A few days ago, I turned my beating heart out onto a plate and talked publicly about my burnout and my increasingly-crippling depression and anxiety. I’m a photographer who specializes in working with women who are plus size, transgender or otherwise exist outside mainstream beauty standards. I also create stock photos of folks in marginalized populations.
Like many other small business owners, I have a pay-the-bills job and spend most of my waking hours working. I show up every day. I automate. I outsource some tasks. But like many entrepreneurs, especially women, I struggle. I trusted that people would at least respect the radical vulnerability on display.
The result: a smattering of folks sending private messages asking if I was okay. A smattering of folks suggesting avenues for publicity and sanity-saving tools like social media automation. All of which were appreciated and thanked.
And then the eye-rolling began, from other women with more established businesses. One woman huffed about“Business owners who get down on themselves after 2 years in because things aren’t what they expect. Holy shit are you kidding me?” Another used my story of vulnerability, without permission, as the basis for her marketing services sales pitch.
There’s a toxic part of entrepreneur culture that says you must be perky, privileged and manicured at all times. Be a #girlboss! Hustle! Woooooooooo!
American female entrepreneur culture is tied closely to what Kelly Diels calls the Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand, or FLEB. FLEB has two components:
“An archetype women must comply with and embody in order to be deserving of rights and resources
A marketing strategy that leverages social status and white privilege to create authority over other women.”
There’s no room for weakness in this culture. Our public lives must be perfectly curated at all times. Either you’re working 70 hours a week, charging ahead with a rose gold leather planner perfect for casual flat lays and the occasional tropical vacation suitable for bikini #TBTs, or you’re a dilettante who’s not really dedicated to the work.
The “You go, girl!” support stops the second a woman develops a medical issue, or a mental health issue, or just needs a break from the endless round of social media posting and networking events.
The frigid rigidity of #girlboss culture is not only a powerful way to exclude women who don’t fit into a certain mold of feminine attractiveness and superhuman health and endurance. It ignores the systemic issues of race, orientation, origin and class that heavily influence who is successful at establishing a business quickly, or at all.
Socioeconomic status, social class, level of health or illness, and access to health insurance, capital, connections, publicity, business and financial knowledge, training and the levers of power all affect individual women’s entrepreneurship and likelihood of success. FLEB entrepreneur culture further limits access to those advantages to those who fit a certain mold — a mold that those of us who are old, fat, brown, disabled, non-gender-conforming or poor find an impossible fit.
Stop assuming that women who are struggling in their journey are weak, or worthless, or unworthy, or incompetent, or just expect running a business to be rainbows and unicorns. (Trust me. Anyone who’s run a business for more than a week knows the latter isn’t true, despite half the internet claiming otherwise.)
Just because you walked uphill in the snow both ways for 20 years to establish your business doesn’t mean that other women need to do the same to be worthy of earning a living with their businesses. And it doesn’t mean you should pull the ladder up after you in fear that someone climbing the wall after you might have it a little easier.
If deep down, you want other women to suffer, that says more about you than it does about me.
When female entrepreneurs reach out for help, they shouldn’t be greeted with jeers of “Ooooh, is the wittle baby finding business too haaaaard?” You weren’t born with a client list. Someone — likely several someones — helped you along the way, at least a little. Even if you don’t want to be helpful, refrain from kicking the rungs out from under others.
If you do want to help the women following behind you in entrepreneurship, here are some ideas:
1. Listen to women.
2. Believe women.
3. Stop assuming that other women are struggling because they don’t know what they’re doing, or because they’re weak or lazy.
4. Tell your own story. How did you feel at two years? At four years? What got you through it then? What would help you now?
5. Stop romanticizing pain and struggling. Another woman’s lack of struggle does not invalidate your own struggle.
6. Remember who helped you, and how. Can you offer something similar to other women now?
7. Consider mentoring an up-and-comer.
8. Listen to women. Believe women.