Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Stop putting yourself down. I mean it. Now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this “Confidence Gap” thing that has been getting a lot of press over the past couple of weeks, based on a new book by American journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. I’ve read the critiques; chiefly that it ignores the structural factors that contribute to inequality (and confidence gaps), like sexism. And racism. And that while the authors managed to find a suite of high profile women who were plagued by self-doubt, there are also plenty of others who are out there getting on with things. Confidently.

All this is true. But I still think the confidence gap is real. Or to be more precise, I’ve observed a pattern amongst women – friends, family, women I meet at professional gatherings, even myself at various points in my life – of understating our achievements and ambitions which I find both disheartening and exasperating.

I’m talking about things like not pursuing (or not taking, when offered) a problem because you figure there’s probably someone in your workplace who deserves it more. Feeling too afraid to speak up in class for fear of seeming stupid, and then getting higher grades than 90% of your classmates. Not confirming with your employer how much you’ll be getting paid before you start a job because you don’t want them to think you’re “only there for the money.” Or just not talking about your work with complete passion and conviction because you don’t want to seem arrogant.

I could go on.

(And no - ceasing these behaviours won’t bring about total gender equality or world peace. But I suspect it would make us all a bit happier and more confident in our place in the world. And that’s reason enough to pursue it, in my opinion.)

The excerpt in The Atlantic only talks about women, but I’d be willing to bet the same pattern applies to any group that doesn’t have a history of easy, non-problematic access to power. People of color. Working class people. People with disabilities. Trans and genderqueer people.

The more you see people who look like you – or better yet, people you know and interact with – in positions of power, the easier it becomes to imagine yourself in that same position.

Confidence alone won’t change that, and nor will getting more girls to play sports. That requires policies that enable social mobility, like good and affordable education, a liveable minimum wage, and non-discriminatory employment practices. Even bridging the confidence gap and learning to own our ambitions and abilities isn’t just an individual endeavour. It requires changing the culture. But changing that culture is something we can all participate in.

The first step is to give other women permission to own their accomplishments. To stop asking, “Who does she think she is?” – either by implication, through your tone and body language, or literally, after she leaves the room. Become comfortable with the idea of women taking power and being secure in it, without it rendering them “pushy,” “vain,” or “not a team player.”

The second step is to allow yourself to own your accomplishments. I’m not talking about exaggerating, or making shit up. I’m talking about talking about something you’re proud of, directly and confidently, and resisting the urge to downsize, hedge or backtrack. About stopping making yourself smaller in a desire to be liked. When you’ve created something you think is great (a song, a product, a test result, an interaction with another human being), give yourself a moment to enjoy that feeling before you start second guessing all the ways in which it isn’t so great.

Finally, celebrate success – your own and other people’s. Champion women you think are doing good work. A non-exhaustive list of women I think are doing great work right now: Gabby Bess. Sarah Nicole Prickett. Nora Caplan-Bricker. The ladies behind SRSLY. Suey Park. Laurie Penny. Andrea Mary Marshall. Paris Lees. danah boyd. (In order to keep this a “non-exhaustive list,” I’ve deliberately not included anyone I am personally friends with.)

I don’t buy into the idea that in order to be a supporter of women, you need to support all women. Some women will do work that is offensive or mediocre, some women will trumpet accomplishments that don’t exist. But there are probably some people out there you think are doing great work. Celebrate them.

Women are taught to be modest and accommodating; to have humility and to make room for others. These are (mostly) lovely qualities to possess, but it possible to have humility and still to own your own strength.

In fact, it might be better for the greater good if you do.When you dismiss your accomplishments as just plain luck, you pull away the ladder for others to follow behind you, whether you mean to or not. How can others replicate your success, after all, if you don’t share how you did it?

To end with a quote from Marianne Williamson: “Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. … As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Related: She who tries, wins.
Thoughts on meritocracy, aspiration and privilege.
Invulnerable, inviolable bitches.

It only takes one person. Support Elena Rossini and The Illusionists.

