Growing up, girls are expected to embody multiple expectations, which are often contradicting and follow them into adulthood. We should be sexy, but not a slut. We should be emotional, but not crazy. We should speak our minds, but make sure everyone in the room is comfortable. Defying Dualities aims to spread awareness that women don't need to live within the confines of a black and white world. Every day in March I illustrated and shared a story on Instagram (#takeupspace_defyingdualities).
About the process
Interactive art event
Selected Events/talks: Defying Dualities: An evening of female art and conversation, Gendered Contradictions Dinner, #TDKTuesdays with Bianca Ng: the creative process behind Take Up Space, Power of Passion Projects & Taking Up Space // NYC Salon, Friends Work Here Happy Hour
Selected Press: The Slant, people making cool things
“It started out with me trying to figure out what feels good. The more my friends commented on the way I dressed, literally from head to toe, the more I thought about what do I want? What do I feel good in?
For me, it was more about overcoming the mental breakdown that I would have because of comments. I still wouldn’t go out and buy a dress because people told me to, but I knew if I came out in this outfit, I was gonna hear something I didn’t want to hear and I was going to be sad for a few moments. I slowly shorten that period of sadness and just brushed it off.
Now, I think less about how my friends want me to look like and more about how do I feel walking out the door right now." –Kim G.
“When I interacted with women, I didn’t soften my approach. I was really just softening my approach with men. One day I realized I would become childlike and almost flirty. Like “Oh haha you’re so funny.” What the fuck am I doing? Why am I doing this?
I enjoy working in a collaborative setting where everyone’s voice is heard and I find that being labeled as an aggressive female, I don’t have as many opportunities to work in such a capacity whereas maybe a man would.
I really wanted to do well in my job, but I felt like the male dominant powers didn’t want me to have a voice. And I didn’t want to victimize myself, but at the end of the day, I think, shit I really think it was because I was a woman." –Natalie Z.
“Sometimes I even ask myself “Why am I afraid to be honest about what I want?” I think the first step is just voicing it and being vulnerable.
It's the idea of don't be incomplete but don't be on your way. When you're a woman, there's so much expectation. We only want to see the final product, but not the process. When you try, you have to succeed, and anything that's interpreted as a failure or setback becomes a mark on your reputation.
The biggest way to deal with conflicting expectations is remembering to do what's best for you. The hardest part is the first step. Seeing someone else be able to follow their own path becomes the inspiration for the next person to look back and say, hey it's ok, they did it. I can do it too. So not only are you doing it for your own happiness but by leaning into that instinct, you're helping the next girl or woman or man believe that they can follow their own path." –Connie C.
“When I’m at a crossroad, I try to release myself from the idea of there being a right or wrong decision. You just make a decision, and part of if that decision is good or bad is how you own that decision afterward. If I walk around all day wishing I’d done something else, that act of wishing I had done something else makes that decision I’ve already made worse. You have to own the decision you make and worry less about if the decision you made was good or bad. The choice you make to be happy with your decision affects how happy you actually are with that decision." –Minh-Anh N.
“You recognize, this is who I am, regardless of the environment. These are the qualities of me that pervade all of it. So for me, it was finding out that I was a storyteller. You just see yourself and realize this is who I am. And then you see the parts of you that can soften a little bit. It's like "oh I should be less judgmental. I shouldn't make such face value judgments or I need to slow down. I need to listen more." You realize which parts of you are malleable and you should work on and which parts of you are your core. This is actually who I am. Being comfortable with yourself is legit one of the hardest things, which is so bizarre because we hang out with ourselves all the time. But for some reason, we are not encouraged to be comfortable.
Through storytelling, we can connect with each other emotionally and understand that we are saying the same thing. Storytelling allows us to start figuring it out." –Adrian B.
“I look very young and feminine and people don’t take me seriously. But once you speak to me, especially in a work setting or a professional networking setting, I come off as overly intellectual. So at the same time, I have to dumb myself down so that I’m not stepping on other people’s toes and then in the same breath I have to remind them I have two master’s degrees and my opinions are relevant.
