AnnaMarie Houlis
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10

To the man who told me I wasn’t good enough:

You didn’t remember me the last time I ran into you at a press event, so let me refresh your memory

It was the summer of 2014. A black Theory pencil skirt with a satin waistband was slumped over the step ladder I’d climbed to reach another black BOSS skirt — this one buttoned up the back; I thought it boasted both professionalism and personality. The ladder was unsteadily standing atop a heap of flats, pumps and about seven more black below-the-knee skirts and black below-the-knee dresses I’d already pulled over my hips, shimmied back off my body and passed off to my mother with the mechanic efficiency of an assembly line. Pull up, pull down, pass. Pull up, pull down, pass. 

I was 21 years old, shopping in my mother’s closet for the first job interview of my adult life, but nothing I’d tried on felt “me” enough to waltz into your office with conviction. I’d agonized over what to wear. I wanted to look legitimate, whatever that means — like a seasoned journalist you could trust and not a graduate with virtually no real-world experience. But I also wanted to look like me, because “me” felt like enough for this job. It was an entry-level editorial position with your Arabic news channel; Arabic was not a requirement of yours, but I’d spoken some at the time. I’d just returned from studying and working overseas in Morocco, where I was collaborating with a nonprofit news organization, chasing stories and conducting interviews in Arabic, French and English. I’d graduated shortly thereafter with a degree in journalism, a host of internships that decorated my résumé and even a number of bylines. I had a lot to learn, of course, but I was an at least-adequate candidate, I’d presumed.

Sometimes I think it was my pride that lost me that position, especially because women (and an entry-level graduate, no less) aren’t supposed to feel pride. We don’t take credit for our work for a reason; that reason is called the “imposter syndrome,” the concept that women undermine their own accomplishments out of fear for being exposed as a “fraud.” It’s a feeling of unworthiness that can actually manifest in self-fulfilling prophecies and perpetuate the false notion that women are ultimately futile factors in feats of their own and of their companies.

A study published on the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin supports the fact that women are unlikely to take credit, unless their roles are irrefutably clear to outsiders — we even give our male counterparts more credit than ourselves. We’re conditioned to feel undeserving because, even when credit is indubitably warranted, we’re not always given it. If we ask for it, we’re deemed entitled.

But then I think about you, who told me I wasn’t cut out for “serious journalism” — and why you said it. And now I’m instilled with even more pride, which I believe to my core is the exact emotion of which you’d (successfully) tried to rid me.

I chose a black peplum dress. It reached above my collarbone, swathed my shoulders and fell below my knees. I wholly subscribed to the societal dress code for the working woman, not because I wanted to, but because I knew I needed to. I wore it with short black pumps that gave me just another two inches of height so I stood at 5'4" — short enough so you could still look down on me. And you did.

I’d wiped my nail polish completely off, powdered on just enough minimalist makeup to revitalize my sleepy eyes after a restless night, and caught the 7 a.m. bus from my small town in New Jersey to New York City, which would have been about an hour ride if traffic had been on my side. I’d left extra early, fortunately, and I was content with the commute because New York City is full of promises for an aspirant graduate… I just needed to get that job, and then I’d be a journalist in Manhattan. That sounded so sweet. It still does.

I sauntered through your building’s security with sweaty hands and a smile. When the elevator ticked your floor, I took an anxious step out. Your floor looked about as bland as the original dresses I’d tried on — white walls, gray filing cabinets and some painfully austere cubicles in which mostly men typed away at their desktops, robotically. I inadvertently made eye contact with the only woman I saw and so I asked her for directions to your office. Speaking no words, she pointed. Feeling awkward about the encounter but nonetheless excited, I followed in the path of her finger. I kept my head held high. This was it. This was going to be my big break. I could get over your depressing office. Sure, if it meant that I was going to be a real journalist. 

You shook my hand and greeted me in Arabic. Salaam Alaikum, you said, for hello. Kayf halik, I retorted, asking you how you were. You smiled and closed the door behind me. Almost immediately, I felt like you were closing the door on my dreams. Something about the way you held my hand just a second too long felt… uncomfortable. Or maybe it was the way you looked into my eyes with a sort of carnal contact — like you were looking through my dress, about to clear your desk and toss me onto it. I felt like I was stark naked, and vulnerable, like a kid who was just pantsed on the playground — a little bit in shock and harboring a lot a bit of shame. By no fault of my own.

Anyway, given the fact that it was my first job interview I figured it was just the nerves, and I really didn’t know what these things were supposed to feel like anyway. Maybe it was normal, and I thought, how cocky and immature of me to assume he’d be into me — in a professional setting, no less

We went through my résumé together for just a few moments until you cut me off to tell me that I looked “naughty” and that my smile had been driving you crazy. You said you’d “jump out the window” if I kept looking at you with “those eyes” the way I did, because I was “killing” you in that dress anyway. “Those eyes” were fighting back tears. How stupid of me to assume that someone would actually be interested in hiring me, I thought.

