If You Can’t See It, You Can’t Be It

miss representation

More than a year ago, I saw the film Miss Representation. It was moving and inspiring and upsetting all at once, and even after months have passed I am still mulling its contents. One of the unexpected aftershocks comes in the form of a phrase that’s remained lodged in my brain. A political expert was explaining that the number of American women who show interest in pursuing political careers is dwindling. An oft-overlooked reason for this? There are relatively few women in politics right now. And – here comes the phrase – if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

Gloria Steinem said this phrase in the film, and may even have originated it. I feel certain I’d heard it before, but for some reason, this was the first time it struck a chord. Because, clearly, it applies not just to politics but to business, athletics, science, and all typically male-dominated fields. Women don’t pursue those careers as often as men do because many view them as closed or hostile. They see so few other women working in those jobs, have so few role models fighting those dominant paradigms, that they assume they couldn’t possibly measure up. And so they don’t try.

Steinem points out, “We’re communal creatures. We’re very much influenced by what we see. As this documentary makes clear, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.”

Of course, there are mold-breakers, pioneers, warriors, and standard-bearers. There are women who love business and science and athletics and politics SO HARD and are SO AMAZING at those things, that virtually nothing could stop them from chasing down their dreams. But there are also women who – consciously and subconsciously – look to their peers for cues and guidance. They watch their fellow women, note their choices and actions, and calculate accordingly. Examples are powerful influencers. When examples aren’t set, mustering the courage to go first can seem impossible.

The film also examined this concept in the light of beauty, bodies, and self-image. There are agreed-upon concepts of beauty that stem from social norms and are reinforced by media imagery. If you, as a person, look drastically different from the version of “beautiful” that is shoved at you by those media, you may never believe that what you are is also beautiful. You may never accept that beauty is a spectrum, not a trait. In my opinion, the same goes for concepts of “stylish.” There’s a huge, powerful marketing machine working to convince you that you need to buy and wear certain items from certain brands in order to be stylish. If you look drastically different from the version of “stylish” that is shoved at you by those companies, you may never believe that what you are is also stylish.

And this lights a fire under me. Because what I have here is a website, a place within the media (albeit a small one) from which I can show images of women who possess the spectrum of physical traits and attributes, span the decades, and dress as they see fit. I want you to see them, see their diversity, see their courage, see their gorgeous gamut of examples and witness yourself reflected back. Magazines, TV, books, and movies focus on a tiny subgroup of women and hold them up. It’s high time we start holding up a few more women and praising them, too.


Part of me rebels against, “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” I mean, there have been so many women throughout time who have plowed forward with ABSOLUTELY NO EXAMPLES AT ALL, and changed the face of history with their visionary bravery. And I struggle with the idea that we, as women, require others to go first before we can follow along. It’s not a concept that I love and embrace. But it’s one that I recognize as containing some important grains of truth. We are communal creatures, and we are influenced by what we see. So I intend to do a lot of showing. I intend to introduce you to women from everywhere doing everything and looking just like you’d expect and like nothing you’ve ever dreamed of in the hopes of hitting just a few chords inside just a few women. If I can show just one woman the example she needs to pick up and follow her dreams, believe in her beauty, register her worth, I will consider myself an unqualified success.

Originally posted 2012-11-08 06:09:38.

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36 Responses to “If You Can’t See It, You Can’t Be It”

  1. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Wonderful post. You are right about the special courage of the pioneers – women in science, law, politics, 100 years ago had few role models. Even when I was born, in the 1950’s, a female physician was uncommon. But we still need more women showing how it’s done. Twenty women Senators is a good *start*, but wouldn’t 50 be great?

  2. ModernSauce

    I’m fist pumping into the air right now.

    I don’t think women/people REQUIRE trailblazers but sometimes all you need is a bit of inspiration – a boost of confidence from seeing someone like you – that might be the final thing that propels you towards whatever brand of fabulosity you’re working towards.

    Looking forward to all that you’ll be showing. ; )

  3. Deja

    Yes!! When I was growing up in the 1960’s the issue of a lack of people of color in TV, magazines, popular media of the time brought home the idea that “cultural invisibility” is a problem. I know there are people out there who say they never consume popular media, but the majority do and it does shape their views and ideas, otherwise advertising wouldn’t be the kajillion dollar business it is. That’s why I do think it’s important to “see” both images of diversity, and have visible examples of achievement.

  4. Susannah B.

    When I began reading this blog I was in high school. I had worn hand-me-downs through all of childhood, and so had never bought clothes of my own. The first time I ever bought clothes for myself was my freshman year of high school, and it was an overwhelming experience. I felt weird about the effort of shopping, the implicitness of trying to look attractive, about buying even faintly feminine clothes. And gradually I realized I had an aesthetic, that I knew what clothes I liked, but that they didn’t seem to exactly match what other more trendy teens knew to wear.