I spend 50% of my energy navigating these things instead of just being. I just think that part of what’s keeping woman oppressed is mental patterns. The politics of our own brains. I spend so much energy filtering.
I wish we could create structures within which we could have more substantive conversations about those things without us falling back into our own insecurities and judgments." –Clare E.
“I was always questioning things and you’re not really supposed to question things. I would get answers that wouldn’t make sense or I was told to shut up and not even ask that.
I learned that I can. I figured out who I am bit by bit. I’ve always been opinionated, but when I was younger, I hadn't explored a lot of things on my own. I’d just read about things.
The reason I was different was because I used to read a lot of fiction. When you read fiction, you start imagining yourself in a different world. Reading is not really a common cultural thing in the Arab world. Especially fiction. When I was younger in the U.S., like four, we had an older neighbor and she would always read to me. So when I was four, I was already different from my family." –Zainab A.
“They say, we want you to contribute. We want you to say your piece, but oh not that much. We don't want you to contribute that loudly.
It shifted my perspective. The grass isn't always greener, there is green grass everywhere. It's just a matter of what grass you need in order to thrive. Part of that is recognizing that I don't want to be the person who colors all my words by making them pretty flowers and never challenges people because that's not who I am. I'm a challenger and I'm very direct and honest. That's something I feel is true to myself so I don't want to change that. It was sort of a bad thing at first, but ultimately it was a good thing to understand. Now I know what kind of environment I will thrive in and won't." –Morgan H.
“You're expected to essentially be like an emotional sponge. You absorb and then things get squeezed out of you. Yet what? It's not OK to cry at work. To feel extreme emotions at work. If a guy yells in a meeting, it's because he's passionate about his job or career or company. And if a woman yells or cries, it's because she's hysterical or overreacting.
Feelings are facts. Don't judge your feelings. I need to keep telling myself that because so much stress and frustration and heartache is me either saying you shouldn't be feeling this right now because other people have told me I shouldn't be feeling like this right now. Or I'm self gas-lighting and saying no, you're not stressed right now. You're just having a long week. It's not an endemic problem to your job. It's just having a bad day. So much emotional calculus, which by the way, I hate calculus." –Molly O.
“When people tell you this is how you should be–that’s where all the stress and confusion comes from. Versus once you own something, like own parts of your identity, it doesn’t feel so confusing. It doesn’t feel stressful. I owned my religion from a young age. I thought, “I like this. This is something I want.” Not because other people want me to do it. Likewise, for sex, I don’t think I started having sex because people were like “Kelly, you need to have a lot of sex.” People were not having a ton of sex in our high school. People were having some sex. And I definitely didn’t explore sex out of pressure. I think pressure can definitely lead to the stress of contradictory identities.
If I say I’m super faithful and I keep God close to me, it doesn’t really matter what other people say. Sex is also a really important part of my identity and I don’t believe God is going to send me to hell for it.” –Kelly G.
“I always thought being strong and tough by not showing as many emotions were what I needed to do, but my realization in the past couple of years is actually the reverse. I can be a woman and still be strong and tough. It was more about how I handle myself.
Stop denying who you are and embrace what you like. When I was younger, I had a lot of people say, "You'll never be someone or do something." I would tell my younger self to not take no to heart so much. Once you hear a "no" you feel discouraged, but we forget that everything in life can be learned. And everything could be improved with practice.
The word genius is just someone who put a lot of time into it and really loved doing it. Your natural abilities come from what you enjoy. What makes you talented is the time and work you put into it to polish your natural abilities. To see things and understand things. Whatever it is. It's really just putting time into it." –Janya M.
“I would rather be the person to just put it all out there and be ridiculous than feel pressured to be proper and mannered. I'm very fortunate in the sense that I have a job which I'm not at risk of an employer. Like everyone at my work follows me including my boss. She comes to work and she's like you're really good at those ugly photos. I'm like thank you!
Make a point to diversify who you follow, whether that's body types or race. Actively make it happen. Now, I almost always only follow other women of color and people with different body types. This has helped me so much because it normalizes things for me. I don't feel as much pressure to be a certain body shape or have a certain look. I've made such a big effort in my life to follow women of color that are advocating for diversity. You are getting access to better content about the world.
