This is Me
And believe it or not, I am successful. That’s on you!
This is me.
I have my Ed.D., a robust LinkedIn profile, I’ve been recognized by my university and the city of Pittsburgh for my work in disability advocacy, every semester a respectable number of my students report that my class is one of their all time favorite college courses (which is particularly meaningful because we tend to have these conversations after they have received their grades), and if I need a letter of recommendation for any type of endeavor, off the top of my head I can name at least five people who’d be willing to write one on the spot. I have a reputation for being passionate, creative, and dedicated. I’ve worked really, really hard to get here and I consider myself to be successful both as a professional and as a well-rounded person (gotta own your power!).
This is my headshot.
I use this photo because it reflects my personality as well as the ideology that drives my work as an educator and disability advocate. Life is hard, laugh when you can, and share the love. Don’t be stingy, just do it. Over the years I’ve learned that humor is a valuable tool that can help build compassionate relationships, serve as a source of comfort and relief in stressful situations, and provide much needed perspective. I’ve worked with individuals with disabilities for over a decade and in my professional experience I’ve found that a sense of humor has the power to make difficult things approachable. When it comes to making societal progress, education, empathy, and humility are vital and I believe that the ability to make someone crack a smile is a great way to get them on your team. Shared laughter helps us relate; humor makes us human.
I’ve been trying to expand my activism and advocacy efforts and recently I applied to be a mental health leader for an organization that’s mission and vision is to highlight individuals with mental illness who are successful. Their goal is that these stories will inspire others living with mental illnesses and empower them to raise their own voice, challenging stigma one storyteller at a time. I was accepted and one of my first tasks was typing my narrative for the “Our Stories” webpage. And including a headshot of course. This is me. This is my headshot. This is my story. Mission accomplished! Or is it..?
This afternoon I received an email from the organization’s coordinator asking for a different photo. Specifically a photo that is “similar to the ones on the website” in order to “keep consistency.” “Something slightly more professional.” I balked. This felt like an odd request coming from an organization that wants to celebrate individuals and their genuine stories. I was not expecting headshot censorship. I didn’t think they’d ask me to look like anyone else. To pose the same, smile the same, project the same degree of “professionalism” (such a bogus concept). Do they want me to sound the same too?
I just emailed the coordinator because I want to try and understand her perspective. And more importantly understand how this mindset plays out in the reputation, operation, and overall philosophy of this organization. I asked her why “professional” was so narrowly defined. I asked her why being “consistent” was prioritized over being ourselves. I told her that I had hoped that this organization was about who we are and not who we’re told to be.
Stigma starts with silencing people and erasing experiences that aren’t valued by mainstream society. Telling me to rethink myself seems like it’s treading close to that line. I thought that this organization wanted to showcase diverse backgrounds and amplify diverse voices because success doesn’t look like one type of person. Cue me with my cheesy grin. Because the thing is, I’m successful because I have a sense of humor. As someone living with a serious mental illness, hope and humor go hand in hand. If I can’t laugh, I can’t be myself. Without humor, I’m not healthy. Trying to fit in has failed me, life with laughter is my way to thrive. But that’s just me! Representation matters and when we limit ourselves to one way of thinking, to one way of existing, we lose authenticity. We lose reality. Honesty and individuality are devalued in the name of stifling sameness. That’s a sacrifice we shouldn’t have to make.
I haven’t heard back from the coordinator yet and I wonder what the conversation will look like. But this headshot squabble, as small as it may seem, is actually enough to make me walk away. Because it’s not just about a photo with the right amount of pixels, but rather the restrictive idea that there’s a template for a happy, healthy, successful person. It’s about valuing certain experiences — and people — over others. We all have to define what happiness, health, and success mean for us, there’s no one way. There’s no right way. We all have our own stories.
If she emails me back I will ask her how she expects me to genuinely connect with anyone who is looking for answers if I’m not true to myself. I’m a badass bitch who’s persevered despite living with a treacherous illness. I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of my smile. I’m proud of my silliness. Laughter is my language and this is my story. This is me. Why would I ever want a new photo?