I first met Elena Rossini a little shy of four years ago, when I first moved to London. An Italian feminist filmmaker living in Paris, I had read about her work (on Feministing, I think), and thought she seemed like exactly the kind of person I would like to meet.

And she was. Like me, Elena was then two years into the creation of her first magnum opus. In my case, my book The Sex Myth, “a consciousness-raising exploration of how sex has come to define who we are and how we fit in”; in her case, her documentary The Illusionists,a damning critique of the marketing of unattainable beauty standards around the world.

In the years that have followed, Elena has been an inspiration to me. I have a huge admiration for her tenacity, for her sense of what is possible, her big picture thinking, her ability to draw people into her projects and make them feel involved – and, of course, her skill as a filmmaker and storyteller.

Elena and I are now both six years into our respective projects. Mine is currently sitting with my publisher, with only a couple more rounds of edits and polishing to go. And The Illusionists is hitting the festival circuit, looking for a home that befits its message and Elena’s formidable filmmaking skills. But this has proved to be as much a challenge as creating the film itself. In order to get her film seen and maximise its impact, Elena needs support from someone who is already a big name in the industry. Which is where you come in.

This week, Elena is launching a campaign based around the idea that it only takes one person. She is reaching out to five people whom she believes could turn The Illusionists around, whether as an executive producer, an ambassador, a voiceover narrator, or a mentor - Lena Dunham, Stephen Fry, Geena Davis, Michael Moore and Alex Gibney – directing them to a sneak preview of the first four minutes of the film on her website, and encouraging her legion of Twitter followers and supporters to get involved.

It would be great if you could get involved, too. I think you will really like the film. And if you know of anyone else who might be able to help The Illusionists make the impact it deserves, please reach out them – or Elena – over Twitter. 

You can watch a short of The Illusionists above, and read more about Elena’s journey here.

“Tweet it and push it and hope someone pays attention to your brilliance and if they don’t, well, try again.”

I didn’t watch last week’s Girls until a few days after it aired. But the above fragment of a sentence, lifted from a review of the episode published on Canadian gossip blog Lainey Gossip which I read a few days before, stuck with me more than anything that transpired on screen.

 “So she quits her job, in a scene that was kind of cringe-inducing but also a long time coming, and she revels in her “artistry”…until she watches Marnie (and that awesome rapper girl) do it effortlessly: Perform something that people respond to without your having to tweet it and push it and hope someone pays attention to  your brilliance and if they don’t, well, try again, hoping your own opinions and alleged brilliance don’t curdle in the face of people with actual talent and (gasp!) passion.” 

Or as I read it: If you were actually good, you wouldn’t have to hustle.

It’s bullshit, of course, born of the same fictions that are used to sell us on the power of “It” (but then, even ‘It’ girls have to hustle if they want to turn their charisma into a job). And, I would argue, it is a fiction that makes us less likely to achieve our dreams: you may not necessarily get the things you want in life if you don’t put your all into them, but you almost sure as hell won’t if you don’t try

Not to mention, as my friend Luke pointed out via email, it is a fiction that it utterly flouted by the Lena Dunham story: “Isn’t the whole meta-message of ‘Girls’ that if you hustle long enough and hard enough, you reach Lena Dunham levels of success, because Hannah basically is Lena or some version of her? I.e. the proof is in the pudding - the fact that the show exists and is successful - rather than dependant on any analysis of Hannah’s character.”

And it is true. Pre-show hustling aside, I don’t think I have ever had any cultural product as keenly or persistently marketed to me as Girls. That show did not become a success by accident. It was 80% design.

So, perhaps the lesson is just the opposite of what Lainey Gossip’s Duana words might suggest. Rather than making it our goal for someone to spot our brilliance without our trying, we should instead “tweet it and push it and hope someone pays attention to your brilliance and if they don’t, well, try again.”

Related: She who tries, wins. 
Gossip Girl’s Serena and effortless perfection.

Elsewhere: Don’t hate the It girl, hate the game. (Daily Life)
How is this girl unsigned? (Lainey Gossip)