And if someone on social media makes you feel guilty, sad or jealous, unfollow them. No matter how much you like their stuff you're going to continue feeling shitty about yourself. Follow people that when they post, every single thing they posted you either like or you genuinely want to support them." –Natasha J.
“Also, the idea of protecting this beautiful veneer on the inside is an Asian issue. Let's all just admit we're fucked up and the stuff that we've fucked up on. But we're working on it together. It's important just having people that you can be weird with and be your yourself. Like you don't have to think about who do I want to be right now? You're just able to breathe and relax into your identity. That is ultimate freedom, right? Feeling like you are unrestricted and absolutely loved for who you are. That is, I think ultimately freedom. So community for me is freedom to exist as you are.
I'd tell my younger self to just live your life wide open and absorb versus sitting there in a corner with your books trying to plan your life away." –Cassandra L.
“As a woman it's even harder to be a leader that people want to follow because so many of my peers would say, "You're going to join Jenn's team, but just to warn you, she's super intense and she has high expectations." Okay, one I do have high expectations and that's never going to change. But instead of telling people that I'm intense and they shouldn't piss me off, why don't you tell them it's an opportunity to work on a high-performing team where we deliver the best work that the agency does. How many times are guys described as intense?
The other thing is building communities of support. Whether it's an informal group like bitches get shit done or a super large group like LadiesGetPaid. These organized ways of supporting each other and encouraging woman to invest in themselves are important." –Jenn U.
“Women have been automatically conditioned to listen more. But I think now we are in a position where we can say “oh hey, guess what, I’ve been listening for my entire life and I’ve been seeing these things go down. And now that I have a seat at the table, and now that I have this privilege in the society that we live in, here’s what I want to say after years and years of listening.” I want more of that to happen. There are so many different fights that need to happen and this is just one of them. Being a woman is just one of them. This needs to happen across the board.
If you don’t respect yourself, you're going to be doing all these things for other people and you’re going to become whatever everyone else wants you to be and then you’re going to try and find yourself and you’re going to realize no one is home.
I don’t conflate helping other people with living for other people. I don’t conflate wanting to be successful with following a distinguished path. Don’t conflate being a woman with being a woman the way other people have been a woman." –Jenna M.
“There's this fear of messing up and this might just be more of my unspoken, impostor syndrome fear. But I think if I mess up, I don't want them to ask "How did this girl get here with her personality and who she is? How did she even get here?"
It would be so nice to be in a place, and this is might just be something I can work on for myself, but to be in a place where I can say I don't have to worry about other people's opinions and what they think. For example, a lot of guys in coding classes will talk shit about girls. During college, in my comp sci classes guys would say, "This girl is getting all the answers only because she's flirting." The guys assume girls play a different game to get further in tech. People are not taking us as seriously as guys. Especially if they're in CS, they think she's only here because they didn't have enough girls. It took so long for women to enter these kinds of spaces and now that a lot more of us are here, we're seen as the token girl in the situation.
This feeds into many of my personally insecurities cause I don't want my coworkers thinking that I am where I am because of my identities versus my accomplishments, capabilities, and intellect." –Meera D.
“When I was younger, I lived in International dorms and I became friends with some girls from England and America. They were asking me "Why do you want to be a secretary? You hate it." And I thought, oh well, I didn't know that was an option. I thought that was what I was supposed to do. So I chucked it all in and went to Scotland to study when I was 22.
My friends come up to me, "You're leaving the country and you don't know the language and what if you fail?" And I think, well then I'll fail and it'll be fine. I wasn't scared of any of the changes. I wasn't scared of moving to Spain or Mexico or any of that. I was curious and I wanted to do it. The growth for me was learning to trust intuition. A lot of the stuff that I've taken and the career changes I've had weren't super thought through in advance. It was just something I did. The insights come in hindsight. I don't think, this is what's going to happen and it's going to be cool. It's more like this sounds fun so let's try it.
The limitations we are putting on ourselves and the contradictions, if they remain unexplored, they limit our own lives and happiness. And eventually they affect the lives that we are influencing as well." –Doris F.
