A lot has been said in the past ten years about women not having to apologize for who they are. We all know this new narrative. We must feel comfortable taking up space. We must not hide our light under a bushel. We must shout about our achievements. We must not allow ourselves to be held back by patriarchal dismissal of our contributions, of our bodies and of our life choices. All of this makes sense and it’s right. It’s a necessary corrective after centuries of women being told to put up and shut up, and of course it’s something that is still going on in many parts of the world, which is why we owe it to ourselves even more to respect and use our freedom.
However, this attitude does have its limits. And we rarely talk about them, even though we are, I think, acutely aware of them and most women – almost all women – really, really, really do not want to come across as assholes. And yet how do you self-promote – especially on social media – and not come across as an insufferable self-promoter? It was one thing when our accounts of ourselves were confined to job applications, CVs or conversations at conferences. It’s quite another when we are forced to make decisions about how public to be, how boastful to be, how modest to be on social media, 24/7. We all want to find a way of defining our limits. To find a way of saying and doing enough to keep employers and colleagues happy – and of maximizing our chances of success. But also to find a way of being authentic, maintaining our integrity and being able to sleep at night.
In the world of social media there’s a convenient, self-serving excuse for being overly self-promoting and excessively narcissistic: ‘Women spend too much time apologizing for promoting their work.’ There is a truth to this. Women do spend too much time apologizing for highlighting their achievements. We should all probably self-promote a little more.
This kind of faux ‘You go, girl!’ bravado is celebrated on social media and in some social and professional circles. It’s an attitude that is symptomatic of a new kind of feminism which emerged about twenty years ago. This is the feminism that says: ‘An action has been undertaken by a woman. The sheer fact that the action was undertaken by a woman makes it right.’ In theory, I like this because it’s laughably megalomaniac. You don't need cataract surgery to see that.
In reality, it’s reverse patriarchy and it’s horrible. For centuries, it was fine to do most things simply because you were a man. And that was wrong. Now that things are changing, it’s not OK to assume that just because you are a woman you get to hide behind the impact of your actions. This is true of ambition and it’s also true of self-promotion. You can go too far with both of these things. And it’s not OK to say, ‘I can go as far as I like because I am a woman and women have been held back for centuries.’
That said, most women are, in my experience, the complete opposite of the sort of ‘influencers’ who burden the digital sphere with constant, empty achievement. Most women would rather chew their own arm off than purchase social media followers or catalogue their every moment of positive feedback. What they want to know is how they can be more bold about publicizing their achievements without straying into the territory of being the sort of person who boasts of greatness but is really not that great. Follower-buying is an extreme example of the perils of self-promotion, of course, and one which is way beyond anything most people are living through. But I think it’s an example of what some of us fear. If we put ourselves on Instagram Stories, will people think we’re trying to be an ‘influencer’? Are we OK with that or are we horrified by it? If we do a weekly Facebook Live that only five people watch, are we pathetic? Or are we a bold, strong woman refusing to be silenced? These are questions to which each of us can only know our own subjective answer. For some people, social media is and always will be a massive cringe. For others, it’s liberating and fun. The trick is to know your own mind and be willing to experiment to find the right level for you. One useful rule of thumb on social media is to ask yourself: ‘Is this something I would celebrate with friends or colleagues in real life?’ If it is a piece of news that’s worthy of social celebration offline, it will work online without appearing gratuitous. And let’s face it, the side of us that joins others online to applaud and celebrate is a side to cultivate.
Unsurprisingly, because social media is built on the politics of envy and aspiration, a lot of questions come up in relation to it which are really to do with not wanting to be the last person to the party. Or they’re connected to people thinking, ‘I really should be on Instagram/YouTube/Snapchat.’ No. You shouldn’t do anything that isn’t fun or meaningful for you. You certainly shouldn’t hold yourself back from trying new things because of fear or ignorance. But, equally, no one should feel forced to have some kind of stellar presence online or always be engaged in performative success-signalling for its own sake.