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A New Generation of Engineers

Ayah Bdeir, Founder and CEO of littleBits chats to Bird about her passion for engineering and her goal to inspire a new generation.

Was there a key moment growing up that lead to your interest and eventual career in engineering?

From a young age, I always had a knack for math and science, which is why my parents and teachers continuously encouraged me to pursue engineering as a career path. While I very much enjoyed understanding how things work, I was always very drawn to design and art. Any chance I got, I would sit in on art classes with my sisters, who are designers, because I just loved to explore my creative side and wanted to bring that to the field of engineering. My passions for both sides of the spectrum are really what led me to the technology world and in particular to the maker movement. 

You purposefully make your products gender-neutral, why is this such an important aspect of littleBits?

At littleBits, we strongly believe that gender neutrality is essential for encouraging girls to pursue STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). We are currently seeing that 30-40% of our kid inventors are girls (which is a strong statistic already for an electronics product), but our goal is to reach that 50% mark. Everything at littleBits – from the color of our circuit boards to our packaging to the inventions we feature – has been deliberately designed to be gender-neutral and accessible to everyone, to unleash creativity and instill a love of STEAM through the power of play and invention. Ultimately we want everyone — regardless of age, gender, background or discipline — to have the problem-solving skills and creative confidence to invent the world they want to live in.

Do you have one piece of advice for young women wanting to become engineers?

Always try to take being a woman out of the equation first. Don’t waste your time even thinking about being a female engineer. You are simply an engineer. Save that brain space for creativity and productive work. If you are good at what you do and if you excel, gender doesn’t have to be acknowledged as a factor of success.

Learn more about littleBits.

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Getting Started The Right Way

Bird_Illustrations.jpg

In 2013 I co-founded an e-commerce website offering women’s work wear clothing rentals and advice on how to succeed in a professional setting. Unfortunately it never really picked up and we eventually decided to shut it down. However, it was an amazing experience and I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

1. “Ideas are shit, execution is the game.” - Gary Vaynerchuk
If I were to pick one thing to sum up what I learned from my experience it would be this quote. It’s so important to think about how you are going to execute your idea from the user experience, to the branding, to the sales strategy. Anyone can come up with an idea but execution can determine if that idea succeeds.

2. Most people won’t be helpful.
In the beginning of our journey we emailed as many people as we could who we thought would be helpful. Unfortunately we only heard back from a fraction of them. We definitely wasted a lot of time and energy feeling personally offended that they didn’t want to help us. We would have been much better off brushing it off and focusing on the people that actually wanted to help.

3. Opinions are like assholes. Everybody has one.
This is pretty much true in life but especially when you are getting advice on starting a company. Everyone will have a different idea of how you should grow and run your business based on their own experience (particularly those who were involved with a successful company). Though it’s great to get people’s opinions it’s also important to take what they say with a grain of salt and stay true to your vision.

4. Market. Market. Market.
If there’s one tangible thing we could’ve improved upon in the beginning of the process, it would be around marketing. We thought we could just post our company’s launch on our Facebook, our friends would share it around, and the customers would just come flooding in. That definitely did not happen. There was much more we could’ve done such as a paid social campaigns, physically going to universities and colleges to speak with students or some promotional campaigns (ex. “Receive 20% off your first order”). I can’t stress enough how important marketing is in the early stages of your company.

5. There is a tricky dance between money and growth.
When you’re bootstrapping your startup, money is always a huge issue. This is a bit of a chicken or the egg situation. You definitely need to grow your company to a certain stage to be able to even get in the door with certain investors. However, sometimes you need money to be able to grow! There is no secret or right answer to this problem - it’s definitely something each founder will have to figure out on their own but just know that it’s something you’ll constantly have to deal with.