“It's the credit that you give yourself vs the credit that you allow others to give you vs the credit that you owe. How much credit do you give other people? It's like we feel like we don't deserve the compliment or praise for our hard work.
It's important to be aware and remember these contradictions as well as our personal and communal history. It's not trying to aggrandize it and it's not trying to diminish it. But just let it be what it is. And recognize how we deal with it and how we grow from it. Then encourage young girls.
A lot of the way we figure out what we like and what we don't like is through play. That's how we figure out what works and what doesn't work for us. I always say, the beauty of creativity regardless of what you do, whether that's a creative career or a creative act or even just bringing creativity into any practice, is that it allows a sense of play. I think it's something that children lose too fast. For me especially it was coming out of that and then realizing, wait no that's a great place to be." –Pooja D.
“Looking back ten years ago I would not recognize myself. And there’s still a piece of me inside that goes oh my god you’re talking to a stranger. Who are you? Why are you doing that to yourself? Because I usually get pretty nervous. Or applying for jobs I feel unqualified for. Now I’m like “Just try and see.” Ten years ago I would’ve said, “Let’s not even try that. There’s no point. I’m not going to get it.” I still have that in me, but now I’m just pushing it away. I tell myself, “Stop. You can do this. You’ll survive. Everything will be ok.”
I think we over analyze ourselves too much. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it can be bad. When we are introspective and look inside ourselves, I always think of these inner qualities as different characters. They’re all dressed differently. Listen to them. Don’t shut one up. Own all the characters that you have within yourself." –Maia H.
“I'm curious about what the offspring of Kevin and I would be. Probably kind of a loner nerd. But assuming that he or she is not a sociopath, I think he or she would be pretty cool. I would like to meet that person. And from other things I've read, all these worries that you have, suddenly evaporate. You find yourself feeling very close to this little person. It doesn't really matter what you thought before. It's like the pages turn. But that seems hard to depend on as a certainty because I also read other things where you absolutely love your child, but you regret not having your life. People do struggle with that.
I would tell them not to be afraid of talking about it. You're not a monster for not automatically wanting to jump into the mommy pool. But it's not a popular thing to sit around and chat about, how you don't want kids.
Also, I don't know how I learned this lesson, but at some point, I just was OK with myself. Like I wasn't OK with myself and then I just became OK with myself and I wish I could tell you what the thing is. Maybe it was just getting older or something. But the biggest change was trusting my decisions more. Not always, but more. And just not trying to be too cool. Trying to be cool is such a waste of time." –Minna K.
“I'm usually drawn to second generation people. Not even intentionally, it just happens because we have this base understanding of like OK maybe your parents speak with an accent or maybe we do this or maybe we eat different kinds of foods. It's still fun to learn from other people's cultures. For myself, honestly, I'm still working through it. It's so awkward when I make new Mexican friends. I just can't speak Spanish in public. I can't do it. For two reasons: one, I still feel self-conscious about my Spanish because I'm embarrassed for myself. Two I grew up in such a racist white society where it wasn't even necessarily safe to speak Spanish in public, so now it's in my brain. I can't even help it. I automatically respond back to them in English. I'm like what the fuck am I doing?
Also just acknowledging if my opinions are too much for somebody then they don't belong in my life.
To speak up more. Every time I say something or stand up for something, I always have people come back to me afterward or reach back out to me somehow, telling me how much that meant to them. And then I'm like, oh, OK, I guess I'll do that more. It's hard for me to do things for myself, but when other people come back saying, "You as an introvert or you as a quiet person, for you to speak up made me realize I need to speak up more." I'm like, OK I definitely need to keep speaking up." –Beatriz L.
“I just had this idea of who I should be. Like you have to be this or that. Serious or feminine. Fun or smart and intellectual. Now I still feel that pressure sometimes around certain guys. When I talk to certain guys I will mentally think, oh you would like intellectual Alicia more and you would probably like fun, party girl Alicia more. I try to make a more conscious effort now if I'm interested in someone to not really hide either of those sides. Even if it's not romantic, I try to be my full self.
