Last year, a woman came up to me at a wedding and told me she had to unfollow me on social media because I was ‘too much’. I immediately felt an implied criticism and that it was my role to apologise.
It’s not a surprising reaction – historically women have been made to feel that they don’t have a right to talk about things going well for them. It’s seen as arrogant, slightly unfeminine, and leaves us with an overwhelming sense of shame.
As poet Nayyirah Waheed writes: “The fear of not being enough and the fear of being 'too much' are exactly the same fear. The fear of being you.” Since I turned 40 last year, I’ve come to realise now that if you don’t claim the space, no one else is going to do it for you. I had been waiting for permission from some unknown person to celebrate, but that person, I now know, needs to be myself. Today, I try to feel comfortable with myself and my success when it comes, so if I’m proud about something I will post about it. I try not to worry about other people’s opinions – they aren’t something I can control.
The key, however, is to claim your success rather than celebrate it. While celebrating success revolves around the outcome of something, claiming success highlights the work you put into getting to that point. So I don’t post about the symbols of my success –bragging posts celebrating the fact that I’m on a private jet, for example (although that’s mainly because I’ve never been on one). Instead, I claim the space I deserve to occupy on this because of the hard work I’ve put in to get there.
I’ll also mark my success in a more tangible way. For example, with every single book advance I’ve received, I’ve used some of the money to buy something meaningful. To celebrate the success of my 'How to Fail' podcast and the book, I got a tattoo of my favourite E.M.Forster quote. It says ‘Only Connect’, which is really the guiding principle of my life. I got it as a permanent reminder of this incredible point in my career, to deliberately mark something that is essentially quite ephemeral.
Personally, I think it’s important we do mark our success. In the past, women’s stories, and particularly women’s success stories, have been marginalised by a society which is predominantly male in shape and discourse. Making a woman feel ashamed of her success is another way of diminishing her voice and making her feel less than, like she doesn’t have a right to occupy this space which has been previously dominated by men.
I actually think it’s a feminist and a quietly revolutionary act to look yourself in the eye as a woman and acknowledge that you are doing well. Self-belief is a very powerful tool for a woman, but it’s important we believe in other women too. The reason I fight against female competitiveness is because when dissent is sown between us, it means we can’t use that power which comes from female solidarity. We need that power for women to make inroads into professional spheres as well as personal ones.
Incidentally, that woman at the wedding recently messaged me to apologise. It was a lovely reminder that women are always stronger when they come together. A rising tide raises all boats – my success doesn’t diminish yours so we need to celebrate when we see each other’s achievements instead of criticising them. The power lies in the togetherness.