Women, Writing, and Self Promotion--Or How Do I Market Myself Without Feeling Like I'm Selling Leptoprin?

I knew it would happen someday. I'd just hoped it wouldn't be yesterday. But sure enough, there it was, an email from my new boss asking for a headshot of me that looked "more corporate." "It should be in color," she said, and I should wear "a dress shirt."

Of course none of that should have been a problem. I have tons of "dress shirts" and even suit jackets and I wear them to teach all the time. But for some reason the email sent me into a tailspin, bringing up all those old, familiar feelings of "I'm not ready" and "I'm not good enough" and "but I'd wanted to lose 10, 15--okay 30--pounds before I got professional headshots." I'm perfectly fine dealing with people in person, in writing, and over the phone, but with all of this skype and twitter and globalization, I actually have to consider my image??? My physical boobs and hips and hair and lips and not so white anymore teeth?

Glasses on or glasses off? Shirt buttoned all the way up or top button undone? Hair fluffed to the side or off my face? Standing in front of the plant or beside it? Showing the white board behind me or the calendar? In front of books or not, and if so, which books? American lit, or should I have a copy of Poets & Writers in the background?

"This is good for you," Mark said, getting the digital camera. "And I'll actually get to get your picture." Grrrrrrr.

Almost a hundred shots later, we had four that were potentially acceptable headshots. No, they weren't taken by a professional, but at least they'll work for now. But by the end, Mark was frustrated and I was drenched in sweat. As I peeled off my now wet jacket and the blouse underneath, I thought about why all of this is so hard for me. Why is it so hard for me to market myself, my writing, my other professional work? And how can I market myself without feeling like the woman on the Leptoprin commercial?

Isn't it enough that I've worked so hard? Isn't it enough that my book/my class/my coaching/my knowledge/my editorial insight is so good? Doesn't quality matter?

And of course, the answer is no--and yes. Yes, quality matters, but unfortunately, in this big, bad image-driven global world, quality and hard work aren't all that counts. They go a long way, surely, but they don't go all the way. So for those of us who have an allergy to all things image and all things marketing? Well, we're just going to have to swallow a big, bitter dollop of get over it. As Lee Skallerup Bessette says in this fabulous post, we have to be willing to "take chances," to "be patient and persistent," to "be open and have thick skin," and not ever to let that "little voice" inside of ourselves win.

Come on, women. Let's do it, let's make it, let's own it, even if we can't yet be it. Even if we can't yet see what we already are.


Sophia said…
Kathryn, this is an interesting post.

Here's a related post that I found useful, and funny:

My only disagreement with that post is I hate fitted jackets and refuse to wear them.

Now back to your post. In the acting and music world, professional headshots are a must, and people pay a lot of money to present themselves at their best. But you know what? As an author, you'll be appearing at book readings, doing interviews on TV and/or YouTube, and meeting your readers in person soon enough. You're going to need some clothes that make you feel as fabulous as your writing is, and you'll need a trusty minimalist makeup look that works for you and holds up for those 16 hour days.

As a professor who wants to reach out to the public with my ideas, I took a lot of time getting my current headshot just right. The fact is that people DO judge us based on our grooming and appearance. We're only human.

Think of the way you react when students walk into your classroom on the first day of class. When you smell someone who hasn't showered in weeks or see someone wearing filthy clothes with holes in them, don't you feel that person isn't quite making the effort to show you some respect?

Don't get me wrong; of course, the writing should come first. But I also think your readers deserve to see you at your best. The old romantic myth of the crazy artist/writer who refuses to provide an author photo is no more. (RIP Salinger). It was mostly privileged men (and a few privileged women) who got away with that one, anyway.

My two cents. Perhaps because I'm a woman of color, I'm used to being judged on my appearance 24/7. There's nothing I can do about it, and my name also reveals my ethnicity. I'd rather distribute an accurate image of myself the way I'd like people to see me, than let people conjure up some image of me based on outdated stereotypes.

Show your beautiful face and be proud! The world wants to see you AND read your work. :-)
Jeanna Thornton said…
YOU MAKE ME LAUGH, KATH! How could she demand a different picture of you! You are always very professional looking in all your pics. And it should be enough that you are a dedicated teacher...that you work hard everyday! Your packaging is great!
I hate getting my picture taken, too, Kathryn, but when push comes to shove, fake it 'til you make it! Or put Vaseline on the lens to get that soft, latter years Liz Taylor focus! :)
But that's the thing, Sophia--I already think I look fine. Sure, I need to lose weight, but my point is that I look pretty much as good as I'm going to look; it's just that photos never reflect that. I have very light-sensitive eyes and it takes literally 15-20 photos even to get me with my eyes open. That's all I'm saying, that I can already work the professional image; I just don't have the photos to show for it.