I'm a lot happier with myself personally. I like to read literature and I also like to watch makeup videos on YouTube. Being able to talk about all the things I like without feeling shame about any of them is a really freeing experience. Even though literature is more important to me then makeup videos or Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I wouldn't want to spend the rest of my life digesting serious, worldly, high brow things. All of these things contribute to being a well-rounded version of myself. I feel better physically mentally and emotionally when I'm that version of myself.
It's easier to be one thing, even though it's not truly easier because you're stifling apart of yourself, but I think it feels easier because it's more socially acceptable to be uncomplicated." –Alicia T.
“Recently, I’ve been pushing past this fear by asking people out or just telling them how I feel way more. Because I realized that honesty is the best policy. And worst case scenario, I’ve told friends recently I had feelings for them and they were like awesome, I hear that. I don’t have feelings for you in that way. And I’m like great. Now we know.
Being comfortable with discomfort and not avoiding uncomfortable situations just for the sake of being uncomfortable. Actually, uncomfortable situations are probably a sign that you’re doing something well. You were actually authentic and real and that’s scary so you’re going to be uncomfortable.
If you tell a guy how you feel, and he responds in a negative way, or people say you putting your feelings out there is ruining the mystery or some sort of pursuit, I call that bullshit. I think it’s just a way of preventing people from getting what they want and feeling in their power." –Jillian R.
“It's always been in my personality to be outspoken, but I think I've always been inspired by my mom who's always told me that you have to ask for what you want. And I found as a woman of color if you don't advocate for yourself and if you don't ask for what you want, you're never going to get it because you're going to be competing against the white males of the world.
For a lot of people, it's about recognizing microaggressions. I think microaggressions are a huge part of contradictions. For example, saying "You're really pretty for a black girl or you're surprisingly outspoken to an Asian girl." it's recognizing that when you say those things you're perpetuating stereotypes. You're apart of the problem even if you don't mean to. People who say that never have malicious intent, but that's not the problem. There's too much of a divide between people who are intentionally racist and people who are kind of racist. People have good intentions. It's supposed to be a compliment and I appreciate that, but at the same time, it's only a compliment because you have such a low opinion of me in the first place.
Stop apologizing for things. Stop apologizing for your beliefs and for who you are. Be unapologetic about it. Don't necessarily be rude or aggressive about it, but if somebody is giving you shit for something that's out of your control or because of their own expectations, don't apologize for that. You shouldn't have to change yourself." –Jennifer M.
“What I found about the lean in movement and other women's movement initiatives out there is that they really push you to be this go-getter, like seize the day, Carpe Diem, I'm going to rise to the top type of woman. And being a mom for example or being there for your friends is not something you put on your LinkedIn resume. You don't get a friend rating or a relationship rating, or sister and daughter rating. Those are all things that a lot of us value even more than just work success, but there isn't really a paradigm where I can feel OK about making those trade-offs.
The ultimate tension that I was facing was, here, if you think about everyone before yourself, you're going to get fucked over like one hundred percent. And to have to live day to day with that feeling means you're not so willing to put other people first, your not so willing to love and nurture and be kind because who's doing that for you? But that whole mentality is something that I inherently reject. I want to build communities that aspire to more of the value set that I personally have aligned with. But it's hard to do that in a city that is so driven towards one very workaholic culture." –Karen M.
“Be yourself. But what you're seeing from the media and getting implicitly from the world is be yourself in this certain way that is light skin and has blond hair. I was a hairy kid. None of these girls had any of these things going on.
As far as growth, I have this little sister who is 5 years younger than me. I noticed, every time she was worried about something in school like I don't know if I'm pretty enough, I was just so outwardly like no you are and it doesn't matter what people say. I would just be the person I wish I had in my corner when I was her age. And it has totally worked because she's super proud of being Muslim and brown, which were things I was not proud of when I was young. Now she started a radio show about being brown at college.
The goal is to build your own standards and be in a community of people that embrace those with you. These communities can have ripple effects so that more and more people can feel super attractive to be a brown person or it's cool to be Muslim even though the media is telling you it's awful and scary. What would the world look like?" –Nadia L.
