I've said this before: often, one of the first things that a woman does when she sits down in my chair, is apologize.
Whether it is for her zit, her wrinkles, her fat, her dry lips... I'd say over half the time, the opener is "I'm sorry" or a variation of it. I had a feeling it wasn't just me who experienced this. Sure enough, last week I had a heart-to-heart with another make-up artist who said the same thing. For me (an abuse survivor) and her (an eating disorder survivor), we've been forced through the recovery process to confront the fears that make us shrink. We’ve come to live in a sort of ever-present, indignant attitude about what drove us to live in that to such an extreme degree that it threatened to consume us. It's almost like when you quit smoking, and suddenly you notice how many people smoke. You don't think you're better than anyone else. But your eyes are opened to how many people do it. You remember how you once did it, and you want them to see how great life is once you get free from it.
I certainly didn't realize how much I had grown to apologize for everything- even and especially things I couldn't control and that were not my fault. There was a pivotal point where I decided to evaluate this, and to not apologize unless I was admitting fault ("I'm sorry that I wronged you") or expressing sympathy ("I'm sorry that that happened to you"). Once that happened, I noticed when people apologized, who they were, how frequently they did it, and why they did it.
I also noticed how frequently people responded to things I was explaining to them, with "that's ok," "no worries," and "you're fine," as if I was apologizing, or should apologize, even though I wasn't.
I had come back from California and an underwater photographer named Emmerlee Sherman asked to take my photo. I told her I would love to, except that I couldn't swim. She said she could do a photo shoot with me in the shallow end of her pool, which was only 3 feet deep, so I could easily stand up in between takes. I agreed. We got a designer on board named Jordan Nentl. Emmerlee told me to breathe all the air out of my lungs, drop into the water, pose, and she would quickly fire off shots until I needed to come up for air. The first fifty shots or so, I looked absolutely terrified in the photos, and each time I came up for air, I said the same thing: "I'm sorry." There was a pressing feeling that if I wasn't good at this right away and didn't do it perfectly, I was wasting everyone's time.
Emmerlee used this opportunity to tell me about her experience as a staff member of a girls camp. At the beginning of the week-long experience, the counselors would tell the girls that they are only allowed to apologize three times the entire week. They do this because they want to challenge the girls to think critically about what they are apologizing about, if they are actually sorry for something, and if they should be apologetic or if its just a habit that they were taught when they felt the slightest bit imposing. Throughout all of the recovery I had sought out the years prior, nothing struck me quite like Emmerlee's story. It wasn't just "that's ok" or "no need to apologize." She said it in a way that told me this is a big issue for a lot of people, specifically women, and that it is taught to us when we are little girls. It pissed me off to be shown that I had been unconsciously making myself non-offending and had learned to declare I was sorry when I really wasn't. I had been taught that in the moments I'm not doing something perfectly or am trying my best and stumbling, that I am putting someone else out.
I went back into the water and we got the shot.
Less than a week later, I got an automated text message from the credit union that an agency banks with, telling me that they were wiring me payment for a makeup gig I had done. This was routine and had happened without incident probably 6 times prior. Days later, I went to check my bank account and noticed that the money wasn't there. So, I called my bank to ask when the funds would be available. They said that no funds were pending to be placed into my account. Confused, I called the agency's credit union who told me they had definitely deposited money into my bank account and had a confirmation number from the bank saying they had received it. I went into my bank's physical location. I talked to the branch manager for hours. He told me over and over again that there was no record of money being sent to my account, there was no way to track it, there was nothing that he could do. It was a mess. I finally left defeated and furious, wondering what had happened. I was extremely frustrated that the people I trusted with my money simply threw their hands up and dismissed my situation.
Days later, I was fed up. I called the agency's credit union again and confirmed my account number as well as the amount. The woman I spoke to told me everything was right and according to their side of things, everything went through without a hitch. Finally, she told me: "I am sorry that this is happening. If the bank doesn't get you your funds by the end of the business day, call us back. We will re-send the money and recoup the original funds from your bank off the back end." 20 minutes later, the branch manager of my bank called me:
"Ms. Morris, we discovered what happened. Your funds were placed into another customer's account."
I replied, "So you're telling me that YOU put MY money into the WRONG account."
"Ms. Morris," the man said carefully, "we want to get these funds to you; we are in the process of contacting the customer whose account the funds went into and request authorization to remove the funds so we can place them into your account."
"Wait," I snapped, "Let me see if I am hearing you correctly: you discovered that somebody doing your processing, fat-fingered my bank account, and your bank put my money into the wrong place. You found this out after I came to your branch and spent hours with you while you told me there was no way to track this missing money. Now you're telling me that you have to ask this other person- who has my money- for permission to take back money that isn't theirs so you can give it to me. Is that what I am hearing?"
I could hear the man's eyes rolling over the phone: "Ms. Morris, your funds will be in your account within 24 hours."
"How are you going to make this right?" I insisted.
"I don't know what else you want me to do,” he said flatly.
I could feel my blood boiling. "I want you to APOLOGIZE to me."
"Ms. Morris... the funds will be in your account within 24 hours."
I hung up the phone and reflected on this situation. I could have concluded that he didn't apologize to me because he's a man and didn't want to admit he was wrong. And maybe that was part of it. But being an American and growing up in an increasingly-litigious society, I know that in certain spaces with high legal liability, an apology isn't an extension of compassion- its an admission of guilt. Just like if you look at the back of your car insurance card, one of the first things it says is "do not admit fault." Compassion and accountability is seen as weakness.
So why are women and girls taught to constantly apologize for things they didn't even do, things that aren't even wrong, and things they may have zero control over?
I think you can answer that question yourself.
An apology is a lot of things, but for me it had become a way of saying, "please don't be angry with me." I never knew what would set off the person that was hurting me, so I learned to apologize and blame myself for anything that felt the slightest bit uncomfortable. That other make-up artist I mentioned earlier? She had been taught that her presence and taking up space was what put a target on her, and thought if she could make herself smaller, her existence would not offend others. "Sorry" is not just a word- especially when it is used to decide who is blamed and who has power. It is certainly not just a word when a woman sits down to do something for herself (that she is paying money for) and the first thing she feels is guilt or shame.
For me, this enlightening conversation with Emmerlee was paramount in my journey to visibility. We cannot be visible if we are constantly apologizing for being visible. We cannot feel at home in our bodies, hearts or minds if we see remorse or accountability as weakness. And we certainly can't get power if our existence is consumed with dodging other people's potential judgement.