You were sort of interested, though. As you leaned back in your chair, adjusting your belt, you told me that “serious journalism” wasn’t in the cards for me, but that you wanted to “help” me by offering me an unpaid internship to get me up to par. Or I’d at least do well in fashion or some kind of lifestyle, you assured me — where you said women who looked like me belonged. I almost believed you, because that’s the sector of journalism in which most women work, and what a joke it was to think I could defy the norm.

According to “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017 Report” by the Women’s Media Center (WMC), we receive just 38 percent of bylines and other credits in print, web, television and wire news. We cover just 32 percent of stories on crime and justice; 33 percent on religion; 34 percent on U.S. politics; 37 percent on tech, domestic issues and world politics, 38 percent on culture; 40 percent on business and economics; 44 percent on social issues and 49 percent on science. Even with regards to topics pertaining to women — such as reproductive issues and campus sexual assault — we claim just 37 percent and 31 percent of stories, respectively. Women, on average, are relegated to only topics like fashion, home décor, gardening and parenting — lifestyle, not “serious journalism.”

Today, I know that the lack of female journalists and sources in both legacy media outlets and modern curators is detrimental to the health of our democracy and perpetuates the objectification, sexualization and gendered stereotyping of 54 percent of media consumers in the country. The deficiency determines not only what we talk about and who talks about it, but also how we talk about it. But back then I thought that you must be right about me; why else would there be so few people who look like me covering conflicts in the far reaches of the globe or unearthing sexual harassment scandals here in our country?

And I sat there wondering about the sexist underpinnings that discount that type of gendered writing — the lifestyle verticals for which so many women work — to begin with. Why was lifestyle journalism intrinsically feminine to you? And why did you make it sound like a demotion because it was? 

I stared at the photo of your wife on your desk when I couldn’t look at you licking your lips in between words anymore, stuck inside my own head. You tapped a hairy finger on your desk to snap me back to the present moment and, in a few minutes that I pretty much blacked out of my memory, I declined your internship offer, collected my résumé and writing clips, and hurried out of your office. I was regretful that I couldn’t find the words to call you out, but I didn’t know if I could. I’d convinced myself that your behavior was normal and, worse, that it was okay. The New York editorial world is cut throat and, if you can’t handle the heat, you’ll never make it. But where do you draw the line? I had no idea. 

Now listen, not everyone is cut out for a job they’re blindly convinced they could do. And getting your first job isn’t easy; you need experience to get experience, and that’s quite the catch-22. I’m readily aware that there were probably candidates who spoke better Arabic, earned more bylines and had more years of experience under their belts. And if that was your reason for rejecting me, I’d have walked out of your office thinking nothing but “onto the next one,” with my head held high. I’m a journalist after all — it’s in our nature to accept constructive criticism and learn from it.

But that wasn’t the case, because you never asked me anything about the job. You’d only asked me about the clothing covering up my body and my “naughty” smile. You’d only cracked suicide jokes, and you’d only told me the modern equivalent of “women belong in the kitchen.” 

Anyway, I did search for jobs in lifestyle journalism later on, as there proved to be more of them at the entry-level, and I got them. I even took one them of them, which ultimately launched the career I have today as a full-time freelance journalist. Now I cover both lifestyle and “serious” subjects, from the refugee crisis to regularized rape culture to female genital mutilation. All of my work fulfills me in a wealth of ways, and the lifestyle journalism I do in the fashion realm, in particular, has actually transcended into an exploration of our societal perceptions of beauty standards and how “serious” topics like religion and race factor into it all. I consider myself a hybrid journalist these days — one who covers the gamut, but I’ve still got a usual beat: Women. Women’s rights, women’s issues, women’s travel, women’s health, women’s career development… stories that empower women to shatter the glass ceiling that those like you have installed.

I ran into you a few years later on my way to an interview at a press event in 2016. I was there to speak with a probably widowed Syrian mother of four whose husband was kidnapped by ISIS in Aleppo. I was there to ask her about her journey and the two million others at the time living in fear of besiegement among the cost of prolonged conflict in Syria — from Aleppo, A-Raqqa, Idlib, Deir Ezzour and Hama to Dara’a and Damascus. I’d say that was pretty “serious.”

You saw me, though I’m not sure you remembered who I was. I thought about approaching you to let you know that I’d won. I turned back after realizing that my life wasn’t a game, and me winning meant you’d have lost — that’d be giving you too much control and credit. I realized that the best way I could gain satisfaction was simply by writing the story I’d gone there to get that evening.

Because in writing this woman’s story and every story I’ve written thereafter, I write my own. I’m writing the story of a woman who was told that she wasn’t cut out, who is doing it anyway — without the “help” you offered me. Call me a fraud but, for that, I am unapologetically proud.

See you again, I’m sure.

AnnaMarie Houlis

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.

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