On image and influence
Sometimes small questions provoke big thoughts.
Collin asked us the other day, as he and Emily and I were on our way to a party – who do you dress for on a night out? I mulled over this question as we made our way into the station, and as I paused at the train doors, I concluded that I dress to be respected. But as I continued to dissect my answer, I realized something: dressing for respect meant I dressed for others' eyes.
And in this world, I’ve learned to live for the eyes of others too. To take up space in the male-dominated tech environments I frequent, I change the way I speak, stand, act, listen, molding myself into their world. This feels necessary for success, for survival even. Any practical advice I’ve received from other women echoes this sentiment: Don’t come across as too critical. Too much honesty is discouraging. Too much warmth will be exploited. Be careful who you’re personal with. Get to a place of power before holding people accountable. We all hope for a world in which these changes aren’t necessary, but also agree that that world won’t materialize in our lifetimes. And so we learn to play the game.
The older I’ve gotten, the more accustomed I’ve grown to navigating the dissonance between who I am and how I may be perceived. I have grown more cautious, setting boundaries and revealing my whole self to people only when I grow to trust them. It feels a far way off from the unbothered, loquaciously open energy I projected into the world when I was younger.
I think this would draw the ire of 12-year old Anita, who decided she hated shopping and defiantly wore the same sweatshirt to school everyday. It would disappoint 14-year old Anita, who joined her friends in loudly debating older boys about abortion and international policy. It would probably even shock 16-year old Anita, who showed up to her AP computer science class in bright red lipstick, shamelessly pulling out her compact mirror whenever she pleased.
These changes have been gnawing at me for a while. It’s hard not to be bitter about the fact that the world has changed how I present myself. That I feel I have to temporarily shape shift and tell my story a certain way before I gain enough influence to be myself. However, while these changes feel untrue to my past selves, they’ve worked. Being more conscious of my image has granted me the power to be happier and more confident now than I was as a kid. I know what it takes to be successful, and it feels good to reap the benefits of that.
Life is a journey of finding the space to return to yourself. But to get there, it feels like we have to compromise some aspects of who we are now. Growing up feels like growing out of myself. Perhaps, sometimes, growth is betrayal. What’s kept me sane amidst this is being conscious not to conflate the impression I project into the world with the person I truly am. Resisting boxing ourselves into our public personas requires finding spaces in our lives where we can be our full selves. As we grow, it’s important to seek or create secure environments for ourselves and for others. I’ve found that space for myself in my friendships. While I navigate this sometimes cold, sometimes messy world, I hang on tightly to the people that make me feel safe. The friends around whom I don’t feel judged for being me– the girl with the stupid questions, the baby voice, the goofy humor. These are the people who believe I’m smart before I do myself, people around whom I don’t need to worry about how I come across.
As I grow further and gain influence in my life and my career, I want to create similar spaces of comfort for others, so that maybe they don’t feel the need to mold themselves to the world as much as I did. Whether it’s an organization, a pocket of the internet, or an in-person community, I hope I’m able to support more people in showing up as their full selves. And I hope I reach a place in life where I feel comfortable enough in my success to be vocal about all my opinions and help shape the culture of this industry.
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And today we end with a poem for your time ~ this one reminds me of all the wonderful friends who’ve visited me this year, I think a city feels more like home once the people you love pay you a visit ✨