by Powerbitches Founder & CEO, Rachel Hills
It’s not just about confidence. It’s about commodification.
I got my first post-college job in part because I was good at self-promotion.
By that, I don’t mean that I was an Instagram star (it was 2007 - I wouldn’t even start a public blog until later than year), or that I kept myself in the editorial team’s line of view (although, in retrospect, I guess I did). I mean that literally, when they were talking about who to hire, one of the people in the room apparently said “Rachel is good at promoting things that she is involved with.” Ergo, if they hired me, I would be good at promoting them, too.
And it was true: in the previous three years, I had managed to position the politics vertical of the volunteer-run youth website I co-edited as the (well, a) key place talented young people should be writing for if they wanted to make it in the media. I convinced people much older and more successful than I was to support my projects, and negotiated the people I was working with into spaces we didn’t technically belong in. I punched above my weight.
So it is strange, then, that I find myself so distinctly uncomfortable with the demands of self-promotion as they manifest themselves here in 2019. And I know I’m not the only one.
“We live in an era that asks us not just to sell our work, but to sell ourselves as symbols of aspiration and success.”
The standard response to this conundrum is that women don’t self-promote because we worry that talking about our successes without apology makes us less likeable. It’s imposter syndrome. It’s the confidence gap. And there’s truth in all those things. I considered deleting that paragraph above talking about my early 20-something accomplishments because I didn’t want to look braggy. And check out my small, apologetic self-deprecation up there in parentheses.
But I also think there's more to it than that. It’s that we live in an era that asks us not just to sell our work, but to sell ourselves as symbols of aspiration and success. That demands that we position ourselves as brands, when often, being a brand isn’t compatible with being a human being.
Brands are consistent. They are aspirational. They reveal only the parts of the story that make you want to purchase a product. Sometimes they even conjure a story that has little do with the facts of the product being sold at all.
Human beings, on the other hand, are messy and multifaceted. Sometimes we feel powerful and firing on all cylinders, and other times we’re sad and wracked with self-doubt. We might be hard working, hyper efficient event, but we’re not automatons. People can be inspired by us and what we create, but that doesn't mean we're perfect.
As Powerbitches member and feminist marketing consultant Kelly Diels observes, there are parallels between the ways we are exhorted to position ourselves professionally, and the ways womxn are told to present ourselves in everyday life more generally. Diels writes:
“In a culture that requires women to present with mandatory femininity, to behave in particular ways, and to perform certain behaviors in order to get access to rights and resources, every woman in our culture has to present herself as saleable, consumable object.
We have to manage impressions; we have to manage a perceptions; and we have to exhibit a certain set of qualities and have a story associated with us in order to get the things that we want – because those resources are associated with that story.”
And broadcasting that story - and maintaining its consistency - is labor: both in terms of the sheer amount of output required to remain visible in an attention economy that "24-hour" doesn't seem to do full justice to, and on the level of our souls, as we flatten our complexities in order to become more desirable consumable objects. It’s understandable - and entirely rational - that we might flinch at or resist those demands.
“Often, being a brand isn’t compatible with being a human being.”
At the same time, as creators - be it of art, or businesses, or social change - sharing our stories with the world is part of how we build alliances, change culture, and make impact. The question is how to balance the need to present our work to the world with courage and confidence, without replicating toxic marketing dynamics, or burying ourselves in own hype.
This week another Powerbitches member, Kate Gardiner, co-published a report on The Self-Promotion Gap, which suggests that part of the solution is to reframe talking about our accomplishments as a service to others. Ie, you're not bragging - you're inspiring by showing others the possibilities that are available to them, too.
For me, I’ve found the answer is to focus on the work. When I talking about what I’m creating and why it matters, I feel lit up, charismatic, a force to be reckoned with. In championing the things I care about, I become a more authentic - and effective - champion for myself. Which is probably how I got that post-college job offer back in 2007.
Join us for a conversation about authentic self-promotion in Astoria on Tuesday June 11 - there are two spots open for virtual members as well.