    Reading your blog, and eventually a few of the style blogs that you linked to, helped me get through that phase when I was searching for that validation that dressing like others wasn’t necessary to be acceptable. Your blog helped me see that it was possible to look interesting and well-dressed, while being myself, with my budget and my low-level interest in appearance and my aesthetic. That I could wear thrift store and department store clothing while my friends wore clothes from mall boutiques, but that if I took care with the way I chose my clothing, I could still take pride in my appearance and be confident in the way I expressed myself.

    You mentioned how hard it is for females in male-dominated fields. And this is something I wish people would talk about more. It is still a challenge, and one that goes unacknowledged most of the time. I’m a college sophomore now and a potential physics major. I don’t have any female physics major mentors. I’m never certain what to wear to a first meeting with a professor about research, because every example I have to emulate is male.

    But I also know that it is easier for me than it would be for some others, and I’m excited by the prospect, like you, that I can be an example to others of what a physics major looks like. And someday, I will be an example of what a physicist looks like. And thanks to you, I may be wearing some pretty awesome outfits while I do it.


    • Sal

      Susannah, you’re amazing. Thank you for your kind words and for sharing your story. Kudos are due to YOU, of course, for having the creativity and bravery to craft a style that works for you. And I’m thrilled to hear you’re considering a physics major!

      Have you ever checked out the blog Geek Feminism? They cover a lot of ground, much of it techie, but also launch great discussions and link to articles about women in science and other male-dominated fields: http://geekfeminism.org/ Hope that’s helpful, and thanks again for this comment. I’m honored.

      • Dee

        Susannah, I love what you wrote. I can tell you are smart and going to be successful!

        • Jennifer

          Susannah, I had the same issue about professional dressing while in college. The blog http://www.academichic.com helped me a lot. These were ladies working in academia at the college level who dressed stylishly. I’m pretty sure they even did some posts as in “what to wear to a professor’s house”, “what to wear at a conference”, etc.

  5. Brenda

    Thanks, Sally. I’m going to carry this thought with me today: What am I not doing because I don’t see it? Powerful.

  6. Viktoria

    This is all true and we should all do our little bit to change it. Let´s pay attention to each other and lift each other.

  7. Plop

    It is exactly what feminism brought me : an example that I could be what I wanted to be and that it was alright, that my thoughts, feeling and smartness were allies and not the enemy society’s drew for me.

    I didn’t need much, but to know that some people had the same ideas as me, fought them as well and that they still were valuable ! Your blog is one of the first body-positive I encountered, and one of the best. It taught me a lot about body-image, so I have to thank you for this =D

  8. Brianna

    I recently bought your book and began frequenting your website. I would like you to know that you have had an overwhelmingly positive influence on me. Since discovering your site, I feel like I have stopped “fighting against my body” and have really been able to embrace, appreciate, and emphasize my attributes.

    I want to thank you for your voice, it is a welcome sound breaking through the noise and bombardment of typical media.

    • Sal

      Brianna, thank you. I’m absolutely thrilled to hear my book and blog have been helpful to you in your body image journey. You’re a total star.

  9. ConstantlyAlice

    What a beautiful and inspiring post. I can empathize with the resistance to “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” while also seeing the truth in it. Let your light shine and be a beacon to others! Keep up the good work <3

  10. Eleanorjane

    Great article and great idea! On a totally different blog to you, Rachel Held Evans is celebrating ‘Women of Valor’ – all sorts of women doing great things from the home to business to charity etc. to show a range of role models. It’s all good stuff.

  11. Cheslea

    Examples of women in power are important, and not just for women, but it’s not merely an issue of examples. Women face a lot more than lack of role models when they step out of traditional gender roles (hostility, discrimination, sexual harrassment, genuine cluelessness ot some men, etc.). Sadly, a lot of industries are still hostile to women.

  12. D

    That phrase strikes a chord with me too. I think I need to watch that documentary! Your site has inspired so many people, myself included. I look forward to what you have to show us next!

  13. Cristina

    As a woman in engineering, this post is close to my heart. I have always had my path clear and nothing could have stopped me from becoming an engineer, but I do recognize that not everybody has that focus.
    I don’t think it is so much that we require others to be first, but that if there are no others doing it, it doesn’t present itself as a choice. If you don’t have that focus *and* don’t see any women doing engineering (in my case), it may not occur to you to look into it.
    I do try my best do to engineering outreach, particularly to young girls. It is important to get more engineers!

  14. Aziraphale

    “I struggle with the idea that we, as women, require others to go first before we can follow along”.

    I don’t think that it’s women specifically who require others to go first. It’s just people. Honestly, most of us, men, women and children, are sheep. It takes a lot of effort, not to mention certain personality traits, like grit, audacity and passion, to break new ground. And how many leaders do we really want? Need? We can’t all be leaders. It would be chaos.

