Musings of an Inappropriate Woman

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Ask Rachel: Life is not determined by who is “winning” at 19.

Georgia writes: Hi Rachel, I was wondering if you could give me some advice? You interviewed me two ago for The Sex Myth. Now I’m 19 and studying journalism at uni. But I’m struggling. It seems like my classmates all command attention while I shrink away into a corner. I don’t think they are necessarily better than me, but I constantly worry that I’m not good enough. I just feel like I’m not achieving enough. My marks are average and I feel like my writing skills are too. It’s just really plaguing my mind with all this self-doubt, and I worry that I won’t be able to survive in such a competitive industry. I know I’m young and uni is a different environment, but I was hoping you had some words of wisdom or something? Thanks for taking the time to read this.

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Hi Georgia. If I could tell you one thing, it would be this: the trajectory of your life is not determined by who is “winning” at 19. It’s not determined by who is best at 25, 30 or 50 either, because the truth is that being “the best” is an illusive and temporary state. But it is especially not determined by where you are when you are 19.

When I was 19, I was shy enough that I had a crush on a guy for a year and managed to speak about fifteen words to him in that time. I didn’t know how to write a cover letter, because no one in my family had ever had the kind of job that had required them to write one. I wasn’t totally hopeless: I got good grades, started conversations with strangers in lecture theatres (I’m still friends with several people I tried that with to this day), and was just starting to strike up the courage to put myself forward for the things I wanted to do. But I don’t think most people would have looked at me and said, “That girl over there is going to be a shining success.”

It takes most people time to figure things out. And at 19, you’ve got plenty of time to do that.

So here’s my thought. Use this time you have at university to figure out what you like and what you’re good at. Stick your hand up for things. Get involved in clubs and societies. Start writing for - or running - the student paper. Apply to do work experience everywhere, and keep showing up after your tenure has ended if you have to (that’s how a couple of my uni friends got their jobs in TV). Make a podcast. Volunteer for a cause you care about. Contact someone who is running an event that interests you and offer to help them organise it. Force yourself to speak in public, even if it terrifies you, because if you do it enough, someday it won’t scare you anymore. Start talking to the kids in your class who intimidate you and realise they’re just as confused as you are. Even if they’re really good at pretending they’re not.

I say all this because the only way I have ever known to reliably build confidence is to throw myself into the deep end, and realise each time to my surprise I do in fact know how to swim. Confidence isn’t about believing that you can do everything already. It’s about trusting that even when you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll have the wits to figure it out.

And another thought: sometimes it’s nice to be in an environment where you’re average. It doesn’t have to mean that you are failing, it can just mean that you are surrounded by bright, capable people who are doing interesting things. I feel pretty “average” compared to some of the writers my age in New York, but I find that exciting, not intimidating. It doesn’t make me bad. To the contrary: it forces me to be better.

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Beyoncé isn’t Beyoncé because she reads comments on the Internet. Beyoncé is in Ibiza, wearing a stomach necklace, walking hand in hand with her hot boyfriend. She’s going on the yacht and having a mimosa. She’s not reading shitty comments about herself on the Internet, and we shouldn’t either. I just think, Would Beyoncé be reading this? No, she would just delete it or somebody would delete it for her. What I really need to do is close the computer and then talk back to that voice and say, Fuck you. I don’t give a shit what you think. I’m Beyoncé. I’m going to Ibiza with Jay-Z now, fuck off. Being criticized is part of the job, but seeking it out isn’t. That’s our piece to let go.

Kathleen Hanna 

I endorse this philosophy.

(via annfriedman)

(via emilygould)

Does anyone talk on the phone anymore?

When I was in my late teens, I used to call my closest friends every night. Sometimes for up to four hours, we would laugh, share secrets, shed tears and let our days unfurl in the retelling.

We used the internet, too – using the online chat software of the day to flirt, exchange witticisms, and bare our souls. But it was the phone that took precedence; which was the medium by which you could measure who were your closest friends. They were the ones who, are Marlene Dietrich put, “you could call up at 4am.” Or call at 8:30pm and keep on the line until 1.

It seems invasive now; this idea of dialing somebody’s number and demanding they talk to you, for hours on end. I wonder how we found the time. I wonder why we didn’t just go to a café or bar and talk there instead.

It also seems thoroughly unmodern. People talk on Gchat now, you see (which also feels pretty invasive to me, which is why I am perpetually on “invisible”), or Whatsapp, or Snapchat, or Instagram, using text and images rather than their voices. I don’t think this is something to mourn, or something that lacks intimacy – don’t get me wrong. I just think it’s different. And it’s interesting to me, because it seems to have changed in such a short period of time.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been playing around with a work of fiction; about two girls in their late teens, and their easy, intense but brittle intimacy. And I so badly want to lay them down on their beds, phones pressed to their ears and legs raised up against the headboard, talking about everything and nothing the same way my friends and I did when we were that age. But in order to do that, I would need to set the book ten years ago.

Does anyone talk on the phone anymore? Like, for fun rather than because they want to urgently apologise for running late, or talk through one of those work problems that can only be dealt with through conversation?

I talked on the phone almost daily up until around four years ago, when I left Australia. My best friend in Sydney loved the phone; she would call me at all hours to talk about the things that were sending her crazy, the latest gossip, or just to shoot the shit. And I would do the same, calling her to share news that was at once deeply important and horribly banal.

I would not call someone without warning anymore. I would text them first, and ask: “Can I call you?” Or, you know, see them in person.

So, these 19-year-old characters of mine… would they talk crap on the phone sometimes too? Or does that all take place on Gchat now?

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.