6. Things take time. (But really).
Looking back we only had the website up and running for about 10 months, which is not a long time at all. You definitely have to cut yourself some slack and realize it takes a lot of time to build up a name for yourself and get customers. We all read the stories about J.K. Rowling receiving numerous “no’s” before she finally found a publisher for Harry Potter or how the founder of Airbnb couch surfed for a year to prove his idea. You have to do the best you can to persevere through the tough times and keep fighting on!

7. You don’t have to be the next 25-year-old billionaire.
There’s definitely a lot of pressure these days to start the next big tech company by your mid-twenties or make the Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list. Unfortunately I think a lot of people feel like if they don’t accomplish these things, they’ve somehow failed. I don’t believe this is true at all and starting a company with virtually no work experience made me realize the benefits of starting one when you are a bit older, wiser, experienced, and have more money to put behind it.

8. Focus on building a community rather than the product offering.
This kind of goes along with the execution point. The main mission of our company was to empower young female professionals to feel confident in the workplace. I think that’s an amazing message. Unfortunately we lost sight of that and were too focused on the actual business model of renting clothes. If we had just kept focusing on our mission maybe we would’ve been more willing to pivot the company, had an easier time getting customers, or discovered something completely new along the way.

Starting a company will teach you things you can never learn in a normal day job. Though we dealt with a lot of trials and tribulations, I don’t regret any of it. The experience made me realize my passion for digital marketing and strategy. After we shut down I had just started a position as a digital marketing manager and today I work at a digital design agency were I focus on data analytics. Maybe I’ll take the startup leap at some point again in the future!


Hannah Levenkron works as a digital analyst at Huge where she works with multiple clients and business verticals to define and executive measurement and optimization strategies. In her spare time she loves to bake, hike, play with her dog and watch trashy realty tv. 

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Follow knowledge, not passion

I feel like everywhere I turn I’m being told to “follow my passion.” “If you’re not waking up every day and knowing that you love your job then you’re doing something wrong.” Sound familiar? 

I think it’s baloney. Sure we all want to be happy and feel fulfilled but happiness is not conditional. It is within us and it’s our decision to make it happen (as hard as it may feel sometimes). I’m not saying stick with a job that sucks, where you’re undervalued, and you aren’t learning anything. I’m just saying take a moment to really think about what’s bothering you, can things be improved where you are? Or is changing your environment the right thing to do?

Take every situation, job, moment, as a learning experience. Collect this knowledge and keep moving forward. The knowledge might feel fragmented at first but pay attention to the strengths you’ve gathered and in time you’ll figure out how the pieces fit together. Then, once you have those pieces you can apply them to something that brings out the best in you. It might take you ten years to get there but being “unhappy” in a job is your first signal to dig in a little deeper…

And it’s OK to not be following "your passion.” Life is too complicated to be distilled into one irrational feeling.

- M

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Success fuels passion

My other Bird half Magdalena sent me this article earlier in the week. It’s been out for a couple of years but after reading it for the first time I really connected to it. As a creative person with many a vision for what I want in my life I'm constantly consuming articles about people who have become successful in their endeavors … in other words people who have followed their passions. I know I’m not alone here but that can feel overwhelming. Am I just not passionate enough? 

Adams makes a case for success growing passion, not the other way around. He’s certainly not suggesting you head off and start doing something you hate but instead try various avenues and ideas and learn from this trial and error to grow more successful ideas. This does make sense … “have a system instead of a goal.” 

I know I feel excited and work harder when something I’m doing is going well. The concept of a system seems to be a more attainable stepping stone. It’s an interesting concept to wrap your head around, and it’s almost the polar opposite of what you read about when people talk about their creative success stories. It’s definitely food for thought.

- S

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Decisions, decisions.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the decisions we make every day, more specifically the decisions we make when we encounter another person. Whether that encounter be in an hour long meeting at work, talking to a friend, or buying gum at the bodega. How we choose to act or react in that situation is controlled by us.

To give you a little context of what I mean I will tell you about a friend of mine*. His ability to light up anybody’s life purely by interacting with them was and is an aspiration to me. His effortless way of communicating with any kind of person, making them laugh, and lifting their spirits seemed to come so naturally to him and I thought it would be impossible for me to be like that. I would think, “I’m just not that kind of person."

