Why Did I Go Silent?

On stepping back from Man Repeller, taking a break from Instagram and the privilege of taking time to evaluate your own path.

I’ve been drafting versions of an announcement to mark a return to Instagram for a couple of weeks. I’ve turned some into voice-notes. Some into slideshows. I’ve had basically any person I have ever trusted read them over. The feedback is varied, each draft is long and different, but somehow, they still seem to build upon each other kind of seamlessly — it’s like as the weeks progress, what I want to say and what I need to say become the same thing. Or perhaps what happens is that what I need to say becomes what I want to say? I didn’t even realize there was a difference.

At first I guess I wanted to defend myself (mostly to myself -- a classic symptom of white fragility), but that desire has started to melt away. I also felt that I needed to draft something that would be received well, and that has terrified me because, on some level, I know that no matter what I write, it’s not enough. Words rarely are.

Now, though, I’m inching closer to being more confident in what is below. Which I think is partially because I finally have the language to articulate that I’m not trying to “go back to” publicly sharing the way I thought I would at first. To go back would infer that I hit pause, and am now ready to resume — business as usual! But that’s not what’s happening. Sure, getting dressed is still one of the most empowering parts of my day. I will probably continue to document that. And narrating the lives of my daughters still provides an opportunity to reflect on and process the time we spend together in a lighthearted way that is deep enough to positively impact how I interact with them. But internalizing where I’ve gotten it wrong over the course of my career and frankly in my life assures me that with enough discipline, self-awareness, and consistency, there is no going back. Only forward. 

But before I get into it, I want to recognize that there’s an accountability piece that’s missing below. In my absence, I haven’t shared what anti-racist work I’ve personally committed to. I’ve gone back and forth on what feels performative versus what is important to share publicly as a person with a following. It’s a conversation I want to have (and will), but it’s not in this letter. 

So, what happened?

At the beginning of the pandemic, a number of employees were laid off from Man Repeller. After being let go, one of these employees, Crystal Anderson (she gave me permission to share her name), was very frank about her experience of me towards the end of her tenure. Crystal is a Black woman. Her honesty about feeling undervalued and less favored than other employees was an opportunity for me to learn and rise. I missed it. 

After George Floyd was murdered at the end of May, I wrote a post on racial injustice that was met with questions about Man Repeller’s practices as an employer and where Crystal went. This was followed by broader criticisms of my leadership from former employees and interns. When I asked Crystal if she would speak by phone, she said yes and on the call, elaborated on how she felt, pointing towards my shortcomings as the leader of the company that employed her. Our conversation started to show me that I didn’t really understand the responsibility that comes with leadership. 

During a subsequent all-hands meeting with the current team at Man Repeller, it became even more clear that I did not fully grasp this responsibility, and ultimately, I made the decision to step back from my operational role. On June 10th, I announced it on Instagram. 

Why’d you step back?

Some people were disappointed that I did this. At first, I think I was too. The moment seemed to call for me to go in deeper, not to check out. But to understand why my stepping back was my going deeper, it would help to share context on the pretty complicated relationship that I have with the company I founded ten years ago. 

I was 20 years old then and excited as hell that I was in the process of building something people seemed really to care about. But this excitement sometimes presented as a sense of overwhelm — as confusion about the path forward. I was very clear on the brand’s mission — to help people express themselves freely through style, but what, in practice, was I trying to build? And was growth the goal? If so, could Man Repeller outgrow me? In hindsight, I think what I really wanted to know was who I would be if Man Repeller outgrew me. And in that way, I see now that I was hiding behind it, far too wrapped up in getting what I thought I needed from the brand (an impossible cocktail of intellectual stimulation, emotional support, accountability, and guidance) to truly understand that it could never fulfill its stated mission as long as I was looking to the platform to complete me. It’s embarrassing to realize that at 31, I’m just starting to figure out that only I can give that kind of wholeness to myself, but this is my work, and the team deserved a chance to act out Man Repeller’s mission without my baggage hovering over their heads. 