At any rate, I'm going to spring for some professional headshots soon. Not exactly sure when, and/or if Mark will go for it, but I'm definitely doing it. The thing is, though, writer photos and professor headshots are NOT the same thing. Similar, but not the same. But anyway, the point of the post isn't so much about taking photos as it is a question of why are we as women so uncomfortable selling ourselves and why do we tend to be uncomfortable with our own images? Please tell me I'm not the only one who feels that way. But you know posts like the one I pointed to earlier tell me I'm not. And I believe it's less us who have the problem than the Old Boys Network that tells us to.
And when I see someone who hasn't showered or has holes in their jeans--honestly, if I even notice, it's to wonder what their story is. I never think of it as not showing respect--ever. I think "wow, here's a person who cares enough about his or her education to be here and learn despite what must seem insurmountable obstacles." In fact, most of the prison students I work with smell, because they've been working in Texas cotton or corn fields in the middle of the summer in 100+ degree heat, and they finally come in to the air conditioned classroom to be at least a little human. Sometimes, I admit, it gets hard. But I try to focus on who they are and the humanity they have, and not their smell or their prison uniforms.

Obviously, a professional setting is different, and I get that. I've never not worn a suit to an interview. I just think that the Internet complicates the whole notion of image, because once an image is out there, it's out there. As a prof, I can wear a suit the first day of class and then relax a bit as I move throughout the semester--with an Internet photo or headshot, that's it--you just have that one photo primarily attached to your image. And I agree with you; it better be a good one, but I also don't think we should place TOO much importance on it. I don't generally judge people by their author photos. I judge them by how they think and what they write.
I would also love to hear a MAN weigh in on this.
Joni Rodgers said…
In the immortal words of Popeye: "I yam what I yam." The danger of PR, headshots, etc is trying to be something you're not instead of celebrating yourself/your work for the the unique and priceless treasures you/your work are. Sophia is right on about the headshots; Bella Abzug, Eudora Welty and Gertrude Stein had headshots done when they were not young, thin or pretty, and they rocked it by being their true and fabulous selves.

When pierced with deleterious shrimp forks of self-doubt, I look in the mirror and say: "Because I'm Joni f#@%ing Rodgers. That's why." It's the only rationale I can offer and, turns out, the only one I need.
But what if your "true and fabulous self" wears a nose ring? What if your "true and fabulous self" wears black leather? I'm my true and fabulous self every second of every day, whether my clothes or my photos say that.
Another irony is that one time I had a female student on campus actually write on my evaluation that I dressed up TOO much--she said "the woman is always wearing a suit and it makes her hard to relate to." I thought that was an interesting comment, because I actually love wearing dress clothes. But I realized most of my students don't dress up that much, so I started dressing down a tad. Who knows if there was any correlation, but afterwards, I did get higher evaluations.

Maybe this is a generation thing too--the newer generations seem to prefer authenticity and vulnerability to what my business teachers in high school would have defined as a professional image. That doesn't mean you still can't dress well and be groomed; it just means it's not quite as formal.

I also think there's a difference between the kind of photo I just took and the ones I'll take for other purposes/settings. Like any piece of communication, there are audience issues. For presenting myself as a professional coach, for instance, I want to look professional but also open and approachable. I want people to look at the photo and feel like they can be vulnerable with me. That may be different for a photo I'd send in to an academic journal, where I'd want to show a bit more command, and different still from the photo I'd put on the back of my book, where I just might want to look just a tad bit haunting. ;)

Maybe this should be another post--how to market to different audiences in an age where all audiences will potentially see everything? That's really more where I'm going with this.

I also realize how influenced I am by teaching in the prison, where the main rule of thumb is not to be too feminine and not to distract. I was uncomfortably hot one day in the classroom and took off my suit jacket to reveal the short sleeved shirt I had on underneath. It was a simple shirt, but rather form fitting, and I clearly realized I had to put the jacket back on. Basically, you don't want the guys looking at anything but your face there; you want your body to disappear. And you learn quickly which outfits work for that and which don't.
Suzan Harden said…
Uh, Dr. Kat, you don't have to be in a prison for guys to stare at you.
True, Suzan. But have you ever been to an all male prison? Have you ever taught in one? Trust me, it's a whole different dynamic. Not always or even often a bad one, just different.

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