One day I asked him about his ability to connect with people and he told me that a long time ago he made a conscious decision to act that way. He wanted to make sure that everyone who met him, no matter how minor the interaction, would come out better off than they were before they met him. He wanted to bring something to their lives they didn’t have a moment earlier. And he worked very hard at it, and now it comes very naturally to him. That blew my mind. He chose to be this way. 

So, can I do the same? The answer is: yes. We all can.

It takes work, and sometimes I can’t be bothered being nice to the jerk at the bank, or the guy at work asking for a change at the end of the day. But if I take a split second to choose how I react in that situation I can turn something meaningless, stressful, or boring into a moment that could change someone’s day. Even if it’s only mine.

Especially with everything that’s going on right now, we could all choose to be little nicer to those around us.

- M

*Shout out to Corey. My inspiration.

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Let's march!

Rachael Feinman

Experience Designer, New York

The Women's March on Washington is gearing up to be a truly historical day. We wanted to check in with New York Bird Rachael Feinman about why she's marching this Saturday. 


Why are you going to the Women’s March? 
I have been asked this question a few times now and I have realized that while attending a rally where a couple hundred thousand people are expected to attend is incredibly outside of my comfort zone, I am going because it is important. Donald Trump has been suppressing minorities throughout his entire campaign and he needs to see that his words and actions cannot and will not be normalized. I want to showcase that we are fighting for equality for all and I also want to reassure young adults and children that standing up for what you believe in can create change. A wise friend recently told me - your voice is the most powerful thing you have.

How do you think this election has changed the conversation around women’s issues in America?
Women's issues in America has always been relevant - Gender wage gap, Sex Trafficking, Reproductive Rights, Paid Parental Leave are just a few of the primary topics that we have begun making progress in. Fighting for women's issues is nothing new however, we need to now fight twice as hard as these issues may no longer be prioritized. We need to know our worth in the workplace and to not be afraid to ask for more. We need to ensure that establishments such as Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights are able to maintain a support system for women. We can do this by not only donating but educating others about the extensive offerings and crucial need for these organizations. We need to keep fighting. 

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It's that time of year

1. Go natural with 100% cotton tampons from our ladies at LOLA. Plus, you'll get them straight to your door. So no more late nights stops at the pharmacy!

2. Plenty of inspiring reading, and beautiful photography to get you through the winter months. Special deal on a 1 year subscription!

3. Get warm and fuzzy with Dona Chai tea.

4. Uh, adorbs! This and many other fun things from Mokuyobi.

5. Let's be honest. We can all use this.

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Follow Up

We’ve spoken with so many amazing Birds over the past two years who continue to do some awesome things. We thought wed check back in with some


What's the scariest thing you've done this year? 
In February, I began my medical transition from female to male. This has been a long time coming. I feel like I've taken a mask off after 24 years of wearing it against my will. So, you can imagine my relief and joy when I tell you that I can finally see myself. I'm finally moving in the ways that I've wanted to move. My body is finally growing in the ways that it has wanted to grow! I'm a more reliable person. I can show up for other people when they need me. I can carry on conversations without constantly dissociating from reality.

I am so freaking happy with my progress! That being said, I'm in the process of mourning my womanhood and relationships I lost by admitting to the world that I'm a transgender person. I have new safety concerns, but I'm shedding old ones. White male privilege is real - just ask any white "passing" trans guy.

While navigating this new terrain is scary, I only have one regret. I wish I started this process a helluva lot sooner. Unfortunately, I'm often late to my own party and coming out to myself took a lot of rigorous emotional excavation, but here we are!