I’ve been out of the day to day operations of Man Repeller for eight weeks and thus the progress you’ve seen in the time since is the team’s victory to claim. What they’ve made — delightful and uplifting, but still illuminating, smart and so real  — is a beautiful depiction of a less me-centered Man Repeller.

What now?

As of this writing, I’m slowly returning to the brand in an updated, less operational role that will impact the overall structure of my involvement in the company. I know this sounds very vague, but it will make more sense soon. After years of thinking it’s been my role to teach, I’m eager to spend more time learning from the team, who is showing me what Man Repeller can be. 

It would have been hard to see a lot of this clearly had it not been for the private conversations I’ve had with current and former employees who’ve been willing to honestly recount our relationship from their perspectives. I know it’s not their responsibility, and I’m grateful to them for their time and candor. The conversations have brought up lots of feelings of shame but have also reminded me of the value of connection — the foundational principle on which I started Man Repeller in the first place.

Will you go back to sharing? 

I’ve been thinking about connection in the context of Instagram too. The app can often trick us into thinking we’re connecting with our digital communities when in reality, we’re trying to present postured depictions of ourselves. In that way, it can become a one-dimensional relationship with an avatar. This has happened to me — I know it because sometimes I come on looking to connect but leave just as quickly, depleted and even lonelier.

Over the last two months though, so many of you (you?) have reached out with messages of encouragement and support, sharing examples of ways I’ve lifted you up or more critically offered thoughtful feedback, advice, and recommendations. I’ve had tons of private conversations within the app’s walls -- some critical, most constructive, and all of them have played a pretty crucial role in motivating my decision to start this newsletter and think about posting on social media again at all. 

I’ve known that having a platform comes with incredible responsibility, but maybe I didn’t understand what that responsibility was until I stopped posting and realized how many people noticed. If you noticed when I stopped, did that mean you noticed when I was there? If you noticed I was there, were you paying attention? And if I had your attention, was I using it well? Mostly, I think (or hope) I was, but examining what we both get out of our relationship has been an important step in this process too. I share to connect -- because forever in my life I’ve felt like a misfit longing for fit and somehow within the virtual walls of our engagement, that condition has become something I don’t want to run away from. You’ve helped me feel more accepted. Less alone. Have I done that for you?

I’m eager to use this question as a framework to start writing (and frankly living) publicly again -- here in this newsletter (a very personal expression of what happens inside my brain and therefore to my life), on Instagram (though that platform is far less about processing experience and more about reflecting it) and through Man Repeller (I still have a lot to give to it! But it is not my personal diary.) 

But wait, why did you go silent?

To close the loop on where I started, with the question of why I’ve gone silent: it’s because fear has frozen me. What initially felt appropriate became safe and then weird.

The past several months have invited a critical reckoning for many of us — and we all have a responsibility to rise for equitability. For me, this reckoning also unraveled a lot of shit I have been avoiding in relation to myself like, for example, making a genuine commitment to defining who I am and standing by it no matter the loss. Or gain.

I know anti-racism work is not an opportunity for me to heal emotional wounds, but what I am learning is that this work affects all areas of my life. And one of the most profound things I’ve come to learn is the true definition of listening — to suspend your own experience in order to understand another one. This necessarily impacts how you think, and therefore how you speak, engage, and ultimately share. 

I’m really lucky that I have a platform. It would have been foolish to go away forever, even more to not use this opportunity (privilege, really) to critically examine what I put in the world and how it impacts those who engage with it. I cherish your willingness to be here more than I let myself realize sometimes. But that doesn’t change the responsibility that comes with it. 

I’ve been trying to tie up this letter up in some definitive and encouraging bow that points towards a beginning that is clear and empowered and brand fucking new but I don’t think I can do that because I don’t really know what’s next. I do know I’m going to keep trying really fucking hard to act in my desired integrity, and that I won’t let fear get in the way. It’s going to be messy, I am sure, but I hope you’ll stick around.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you, and hello again.