“I think the reason why I come off as confident is that I've come to an understanding with myself that I don't know what the fuck I'm doing, but I have a set of beliefs that will guide me into what I want to be doing.
My mom always told me "You know who you are. You know you are a strong woman. Just follow it." I would ask her for life advice, "Mom, what should I be when I grow up?" and my mom would say, "I can't tell you because then you'll be swayed by my opinion, but just do whatever you want to do. Whatever feels right. If you fuck up, you fuck up, just keep going. But you're not going to fuck up because you're great. The world didn't stop going when someone had a terrible moment so it's not going to stop going when you have a terrible moment."
How do you expect other people to treat you equally if you yourself don't see yourself as equal? And that's the huge thing about contradictions right? If you feel this dichotomy in yourself at all times, how are you going to get past it? It's not about other people getting past it, it's about you getting past it." –Ana Z.
“Society has told us we need to fit this perfect mold and if we don't, we're not enough, but that's just unrealistic and really boring. Why would people want to be just one thing when we could all be totally different and just accept women for all their flaws, which make them so badass. And these rules aren't protecting anyone. Who are they protecting? Men from continuing to oppress women?
Just weigh all the outcomes and make sure that whatever comes out of it, you'll feel ok with it. I don't want to tell everyone to just do it. The only advice I can give is, do it for you. Don't do it for anyone else. Make sure it's going to make you happy." –Zoe S.
“For me personally, it was really difficult because I didn't see other people doing what I wanted to do. I didn't know what that destination was, so that was pretty scary. It caused a lot of confusion on my end because I didn't see anyone that had a career that I really wanted. And that led me to feel like I don't really have any direction. There's something wrong with me. I'm looking at these women who are just sort of like, yeah, we can do it. And I'm just going like, I don't know if I really feel like I can fit into that crowd or that's the direction that I want to go in. But what we, my partner Sharon and I, discovered is that you don't have to have someone who's already done it before. You can figure it out on your own. We always say the Marie Forleo quote "Everything is figureoutable." We will figure this out. It's going to be great. It's kinda like half joking, but at the same time we do figure everything out.
No matter where you're at or whether you're happy with your job or not, you have to start pursuing things that you have interest in outside of work. When you start pursuing those things that you're interested in outside of work, people notice. There's nothing more fascinating than someone who is genuinely enthusiastic about what it is that they're doing. When you start meeting other people that have that same level of enthusiasm, they're going to want to work with you. That's just always rung true for me. Anytime I've pursued something that I really, genuinely enjoyed, opportunities have arisen. –Kim M.
“I feel like there are so many things telling you what you're supposed to do like here's how you self-love, but ultimately self-love is about you. It's about how you'll feel better and what heals you, so you need to value your own opinion. No one else can tell you otherwise. It's your life and you can decide what you want to do with it. You don't have to listen to all these outside voices.
I'm just trying to remind myself that I am the sun. Other people don't put the stars in the sky. I do. I am my own person. The world revolves around me in a way. I can leave and go, and do whatever I want at any time. I'm not chained to some person and my happiness does not depend on other people. It definitely feels that way sometimes cause I really like him and I really like my best friends and I never want to do anything that upsets them. I just want to do everything for them that I possibly can. But at the same time, I'm not being fair to myself. I'm not doing what I want to do. Relationships are a two-way street and I need to keep telling myself that.” –Christina B.
"The first few pieces of review people were saying to me was "You did a really great job, but be aware of how much you're talking in a conversation. Be aware of much space you're taking up. Maybe let other people in the room contribute more." I was pretty taken aback because I had never got the feedback before that I was saying too much. I really took this to heart. Then right after that someone else said, "You know, I thought you could've spoken up way more. You have a lot to contribute and you should never be afraid to share your ideas." By the time we got to the end of the group of ten people, exactly five had said "Don't take up too much space." and the other five had said "Assert yourself more." By the end, I was like I don't know what to make of this, but ultimately I realized everyone perceives things differently and you can't let that determine how you function and how much you speak.
Just questioning what you experience and what you see. Not everything is set in stone. You can't change how other people act around you, but you can change how you perceive things. Be kind to yourself and find yourself a strong support network." –Hannah N.