What are you working on right now? 
I'm a 2016-2017 Fresh Tracks Artist at New York Live Arts. On January 13 and 14, I'll premiere a new solo called Tra(n)sh at New York Live Arts. Equipped with cookies and an open invitation for political incorrectness, Tra(n)sh takes a humorous ride from overzealous optimism to total despair as I simultaneously seek a “safe space” for my audience’s opinions and my non-binary transgender body. 

How has your work/choreography evolved?
Medically transitioning teaches you how to give less fucks. As a result, my work is becoming more naked both literally and metaphorically (ha). I'm not tidying the work up or putting bows of "satisfaction" on it anymore. I'm moving in the ways that I want and need to move. So, I guess my work is getting louder through color, speech, and my absurd facial expressions. I love giving a good face to the audience. I want to laugh with you. I want to cry with you. I want to learn together through performance. 


Ashely is currently raising funds for top surgery and recovery which is not covered by insurance. To help Ashley's transition, click here.

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Information Overload

This week’s Bird interview with Kiran Gandhi has really got me thinking. We talked about this need our generation has to keep changing (our careers, where we live, our partners…) and how our access to information informs us of what’s out there waiting for us to discover, to do, to be...

Years ago I had a very clear goal; to live in New York City. That goal took me half way around the world, through various cities, various jobs, gathering amazing friends and experiences along the way, and eventually to the moment I had spent my whole life preparing for. Now New York has come and gone and I’m left with vague goals, hazy ideas of things I might like to do one day, and a feeling that I’m wasting time.

So in this state of the unknown (an exciting and scary place to be) I find myself overwhelmed by the inundation of information pouring in through social media, the news, instant messenger, email, Spotify, billboards, Facebook memories... and wish for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.

I do appreciate our instant access to information, and I do believe it can be a great motivator in showing us the possibilities of what's out there. But perhaps there’s something to be said for the “old” days when we were forced to create something from within ourselves and seek out the information we needed to make it come to life. The days of radio silence when you were so bored you could do nothing else but sit and stare at a wall.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this (clearly) but I think I’m trying to distinguish between what it is that I want, what makes me happy, and what I feel pressure to do thanks to this bombardment of information on my feed everyday.

I think I’m going to go sit and stare at a wall.

On a lighter note, happy Thanksgiving everyone!

- M  

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Bizarro World

As I process the thought of looking at Trump's face for the next four years I reflect on the time leading up to this moment. There's so much going on in the world right now that I cannot comprehend but when I see my friends, family, colleagues and strangers come together with such passion and love for a better future my heart fills with hope.

A day will come that will make us proud to be here, and proud of the efforts we put forth to get there. This is just the beginning of that path so let's keep moving forward.

And keep this song in mind as we do.

- M


Today I feel so many things ... foolish, naive, sad, angry and tired. I woke up yesterday with so much hope, confident that we would be electing the first female president. Photos of friends and strangers proudly voting filled social media feeds.

By 11pm EST I was exhausted after starting the evening with such excitement, believing I would be witnessing history in the making. As much as I tried to stay awake I feel asleep to the increasingly horrifying polling news, but still had a sliver of hope in my heart and mind. Surely things would be OK, she would pull through.

To wake up this morning to the news of Trumps “victory” broke my heart ... as a human, a woman, and as an immigrant. To realize the amount of unrest, hate, misogyny, racism and anger that exists in this country is frightening and feels incredibly bleak. How did I not see this? However, alongside this sadness and fear comes a commitment to bring about change, to join together and to show the world that hate will not win. We must learn from this very hard lesson. Be sad today, and tomorrow let’s work together to figure out the next steps. We cannot back down.

- S

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The Work Begins

Finish Your Ugly-Crying. Here’s What Comes Next.

By Ann Friedman

Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Photo: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

Back in July, I sent an email to some friends — all women — inviting them over to watch Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination. The subject line was “Let’s feminist ugly-cry together.” I said I wanted to celebrate the fact that a woman had made it this far in American politics. Really, though, I was hedging my bets. I wanted one big celebratory moment with the women I love, just in case Hillary didn’t get to give another major acceptance speech. I got a little choked up, but didn’t shed a tear.

