“YOU ARE SETTING BACK ALL OF WOMANKIND!”
My mum and I don’t usually fight. But, like any good mother, she knew which buttons to press.
Her rather dramatic accusation was born from a “discussion” around my reluctance to self-promote. This isn’t some coy, “Who me?” eyelash flutter or a righteous judgement on those who were born with a Twitter account. It just doesn’t come naturally – like talking in public or cooking or needlework or running a 5K or an interest in Harry Potter. Some people have things; some people don’t.
We tussled back and forth: “You don’t make enough of yourself – you don’t believe in yourself!” All mums say that, right? “I believe in graft and substance and hard work,” I retaliated, with all the earnest meekness of Emma Watson at the UN to my audience of one.
“Oh, come on. If you don’t sell yourself, who on earth will?!”
Selling ourselves is not a new phenomenon. Since the dawn of time, women have been commodities; the recently introduced Modern Slavery Act reflects just how literal that statement is. At the other end of the scale, we’ve always been used to shift commodities: cars, hamburgers, cat food. And whole industries are built on selling us things we don’t actually need but are, apparently, the only way of leaving the house in a socially acceptable fashion. One way or another, women are tradable goods and, whether we like it or not, we’re in on the business of selling – of being sold, too, unknowingly or knowingly.
Above all, be the TV reality star of your own life, just without the heroics; victim of nothing, other than the insecurities brought about by staring at your own face for too long
Enter stage left The Internet – and, for a moment in time, the conveyor belt stopped and suddenly we were in charge. We could take ownership of our commodification, right? We could sell ourselves however we like. I mean, sure, we have to look thin and happy and all wear the same jumper, but we have become a nation of Simon Fullers, perfecting, sculpting, PR-ing ourselves. This is empowerment in 2017. Above all, be the TV reality star of your own life, just without the heroics; victim of nothing, other than the insecurities brought about by staring at your own face for too long.
Do I sound cynical? Reading the brilliant Susie Lau aka Susie Bubble – surely the first digital influencer? – I feel less so (“influencer” is the word used to describe people who have made a living out of posting pictures of themselves on Instagram. I may sound snarky, but the person being paid $50,00 a snap surely has the last laugh). Talking about how the internet has impacted on fashion, she recently wrote: “Despite my own misgivings over the authenticity and commercial monetisation, on the part of what American law professor and author Tim Wu refers to as ‘attention merchants’, there’s an ultimate ray of positivity that can’t be diminished. The way we – and, by we, I mean anyone with an internet connection and a device – get to participate and interact with fashion has changed fundamentally for the better.”
Although I know nothing about fashion, I get that – there’s a democratisation and we can express ourselves, whoever we are. But Susie Lau also has something to sell – she has buckets of substance, she has knowledge and originality, she was a pioneer in her field. She’s not just riding high on the huff and puff of Twitter or the fake filters on Instagram or the thumbs-up of Facebook; she not about spawning copycats as hollow as their idol, as empty as a showroom.
Of course, there was no way I could say this to my mum in a short, brilliantly damning sentence that would claim eternal victory. So, I played the only card I had left: moody teenage silence.
Because we know women need to do better at championing themselves – we know some are guilty of schoolgirl syndrome, where they think “head down and work hard” equals promotion and pay rise. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all women – and I don’t want to perpetuate an unhelpful myth – but I sure as hell am not the only woman who is shit at selling herself. And am I silencing the women who are promoting themselves in a way men have always done? Am I being judgemental of a generation that has found its voice and is behaving in a truly modern way?
I hope not, I really do. But, especially in our age of fake news and alternative reality, I stupidly, naively, Emma Watson-at-the-UN earnestly believe in choosing substance over style, of not listening to the loudest, most showiest noise, and I certainly don’t want to go on a “brand me” course to empower myself on International Women’s Day, as one email this week suggested (I think they might have missed the point). My heroes have knowledge and experience and hard work. They sell themselves through what they do and have done. And, yes, they sell themselves – they acknowledge their achievements, they are not afraid to talk about it, they celebrate themselves but, you know, they’ve done something.
My mum and I apologised to each to each other.
“I just care about you,” she said. “You’re not actually setting back womankind” is what she should have said. But it did make me realise something: we are in the age of self-promotion. Get yourself on a TV show and, who knows, you could be leader of the free world. If I have to sell anything, I want to make sure it’s something I believe in.