The courage to be ourselves
why it is important to the world to be who you are
Someone once told me that we have to dress for the job we want to have. I thought: if how I dress is the way you perceive how serious I am about my work, we have a much bigger problem here.
I am in my mid-thirties, but I look like I am 15, small-built, Asian and female. Except that I don’t actually look very feminine, or what people perceive as feminine. I have hair shorter than most men I know, I don’t wear dresses and I stay 3 feet away from makeup.
People think I am deliberately presenting myself as non-feminine, but honestly, I don’t know and care what my gender truly is, I just present as myself. I like having my hair short not because it represents masculinity, but it is pure joy to have hair that doesn’t feel like it is weighing you down. Everyone should try it some day. I don’t wear dresses because I find them cumbersome, not to mention that I find the idea of having a collection of shoes to match the dresses tiring. I don’t wear makeup because it is extremely uncomfortable for me — imagine this, I don’t even like hair on my head, much less an extra layer on my face.
I guess I just want to feel as light-weight as possible.
I relate a lot to the sexist attitudes in tech presented in this post. I couldn’t help but think about the situations I have faced myself, and feel almost sorry that I had not only faced bias because of my gender, or lack of one — depending on who I meet — but I face bias based on my perceived age (15, not kidding, people ask me where I go to school or where my parents are), my build (not towering enough to win a room), my race.
I have barely even started on the parts of me that is not visible.
When we first applied for my work visa a few years ago, I didn’t have a college degree, so I had to prove that I have a decade’s worth of work experience. It was difficult and stressful, for a short moment in time, I contemplated going back to school. I even found myself wondering if it was a mistake to give up on college. Everything in life is a tradeoff, right? Sometimes we have to do a lot of the things we do not like in order to get to the things we want.
I could have gone to college, grown my hair long, wear makeup and don power suits so I don’t look 15, put on 6-inch heels to make myself look taller. It would have made a lot of my life, much easier. I did actually go through a part of my very early 20s doing all of that. My soul started disintegrating, and perhaps if I was less sensitive I would have put up with all of that. Some part of me wished that I could carry on with that — I attributed the willingness to be someone you are not for a greater purpose as strength and resilience.
But I would be participating and buying into a system I don’t believe in. What goes?
I had spent another 4 years of my career working entirely remotely as an independent designer. I would only work asynchronously through email, there would be no phone or video calls, no in-person meetings.
Apart from valuing my time and freedom (wasn’t aware of my introversion back then), I did it because I felt unsafe. I couldn’t trust that I would be judged and interacted with, based on the merit of my work, that people would attribute the worth of my work through their perception of my physical presence. I had attempted to go independent without placing such boundaries earlier in my career — coincided with the long hair— and ended up desperately escaping from it. That’s another story for another day.
That 4 years gave me the safety and space I needed to grow into myself and build up my body of work. I didn’t have to worry about how I would present myself or if my inability to express myself verbally would impact the perception of my work. I had the written word to lean on.
But I am incredibly blessed and privileged. I was a designer by trade, so I could depend on work that was highly visible as a representation of my value. I could have continued hiding myself from the world if I wanted to.
What about the others?
This is why, despite that it really seems the hell easier if I bought into the system, to be who people wanted just so we can skip the bullshit and focus on the work at hand, I refuse to do so.
I struggle with this all the time. To be aware that people do not take me seriously because of how I look and present myself and yet persist in doing so. I do not want to live in a world that you have to be: white, male, old, tall, attractive, with expensive suits and shoes to boot, armed with ivy league degrees and an old boys’ network that comes with college alumni, with behaviors of aggression mistaken for confidence, displays of power misunderstood for capability — in order to succeed.
I want to be who I want to be — with the way I feel most comfortable presenting myself as, armed with huge doses of empathy, with immense curiosity and open-mindedness, the desire to learn without formal institutions, to be quiet and introspective, to have the energy that demonstrates my capacity to listen and collaborate, that I know enough that I do not know enough. I think confidence is over-rated and humility is under-rated.
I want to be this person, not to “succeed”, or by any conventional metrics and perception of what success means, but to carry the weight and gift of what it means to be human:
We are all beautiful unique individuals, and carry different innate gifts within ourselves, yet we can all work together for the collective good, while respecting and admiring the difference and diversity we have as a species.
It takes courage to be ourselves, it takes a lot of hard work and self-awareness. But we are continually building a world that other people live in, that means at every step of the road, we need to continually ask ourselves, what kind of world do we want our kids to live in? Do we want a world where they have to disown their beautiful personalities just to fit in our idea of what it takes to succeed? That it is celebrated that we spend our formative years disowning who we are?
If my entire life is just spent on struggling to be who I am, I think that is worth it. I am claiming my stake in this world’s future, that perhaps one day, it is not too audacious dreaming of a world where people can be whoever they want to be, look whatever they want to look, and they no longer have to doubt if they are worth a seat at the table, or try to oppress each other because we are afraid that there’s not enough seats at the table, so we can really roll up our sleeves and do what we are supposed to do:
Create a world that expresses our innate potential as human beings, not the fucking mess it is right now.
That starts from now. By being who we are, we are creating a safe space for other people to be who they are. We are changing perceptions and definitions for what it looks like to be <insert whoever you want to be>.
I wrote this because I read “Coding Like a Girl”:
But if you feel up to it, I encourage you wear exactly what you want. Be as flamboyant, fancy, frilly, girly as you would like to be. Do it while being a gamer, a programmer, a game designer. Because you are helping to change people’s ideas of what a programmer/gamer/game developer looks like.