This morning, I ugly-cried. 

“Our campaign was never about one person or one election,” Clinton said in her concession speech. “It was about the country we love and about building an America that is hopeful, inclusive, and bighearted.”

It’s hard to get to a place of hope and inclusiveness when your eyes are still puffy and snot is still running down your face and you’re worried about the mental health and safety of your friends. A KKK-endorsed man who openly bragged about assaulting women has risen to power by stoking rural, white Americans’ fears, and, come January, every branch of the federal government will belong to him and his allies. “This election,” wrote Rebecca Traister last year, “is a referendum on the existence and civic participation of Americans who are not white men.” And now we all know how it went.

I would love to be turning my tears into a rant about men’s inability to accept powerful women. And there was a fair bit of that happening in this election, I’m sure. But that is not the full story the polling tells. White women were right alongside white men in voting for Trump: Exit polls are showing that 53 percent of white women voted for him, too.

“Too many privileged white women wanted a traditional regime to flourish,” Clover Hope writes at Jezebel. “And many liberal white men and women who didn’t think this could happen were happy to stand by and let the seismic shift toward white nationalism roll on, content to remain unaffected.”

We are about to enter a frightening new era for vulnerable people in America. Most of them cannot take a few days off to process what has just happened. Which is why those of us who don’t belong to the most vulnerable groups have a greater responsibility to start building that more “inclusive and bighearted” America right now. I’m sorry to inform you that we cannot take much time off.

This is especially true for white people who worried about a possible Trump presidency but didn’t do much to prevent it and are now devastated by the result. If you obsessively checked Facebook and FiveThirtyEight but didn’t phone-bank, didn’t write personal letters to Trump-leaning relatives, didn’t drive people to the polls, didn’t donate, didn’t make sure that every single one of your friends was registered … I wish you’d done things differently. But we can’t go back and redo the election. We can, however, start putting in some good work right now.

You can become an abortion-clinic escort. You can show up to a Movement for Black Lives event. You can actually start paying attention to your local and state government. You can volunteer with an after-school tutoring program. You can become a consistent donor to an organization that’s been doing social-change work for a long time — long before you despaired about these election results and decided to really get serious about improving the country. Use the buddy system and recruit three despondent friends to do one or two of these things with you. And then actually do them.

You’ll know that you are taking meaningful action when you start feeling uncomfortable. When you are nervous and a little scared. When you’re working with people who don’t look like you, or who have had very different experiences in this world. When you don’t have a tangible, immediate goal like “winning an election.” Because the hard work of making change in America is very different from electing a president. Elections have endpoints. Social progress does not.

More narrowly, when it comes to women and politics and the proverbial glass ceiling, it’s also up to everyone to fill the pipeline. Encourage women to run. Find politicians who look like the America you know and love, and support them early in their careers. “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling,” Clinton said in her concession speech, “but someday, someone will.” That’s a little too vague for my liking. I want a list of names and a line of donors, not a wistful “someday, someone” dream. This should be everyone’s responsibility. Don’t wear a “The Future Is Female” shirt if you can’t name three female politicians you’d like to see hold higher office in the future.

And if none of that works to stop your Claire Danes ugly-crying, here’s a secret: Hillary was always a beginning and never an endpoint. She is not our last chance at a woman president, and she was never our only path to meaningful change or feminist progress. President Hillary — even with a Democratic Senate — wouldn’t have been able to put a hard stop on the entrenched racism that leads to state violence against black people, or the male entitlement that leads to the abuse and assault of women. Things are going to be, uh, different without her in the White House (sorry, understatement of the decade), but our fundamental task is unchanged. The call to action is the same, but so much louder.

So listen to it.

