Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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The most intimate part of the self

My best friend is back in New York. On Monday, we took our lunch to the park together and talked loudly and enthusiastically about everything, but mostly about her business and my work. “I love it when you say exactly what you think,” she said to me. “You should be more like that in your writing.”

It is easy for me to be direct with her. In fact, it is the only way I know how to be around her: to tell her directly what I think she is brilliant at, when I think she is messing up, which of our wide circle of shared acquaintances I think are wonderful and which I think are ghastly users. Our friendship is sufficiently secure – and free of any pretence that we are the same person in different skins – that we are able to disagree, sometimes passionately, without it threatening our connection.

And she is probably right that if I threw unfiltered opinions and bon mots at the internet with the same ease that I fling them during my conversations with her, I would have twice as many Twitter followers; that my articles would get more shares.

But you know what? I’m cool with that. That is to say, I am cool with not sharing that part of myself with the world. Because in the same way that some people believe that sex should not be sold because it is too intimate, the body too much a window into the soul inside, I believe that (some of) my thoughts are private; best saved for trusted friends. Or at least, that they are more comfortably shared in spontaneous conversation (even on stage!) than carved forever into the WWW.

And on an internet where so many people are invested in looking like the Coolest, Nicest, Most Funnest Girl Ever (or the Fiercest, Most Opinionated, Doesn’t Give A Shit About Anyone Girl Ever), I think there is something delicious about the surprise of being more fierce and more fun in person than in text.

(Besides, as a reader, I prefer writing that is searching and philosophical anyway. Which is why that’s what I try to do in my work. Bon mots are more fun in a rapid fire conversation.)

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.