Welcome to your Sunday Love Letter by Kelly Diels. I send these every Sunday by email and publish a few of them here, on my website. If you’d like to get ALL of these doses of radical encouragement, you can subscribe, here.
Maybe because it’s election season in Canada, but or the last two weeks, I’ve been replaying an event from grade 7 in my head.
(As one does when you’re 46??!!)
Here’s the deal: I was running for class president.
And by ‘running’, I mean our teacher had picked the two kids with the highest grades in the class, one boy and one girl (moi), and ‘nominated’ us for the position. Now the class had to vote.
when I looked at the ballot with my name on it, I suddenly felt it was wrong to vote for myself even though I KNEW that
(a) in fact I had the highest grades in the class and if that was the criteria, Bobby M’s name shouldn’t be on the ballot at all
(b) I would do a better job than Bobby because I had IDEAS (oh the dances I was going to plan) and he didn’t even WANT the job. He just wanted to beat me.
And I wanted to win, too — but I didn’t want to be selfish.
What, I wondered, would a truly nice girl do?
Vote for herself or vote for Bobby?
I was 12 years and I was forensically strategic. As twelve year old girls are.
Related: In The Second Shift, one of the weird things researcher Arlie Hotschild finds when she’s mapping domestic labour in homes is that people say one thing and do the opposite. Over and over again, seemingly ‘progressive’ heterosexual couples (especially high income ones) tell her that the domestic labour in their family is split evenly between them along non-gendered lines, even though when she digs into who does what, the load is disproportionately borne by the women; while many of the ‘traditional’ heterosexual couples (especially the lower-income ones) divide the labour in far more equitable ways.
She is especially perplexed when a woman who is clearly a leader at home and at work, who is confident, smart and has her husband’s respect, proudly tells her that the men should be in charge because she, as a woman, just doesn’t have what it takes and is not suited to the role (even though she’s often actually DOING IT!!!).
Hotschild ends up making some kind of sense of it by referring to the sociological research that says that in their late tweens/early teens, girls assess their persona resources and social position, and what they know about the world, and make an explicit decision about the success strategy they will pursue in life. If you’re pretty and straight, you’ll double down on dating and marriage and marrying up as a success strategy. If you’re academically gifted, you’ll try to win all the academic prizes and use university and career as a success strategy. And so on and so on. (She has a particularly interesting theory about why some women become champions of female subservience — it, too, is a success strategy.)
This rang true to me, because I remember doing exactly the same thing.
I knew I was really smart…but that wasn’t exactly boosting my ratings amongst my peers. Neither was my willingness to mouth off and challenge people, especially boys. I was never going to get a boyfriend like this. And so going into grade 7, I decided to be nice. I resolved to stop kicking boys in the shins when they insulted me or tried to chase me. I resolved to be super friendly and caring and nice to everyone so that I would be popular. My goal was that in the future, whenever someone spoke of me, they’d say I was the nicest girl they knew.
And so I voted for fucking Bobby Muir instead of myself.
When Mr. Taylor tallied the votes and announced the results: a tie.
Oh my gawd. The boys erupted. Clapped and cheered for Bobby. He smiled ear to ear, accepting his due.
And he hadn’t even won. But to him and the boys in the class, preventing me from winning was a triumph and cause for celebration.
I was furious. Outraged.
It was only a tie because I didn’t vote for myself.
If I had voted for myself, I would have won.
For sure it never, ever occurred to Bobby NOT to vote for himself.
Likeability is a success strategy. It was my deliberate success strategy at age 12 (and it continued to be, until recently).
Likeability is a cultural imperative — a weapon — used against women. Be nice or else.
Likeability is a weapon women entrepreneurs are trained to use in their marketing, as Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brands.
[Against who? Other women.]
So not surprisingly, likeability is a weapon we’re pressured to internalize and use against ourselves.
That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately: all the ways in which I haven’t been on my own team. All the ways I’ve voted against myself. All the time — years — I built other people up (people who often went on to harm me) instead of building my own future.
Some of the things are tiny but revealing:
- I pack careful lunches for my kids every single day…while often going without lunch myself, because work.
- I schedule dentist appointments for my kids but not myself because money.
- I’ve written and sent resumes for male partners and advocated for their careers while languishing in a job that underused my skills because fear.
- I’ve starved myself — STARVED MYSELF — because fat.
- I’ve paused, questioned myself, bit my tongue when someone did or said something awful, because nice.
- I’ve delayed opportunities because shining too bright attracts the light eaters (eg what will my intellectually dishonest critics say?).
These are ways I’ve continued to vote for Bobby instead of myself. For decades.
Because that’s what I’ve been trained to do.
12 year old girls make forensic decisions about being pretty, nice or smart — in other words, about how to be a successful woman — because they have to.
I’ve been struggling with some body image issues this summer so I decide to lean into it. Let’s look at that body in pictures! It’s like aversion therapy via camera.
So this week I had two photo shoots.
During photo shoot #2, when Nicole and I were out and about taking pictures, we saw a red t-shirt in shop window that said “Team Kelly”.
I’ve been wrestling with voting against myself and here’s this t-shirt telling me to get on my own team.
All this to ask:
What was your 12 year old success strategy? Is it still in play? Does it have to be?
In your everyday actions — packing lunches, blocking time, making appointments — are you remembering to vote for yourself? (You might have to remind yourself and retrain yourself to do that — because our cultural conditioning will often make us do the opposite.)
I don’t want my children to feel the pressure to perform some sanitized, likeable version of themselves in order to be successful.
In the world I’m dreaming of, ‘success’ means being our full selves.
In the culture I’m trying to grow, it’s not selfish for women and girls to take care of themselves and advance their dreams and desires. It’s necessary and celebrated.
You get to vote for yourself.
And I do, too.
love + justice,
photo credit: A Clover and a Bee Photography
I write, work and live on land that is the unceded territory of the Stó:lō.
Important to note: just ‘cuz I mention someone’s work does not mean we know each other. It doesn’t mean they even know I exist nor does it mean that they like me or approve of my work. Nor does it mean I endorse them unequivocally or that they endorse me. It means that there’s a particular cultural thing that I’m trying to talk about and an idea or project of their’s is relevant and I want to give credit where credit is due.
I send these newsletters every Sunday by email and publish a select few of them here, on my website. If you’d like these doses of radical encouragement in your life and your inbox, you can subscribe, here — and thank you!