World Domination

Helen Mirren Has 5 Tips for World Domination

by Lisa Butterworth

Last night, Helen Mirren deservedly accepted the Legend Award at the 23rd-Annual Elle Women in Hollywood Awards at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. As one of the industry’s reigning dames, the 71-year-old actress offered up some guidelines for the rest of us. “Feel free to pass these along,” she quipped in her acceptance speech. “My top five tips.” She managed to work in a dig aimed directly at Trump in here, too:

1. “Never drink alcohol, unless you’re celebrating something, upset or something, or if it’s a day that ends in the letter Y. And never drink when you’re driving.”

2. “There are no rules about love, I don’t believe, but don’t be in a rush to get married. Honestly. I married Taylor [Hackford] much later in my life and it’s worked out just great. Now give your partner the freedom and support to achieve their ambitions, very important. And that goes both ways, men and women.”

3. “At the blackjack table, always split aces, eights, and nines. Believe me, it really improves the odds.”

4. “Connect with friends daily. I don’t mean on Facebook. Better to have three great friends than 300 friends on social media. Friends you really talk to.”

5. “And finally, finally, ignore anyone who judges the way you look. Especially if he or she is some anonymous miserable creep lurking on the internet or is a bloated, small-headed, dinosaur-y-handed candidate for president.”

Sharing is Caring

To be honest I'd never heard of Aimee Song before, despite her being one of the most successful bloggers of the moment (I'm not sure what that says about my ability to stay on top of whats hot). I came across Aimee in an interview she did recently on Garance Dore's site. What stood out to me, and what made me buy her book immediately was her openness and willingness to share her secrets and stories. Aimee talks about not understanding the secrecy people have about sharing how they got to where they are, it was so refreshing to listen to! As women, we should share our stories in the hopes of helping and inspiring other women!

 - S

It's complicated

Photo by Wally McNamee

Photo by Wally McNamee

The Complex Feminism of Hillary Clinton’s Decision to Stay Married

by Amelia Diamond

When Hillary Clinton’s campaign began to prepare for the possibility that Donald Trump would bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelity as a voter-deterring strategy before the second debate, it made me put myself in Hillary Clinton’s shoes. Why would she, as a strong, independent feminist, choose to stay with Bill Clinton after his public affair with Monica Lewinsky? The answer I kept coming back to is that marriage is complicated, and so much of being an empowered woman is having the choice to make the decision that’s right for you. I spoke to Monica Parikh, dating coach, attorney and writer who specializes in female empowerment within relationships, and here’s what she told me:

“There is no perfect marriage. It is unrealistic to assume there will never be a crisis point in a relationship. If both people in the relationship choose to work on their issues, a crisis can be the catalyst for a more inspired union. Do I think infidelity necessitates divorce? No.

No one knows what happened behind closed doors in that marriage. At the end of the crisis, these two people had significant history and a child. Their commitment to the relationship could signal enormous bravery on both of their parts.

We’re all wounded from childhood. According to Imago Theory, we unconsciously find partners that represent the good and bad of our parents or primary caregivers, which means that they love and hurt us in a similar way. When partners hit a crisis in their relationship, it’s an opportunity for both people to do work on their inner selves to heal those old wounds for the adult partnership. But oftentimes people will hit a crisis and go straight for divorce. They entered into marriage with a flawed sense of expectation and abort the relationship early, right when the relationship has potential for both people to heal themselves as adults.

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Powerful Voices

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

The Authentic Power of Michelle Obama

by Frank Bruni

Isn’t it delicious that after trafficking in racism, promoting sexism and using a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace as a pivot into political relevance, Donald Trump could receive his final death blow from a black woman: the president’s wife?

And isn’t it interesting that after so many years of keeping a studied distance from the ugliness of the political arena, the first lady is throwing herself with such passion into this grotesque campaign?

That says everything about the singular threat that Trump poses, and she’s emerging as the fiercest counter to it: Michelle Obamaoctopus slayer. She’s effective because she has never gone looking for a fight — we know that about her. She acts when she has something to defend, and as she made clear in a stirring, searing speech late last week, that’s more than her husband’s legacy, which a Trump victory would decimate. It’s her dignity as a woman. It’s the dignity of all women.

