This week, news broke of Lena Dunham’s staggering book deal. Random House purportedly paid the 26-year-old auteur $3.7 million for a book tentatively titled Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. Dunham, best known as the writer and showrunner of the HBO series, Girls, has been the focus of tsunami-sized criticism and praise for her work and for becoming a sensation in what seems to be the time it takes to tweet. Of the favorite attacks on Dunham are ones alluding to her privilege as the daughter of artists with connections in the entertainment industry. However, Dunham is the first to defend herself as incredibly hard-working, yet, she seems to be the last to take true ownership of her skills, talents, and artistic leanings. An article posted in Jezebel posed the question as to why Dunham feels compelled to apologize for her work. Writer Katie J.M. Baker states: “Young famous women…have two choices: they can appear spoiled and ungrateful, or apologetic and “aw, shucks”-like. The savvier ones, like Dunham, often go with the latter. Women — particularly young women — are supposed to be respectful.” They are supposed, in other words, to avoid owning their success less risk becoming branded something worse than a “bitch,” but a bragger.
“You don’t want to toot your own horn,” said just about every adult to me growing up ever, and probably to you as well if you’re a woman. Historically, women have been enculturated to deflect and diminish their accomplishments. It is a behavioral and social hangover from centuries old ideas that celebrate women for their piety, purity, and submissiveness while simultaneously binding them to feelings of guilt and impropriety about straying outside of these social mores. This is not to suggest that we live in an America of submissive, demure women, but rather that a practice such as self-promotion, which requires women to assert their successes, does not come as naturally as it seems to come to men. Why? Part of the answer lies in women wanting to avoid the pejorative associations assigned to self-promotion: that they are egotistical, aggressive, and prideful in a selfish way. The other part of the answer speaks to a misunderstanding about what self-ownership is: an important element of self-worth.
Lisa Giruzzi, author of Bringing Out the Best in Your Employers, asserts that women need to understand the difference between bragging and self-promotion: “It is only bragging when your intent is to ‘show up’ someone else…self-promotion is a way of honoring yourself.” While all women can benefit from this message, it is especially critical for caregiver moms to share this perspective. For many of these women, care providing becomes another part of their daily responsibilities, and as such, is often downplayed as “just one more thing” they do.
In reality, caregivers are innovators, creative problem solvers, and highly accomplished women who make many contributions on a daily basis that go unrecognized due to the fact that they hesitate to take credit for accomplishments perceived as insignificant. Like many other aspects of domestic labor, caregiving may be viewed as invisible labor, as activities marbleized within the framework of the household. This may help to account for why more caregiver moms do not share their achievements, but does not excuse this practice on their part. The ability to advocate on behalf of your child to health care providers and educational personnel is something to take pride in. Likewise is brokering an innovative way to perform ordinary tasks with a child or loved one who needs assistance, or writing an email to a member of congress asking for support on a healthcare bill that is important to you and your family, or taking part in a successful fundraiser. When caregivers are able to share their accomplishments, they are not only giving themselves a critical resilience boost, but are modeling healthy behaviors for the impressionable people in their lives, especially those who are young girls.
Self-promotion builds self-esteem and self-worth. When done correctly, meaning not from a place of negativity, pettiness, or egocentrism, self-promotion can nurture a vital connection between a woman and her sense of self. It can remind her of her value and impacts on others during times when she feels her self slipping away in the wake of challenging responsibilities and life changes. And for a new generation of women like Dunham, it can mean an entirely new road map to success and empowerment.