    Someone’s gotta go first. There will always be gutsy women who set a good example. It’s just fine for the rest of us to follow. Being a follower doesn’t mean you’re weak. Really, what women need, as a group, which men seem to have in greater abundance, is confidence. It’s a man’s world still, so confidence is easier come by for men, but still. Women need to suck it up and understand, at a gut level, that we are equal to men IN EVERY RESPECT if we want the same doors to open for us. And we have to act accordingly. Most men, even the stylish ones, don’t agonize over whether or not their backside looks fat in these pants. If a man worries about these things, we acknowledge that he has psychological problems. So it’s my opinion that women need to stop discussing their damn faces and bodies, stop worrying about their so-called physical flaws, and get on with it. If we wish to be judged by our actions, not our looks, we have to start acting like our actions are more important. Not that we can’t have fun with fashion — it’s just that we have to not get hung up on the physical stuff. And we’re not doing that.

    I know that, culture to culture, women are universally judged more on their appearance than men. This may be biological; we may not ever be able to completely level the playing field there. But we can minimize it. We need to behave as though this were not the case. Think of Hillary Clinton. She’s got her shit together, and some good words for anyone who tries to discuss her wardrobe or the way she presents her physical self.

    End rant.

    • Claire

      I don’t think that it’s women specifically who require others to go first. It’s just people.

      This is pretty much my opinion too. The Miss Representation screening that I saw was actually what brought me OUT of a lazy acceptance of can’t see/can’t be, thanks to the panel Q&A afterwards; I forget who made the point but of course there are women who forge ahead no matter what. And an absence of role models isn’t an excuse not to aim for anything.

      But not every man is Alexander the Great, and it’s those of us with less stamina who we should be shouting for the train to slow down for. Someone’s ability to do a job isn’t necessarily determined by how thorny an obstacle course they’re willing to compete in order to land the role.

  15. Aziraphale

    I just re-read what I wrote and realize that I veered a little off-topic. I should add that women do have role models for everything, even if those role models are men. It’s not like they’re starting totally from scratch. And it only takes one generation of female groundbreakers in any career to provide female role models for all the following generations.

    20 years ago, when I attended university, the engineering department had few female students. I just found out that, currently, roughly one-third of the engineering students are female. And the science department now has more female students than male ones.

    We’re getting there.

  16. spacegeek

    This is near to my heart as well. I work in aerospace, and there are more women engineers than there used to be, but still relatively few women scientists, although it is getting better.

    When I was debating about career paths, I looked at a teaching assistant that I had who was getting her PhD in the subject I was very interested in. She wore nice clothing and beautiful jewelry, counter to the stereotype of the “typical” scientist in this particular field. I decided that if there were room for her in the field, there had to be a place for me too. (Funny that I can’t even recall her name now!)

    So I went ahead and got my PhD etc etc. These days I work to project an image of the highly confident, capable scientist who wears dresses, smart trousers, great shoes and fabulous baubles. 🙂 I intentionally try to do a fair amount of “outreach” and public education because I want young girls to have an example.

    What I will say is that I don’t think I was driven to succeed or always wanted to do this work. I kind of stumbled on it but discovered I loved it. So I think of myself as being an ordinary woman who got lucky. I just want to be sure that I share my experiences and give back so that others might be lucky too.

  17. BelindieG

    ” Women don’t pursue those careers as often as men do because many view them as closed or hostile.”

    Then, maybe women need to break out of their comfort zones, cast aside preconceived notions and find out for themselves. The universe isn’t offering anything to anyone on a nicely garnished platter. I work in entertainment and daily hear from young women who want to direct feature films but are dismayed that it’s really hard work! What a surprise–if it was easy, everyone would do it.

    • Molly

      I don’t think it’s that simple for most people, though your perspective from the entertainment industry (lots of big dreams there) might make it look so. Anecdotally, it seems to me that there are only so many young people who are genuinely passionate and driven toward one particular area.

      For most of us, we try on a few ideas as youngsters, gravitating toward areas that look positive and avoiding those that look negative for whatever reason. A little girl who is science-oriented but not strongly so might end up elsewhere because, as she grows, she’d rather have friends than be teased for doing her homework, or she feels uncomfortable in her calculus class of mostly boys; she weeds herself out early on, not as a conscious decision at 22 of whether or not to get her PhD. A school with female physics teachers, biology clubs with other female students, or having female relatives in the field normalizes science (/math/engineering) for her–and for all of those other kids, who are less likely to tease and more likely to create a gender-balanced math class.

      Since science isn’t that girl’s only priority, it’s not going to change things if we tell her to suck it up and pursue it. But removing obstacles to her might just do the trick!