I don’t mean to overstate her impact: Trump was going down before she joined the chorus of condemnation. But her eloquence is sealing the deal. First at the Democratic convention in late July and then in New Hampshire on Thursday, she embodied the nation’s conscience and staked her claim as the most earnest guardian of our most important values.

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To all the tall ladies

I wanted to follow up on Steph’s post last week about identity so I spent some time reflecting on the idea and wound up focussing on one of my identities: my appearance.

At the shallowest of levels I am a tall blonde. This is both a blessing and a curse. Being a “tall blonde" doesn’t mean you’re beautiful, that your looks get you ahead (of the line ... of life), or that you’re a volleyball champ from Sweden. To be an above average tall woman means you were an above average tall girl, and with that comes many challenges that mess with your self-esteem and identity.

I have always been tall, even when I was born. I was taller than all my friends in elementary school and in high school. It was hard to find clothes and shoes that fit me, and even harder to not grow out of them. I was taller than the boys so no one of them were ever interested in me. Once at a bar I mustered up the courage to say to a guy, “Hi, I think you’re really cute,” to which he responded, “Yeah, and you’re really tall,” before turning away. I ran out of there as fast as my long lanky legs could take me.

I’m always surprised when people’s first reaction to seeing me is, “Whoah you’re tall!” It would never occur to me to say to someone who is short, “Look how short you are!” I don’t know why it’s socially acceptable to point out if someone is tall but not if someone is short. I tell you now that it hurts my feelings.

On the flip side there are perks of being tall. Sure, I can reach the last jar of salsa on the grocery aisle shelf, and I do like helping old ladies get their milk down. But more importantly I think it has helped me a lot professionally. I am a presence (whether I like it or not) and taking advantage of that presence in a room full of clients (especially men) puts me in a powerful position. It’s hard to be intimidated by someone when they can only reach your chin.

Being tall puts you on the fringe of the population and inflicts challenges on you your average-heighted friend would not encounter. But I am glad for these challenges and these perspectives (metaphorical and physical) that I’ve gained along the way, and when I encounter a tall lady I feel a sort of kinship and understanding.

So to all the tall ladies, may we glide like gazelles through the urban landscape, with pride and with joy, and remember that girl we once were and thank her for becoming the woman she is today.

-  M

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How do you see yourself?

While I was on the way to an interview in New York last month my other Bird half, Magdalena, texted through a question she thought would be interesting to ask. What identities do you identify with? It seems like such a simple question but it sent my brain into a bit of a tail spin once I started thinking about it. Especially when you follow up with the question with; why are these important to you? 

When I asked around most people came back with a list of personality traits that they felt summed them up. Their answers resembled those you would give in a job interview when asked, “How would you describe yourself in 3 words?” A list of adjectives are at the ready: assertive, kind, happy, thoughtful, energetic...

“Identity" is a word that feels so much more important than those adjectives. It’s something you really want to be sure of before you say it out loud.

Much like the women I discussed this question with, I struggled when trying to pin down labels I identified with. I know there are simple ones I’ve personally identified with for many years, if not for my entire life. Australian, Woman, Straight, Daughter, Sister. These labels are very easy for me to understand, and for others to understand about me.

I think the ones I struggle with are the labels and identities that are different depending on the person hearing them. “Feminist" would be a label that I strongly identify with, yet so many people have negative connotations with that word (the fact that this word is so misunderstood is baffling). “Girlfriend" is also something I am, but that word doesn’t seem to adequately describe the depth of the relationship I’m in and so I always feel strange saying it. 

Then there are the career/work labels. It’s the question that you get asked most frequently when meeting a new person, “What do you do?” It can be tough to answer, especially when what you do isn’t your long term goal. People have so many preconceived notions about jobs. I’m guilty of it myself, putting judgments and assumptions onto somebody because of what they do. “Photographer" is what I aspire to be, but while I only do it rarely at the moment I don’t feel like I have earned any right to call myself that. 

