugly faces!” (As this Daily Mail headline, and the accompanying article, illustrate well.)
The “pretty” photos were positioned as the normal images – the ones which accurately represented what the women on the website “really” looked like – while the “ugly” photos were just the strange distortions. Things their normally beautiful faces could do, if they really, really wanted them to.
But as I argue in my piece for The Cut, the truth is that neither conventional “selfies” nor their “ugly” counterparts represent what most of us “really” look like. They are both distortions, both constructions. Or perhaps more accurately, they represent the visual extremities of the multitude of faces any one of us have. (See this excellent post by Kate Fridkis at Eat The Damn Cake.)
More confronting than the intentionally “ugly” selfie is the unintentionally ugly candid. If I take a picture of myself poking my tongue out, scrunching up my face, or pulling my neck in to create a double chin, it does little to threaten my sense of self or attractiveness. In some respects, it is even less threatening than a conventionally attractive “selfie,” in which I am declaring, without explicitly saying so, that this is a photo in which I think I look good (but perhaps not good enough).
But in a photo that is taken unawares, in which I am staring blankly at my computer, or standing at an unflattering angle, or just caught making a less-than-flattering expression. there is the suggestion that perhaps that is what I “really” look like – if not definitively, then at least on those occasions where I haven’t artfully arranged my face for your viewing pleasure.
Of all the three photos at the beginning of this post: conventional selfie, “ugly” selfie, and self-taken candid (if such a thing is possible), it was the “ugly selfie” that took the least effort to put together. And it is the “ugly candid” that I fear most. (“Look how hideous she really is!”) I have untagged photos on Facebook for far, far less. But I share it here to illustrate my point that any of our faces can appear any number of ways: good, bad, and hideously ugly. And as Emma Froggatt, who rounds up the NYMag piece, puts it: “The ugliest photos are often the ones where you don’t mean to look ugly.”
* Although I would like to be. Monthly goal for later in the year?
Elsewhere: Ugly Is The New Pretty: How Unattractive Selfies Took Over The Internet. (NYMag)
The Photo is Lying (Eat The Damn Cake)