  18. Jan Graham-McMillen

    I found it gratifying, during the election, that women were publicly occupying political ground on both sides and in the middle. More gratifying still is the ability to apply discernment skills to the choices between candidates, either female or male, without first considering gender. There is still some lingering pressure to support candidates because of gender alone. But in the last decade or so, it has felt right …FINALLY… to be able to acknowledge that political lunacy is no longer just a male domain. (Of course, neither is political sanity … both sides should be able to identify with this.) This old feminist can now feel free to vote for the best candidate, not for the woman just because of her gender and in hope only that she might represent me as I’d wish to be represented. Things really are getting better.

  19. Chris


    Wonderful post and thoughtful comments! Good for all of you. Sal, if you decide to present a list of inspiring women, I have my own list and can send you info on some of my favorites.


  20. Stephanie D

    Being prior military and a woman I can add that it isn’t just personal dress where women need to be shown the way. Class and self respect among women are hard to find it seems. Especially with the way women are portrayed in the media that is shoved down our throats. I hate (read HATE) how women are expected to be sex pots all the time. We need more women who are classy, not trampy. I think that this would turn around the way men view us and it would eliminate some of the problems we face when dealing with ‘male dominated’ areas.

    Sal, you are one of my favorite women because you are intelligent and you strive for other women to dress intelligently and comfortably and durn CUTE instead of sex falling out all over the place.

    Know that you are awesome : )

  21. Alison

    Found this on the website for Miss Representation:

    We are moving in the right direction so much, that it’s sometimes easy to forget how far we have to go!
    I am happy this blog is out here to remind us all the time that groupthink is unnecessary, and that you can look and feel awesome and enjoy life in so many ways! We are all subject to it to some extent, but being aware of it certainly helps to fight it.

  22. Andrea

    It’s not just women themselves who need to be able to picture themselves in leading roles: I think a lot of organizations have trouble with it too. Often they way things are done in a company is defined by the male-dominated workplace culture, and effective female employees may be overlooked because they way they approach their job doesn’t fit the accepted mold. Women approach problems of all types differently, they communicate differently, they prioritize differently. Companies need to learn to see the diversity this brings as an asset.

  23. Leah

    Sometimes if you don’t see it, you can’t be it. Other times you can be the “it” that other people need to see, and that’s what keeps us all moving forward. Seeing others blaze trails means I am less afraid to do some of that in my own ways.

  24. LinB

    I am encouraged to see so many more women in the public arena who are not … young. There, I’ve said it. Women over the age of 30, 40, 50 — and even older than that — are not relegated to the kitchen or to the back of the room. Accomplished actresses feel freer to age into their skins without having to resort to surgery to stay in front of a camera. Ditto aging female news correspondents/anchors. Our society is becoming more comfortable in recognizing a broader spectrum of beauty, across color and size and age. Yay.

  25. Mags

    I agree. Although we are communal beings, there are plenty of women who forged ahead, not recklessly pursuing dreams in spite, but simply and beautifully following their hearts at all cost. Gloria Steinem’s drum will never beat in my heart.

  26. katie

    So true, in many ways. I grew up on “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” and love me some Disney princesses, but my future daughters will have their damsels-in-distress offset with the plucky, resourceful Studio Ghibli heroines from “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I LOVE the [alleged] response given by Joss Whedon when asked why he keeps writing strong female characters for his work: “Because you keep asking me that question.”

    I would posit that it goes the other way, too — that, not only do we have a dearth of diverse female role models, but those examples that we *do* see insinuate that girls and women need to be fragile, insecure. I have been a dancer since I started walking and developed an eating disorder around age 13; while I was always aware of it, it never concerned me, because didn’t it come with the territory? Weren’t all teenage girls, especially dancers, *supposed* to have these struggles? I didn’t lack for inspiration to dream big — I decided also around the same time that i wanted to be a doctor, and am currently in my second year of medical school — but just a model of normalcy.

    With that in mind, my best friend and I recently started a style blog — Phenotype: fabulous (http://phenofab.blogspot.com/). We have been friends since 7th and, though besties, both us of struggled with body image and identity all through our teens, completely unknown to each other. We both have younger sisters in high school and college (who are part of phenofab along with us!) and our hearts have *ached* for them when we see or hear these lovely, talented, amazing girls disparaging the beauty and ability they are blessed with, when they despair of ever being “_____ enough” for this world. We are five young women with “classic” American middle-class, Midwestern upbringings, but none of us have been able to identify with the projections of femininity we have seen offered to us. Can we be it if we cannot see it? What if we see doesn’t resonate as truth to us? Our hope with Phenotype: fabulous is to acknowledge *our* strengths, *our* beauty, *our* style, *our* dang-it-if-I’m-not-the-hottest-thing-on-two-legs-today-ness, even if for no audience but our own affirmation.