As you can see by my ramblings, this question of identities is a can of worms. Labels are simultaneously confronting, comforting, and aspirational. What do you identify as?

- S

Conversation with Ava DuVernay

Photo by Amanda Demme

by Rebecca Traister

On September 30, for the first time in its 54-year history, the New York Film Festival will kick off with a documentary film; The 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay, best known for 2014’s Selma, chronicles America’s history of racial subjugation. The movie takes its name from the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery but included a loophole that exempted those guilty of crimes from freedom. The 13th, which will debut in theaters and on Netflix on October 7, uses archival images from before emancipation through the Jim Crow era and the civil-rights movement, as well as contemporary footage of police brutality against black men, and is threaded with interviews with scholars, lawmakers, prison-reform activists, and the formerly incarcerated. Meanwhile, Queen Sugar, the television show she co-produced and wrote (which is directed exclusively by women, including DuVernay), has broken viewership records for the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN. Next up, Winfrey will star as Mrs. Which, along with Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, and 12 Years a Slave’s Storm Reid as Meg Murray in DuVernay’s adaptation of the childhood classic A Wrinkle in Time. That movie, the first $100 million film to be directed by a black woman, will start shooting in November. And on September 24, the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture will open with another new film by DuVernay, chronicling seismic events that have all taken place on August 28: Emmett Till’s murder, the March on Washington, Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, and Barack Obama’s acceptance of the Democratic nomination. 

Rebecca Traister: This documentary tells the story of African-American history by focusing on how, since emancipation, black men have been criminalized, and thus dehumanized, by American law and practice. People of color are 30 percent of the American population but 60 percent of the prison population. What you do, though, is break down how we as a culture created those conditions. Tell me about your argument.
Ava DuVernay
: There’s a clause in our Constitution that still allows for slavery to exist. Because we don’t live in a “slavery” era, folks don’t embrace imprisonment for what it is. But there’s an exception to the 13th Amendment, which literally permits slavery “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” And from that criminality clause arose a societal behavior, a collective consciousness about who was a criminal. More often than not, the folks labeled criminal were people of color. In particular, black men. We explore everything from the reasons why the link between race and criminality was manufactured to how it’s used for profit and power and political gain, all the way up until the current day.

This isn’t the first time you’ve made a movie about incarceration. Your second feature, Middle of Nowhere, told the story of a woman coming to grips with her husband’s prison sentence. But what was the point at which you decided, “I’m going to make a documentary about this”?
Netflix asked me what I might be interested in doing a documentary about, and it’s always on my mind. When I got done with Selma, I was behind on reading. I read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim CrowBryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. I picked up Howard Zinn’s People’s History. It was just a bunch of stuff in my head. I grew up in Compton, and there were two really silly things I’d say when I was a little girl driving around with my mom. The first one was: “If I’m ever homeless, that’s a good place to sleep overnight.” I would do that all the time, just look for a little nook, say under the freeway sign. I guess it just came from seeing people homeless. And I would also always say, “If I’m ever in prison, I’ll miss this …”

Continue reading on The Cut.

No Fear

Illustration by Lauren Tamaki

Why Do We Teach Girls That It’s Cute to Be Scared?

by Caroline Paul

I WAS one of the first women in the San Francisco Fire Department. For more than a dozen years, I worked on a busy rig in a tough neighborhood where rundown houses caught fire easily and gangs fought with machetes and .22s. I’ve pulled a bloated body from the bay, performed CPR on a baby and crawled down countless smoky hallways.

I expected people to question whether I had the physical ability to do the job (even though I was a 5-foot-10, 150-pound ex-college athlete). What I didn’t expect was the question I heard more than any other: “Aren’t you scared?”

It was strange — and insulting — to have my courage doubted. I never heard my male colleagues asked this. Apparently, fear is expected of women.

Read the full essay here.