Learning to Take Up Space As a Woman

“Dianna won’t tell you, but she’s a published author.” My friend turned to me and winked slightly, a big smile spreading across her face. I glanced quickly down at my lunch tray, and then up, prepared to – once again – explain what my first book is about and what I plan to do once I’m done with my degree. It’s an inevitable conversation – being an author is a major part of my life, but it’s also not the whole of it. Existing in a world where many of my friends are published authors and having gone through the publication process, I suffer from an unfortunate demystification of what it actually means to be published. I mean, it’s cool. But let’s not pretend I’m famous.

Since being at Oxford, I’ve surprised myself by being reluctant to talk about my work as a writer. Once the subject comes up, as it does frequently, I’ll say a few words and then redirect the conversation to something else. It’s not that I’m not proud of my work, but that I feel like I’m bragging when I talk about it. Yes, I’ve been published in Rolling Stone. Yes, I wrote a book and was published before turning 30. Yes, I’m friends with some NYT best selling authors.

Perhaps it is bad form to talk about this as an author – to discuss so openly how strange it can be to receive looks of amazement when you talk about your work. Perhaps it is a form of humble-bragging.

But perhaps my discomfort with discussing my work with my new colleagues is less about self-deprecation and more about my acculturated womanhood. My male friends here have zero problem bragging about having had drinks with Vanessa Redgrave, or doing gap years in the Middle East with NGOs. These things that would be my dream fall from their lips with a smile, as though they are as commonplace as saying what you talked about in seminar that day.

My own discomfort with my considerable achievement – because that is what it is – feels like a betrayal in some ways. I find myself reluctant to talk about my work, not because I am afraid of the reactions, but because I am afraid of the spotlight. I’m surrounded by tons of people who are far smarter than I – and far better educated, if we’re being honest. In this weird confluence of imposter syndrome and conditioned female humility, I end up in this weird space where I know I’m good but can’t bring myself to talk about it.

This, ultimately, is the tension of the feminist life. We can be brave and bold and confident in written and theoretical spaces, but learning what that feminism looks like in the real world is a new task altogether. Here at Oxford, simply being a feminist isn’t nearly enough to set you apart from the crowd – it is, indeed, one of the expected norms of students at this university. There is, at the very least, far more awareness of feminist issues, even if there is disagreement about their importance.

For me, living as a feminist here in part means overcoming my shyness around what I’ve done and what I’ve accomplished – as a woman, as a scholar, as a writer, as a person. As a person who believes the little things really do make a difference, this is one of the ways I can begin to take up space in the world.