Empathy trek

I was sitting on the idea for this blog for quite a few months. It just kept popping up in my mind as something that I needed to do. It was persistent and finally I was like “Fine…I’ll do it…Gaaaawwwwwdd.”

Mary and Hannah selfie

I was sitting on the idea for this blog for quite a few months. It just kept popping up in my mind as something that I needed to do. It was persistent and finally I was like “Fine…I’ll do it…Gaaaawwwwwdd.” Usually, when I do something, there’s a whole plan around it. What’s the strategy? What’s the intent? What will it look like? How will I execute? How will I sustain this? Is it scalable? Oh god, “Is it scalable?” is the biggest idea killer. The “planning” is exhausting and paralyzing and it’s really just an excuse to not start. In fact, when I published the first few articles, people I’d run into would ask those same questions. My honest reply: “I don’t know, I just want to do it.”

I started by sending an email to 12 women that I thought were cool. I estimated that I’d get half to participate. To my surprise, all 12 not only said “yes,” they were excited, supportive and generous. “Wow, that’s cool,” I thought. I was surprised, but totally pumped that all 12 wanted to play.

I started planning the photoshoots, scheduling interviews, developing the editorial calendar, designing the website and I was in full project management mode. Which really means that I was checking boxes and getting shit done, MY FAVORITE!!! It’s also a very disconnected mode. It’s all about moving the needle toward the deadline and not stopping to consider people. When I started having the interviews with the women I work with, I realized more was happening than just a blog about style and that I needed to take a pause and pay closer attention to the stories.

Originally, I thought style meant fashion. Let’s talk about where you shop and how you put your look together. SQUEEEEEEEAAAAAAL!!! But what was happening was an expression of true style, which as defined by Webster is: A particular kind, sort, or type, as with reference to form, appearance, or character.

The weight of what was really happening hit me. Women were confiding in me. They were telling me their stories about how they grew up, failures in their careers, nerves about motherhood, insecurities about how they looked. The list goes on and on. “Oh, maybe don’t include THAT in the article.” Holy shit, they have a lot of courage and I have a bigger responsibility than I had anticipated.

And then they turned the tables on me. It started with Hannah. She was one of the first women featured. “When are you going to do it? I’ll write your article.” My knee-jerk reaction, in my head, was: “Never.” My outward reaction was probably an eyeroll, a face and some excuse why not. But it kept coming up. “When is it your turn?” “When are we going to see the face behind the blog?” “I want to read your profile.”

When I started this process, I didn’t really think through what I was asking of my friends. I see them through my lens and what I see is beauty, creativity, strength and tons of style. It NEVER dawned on me that what I was asking put the women I work with in a very vulnerable position. I had zero empathy and made a lot of assumptions about how easy this would be for them. Look at them, they are so cool, of course they want their photo taken!

As long as I was writing about and photographing other women, nobody was looking at me. I don’t want anyone looking at me or reading about my personal life and how I feel about my appearance. I’m boring, ugly and have no style. If I go in front of the camera and get interviewed, this will all be revealed. Everyone will see that I’m boring, ugly and have no style. And then what?

That’s the truth. As I write it, it makes me sad that I had those thoughts. I suspect a lot of women had similar thoughts and I suspect that when I ask them to participate in this project, they first go to that dark place and talk themselves out of it, take a deep breath, see the big picture and then send the email that says: “Yes Mary, I’ll participate.”

It takes a lot of guts to send that email and I didn’t realize that before. I’m grateful to the first 12 women. They exhibited a lot of courage and put themselves out there for a project that had no definition or clarity. I’m also thankful that they encouraged me to walk in their shoes through this experience because I’ve learned so much.

There’s still no plan or strategy, just a desire to tell more stories and a commitment to make things with the women I work with.

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