Over the next few months, I’d like to write letters to the things and people in my life. Some of the letters will be sweet and funny. Others, like the one you’re about to read below, will touch on deeper emotions, and I think the intimacy of the letter format will help me to explore them.
Where does harassment in the workplace begin and end? Is it possible to quantify suffering? How can we differentiate between someone making a stupid mistake, and a real bully? What can we accept and what should we refuse? Here’s a story exactly as I experienced it. I’ll let you be the judge.
I am not writing to present my work, because for a very long time now, I’ve had no desire to work for your magazine.
I am writing to remind you of an event you probably don’t remember, but it’s one that I’ll never forget.
It was at a fashion show in New York. I was sitting alone at the place I’d been assigned, quiet and a bit intimidated, as always. This wasn’t the first time I’d sat in the first row at a show, and while I was kind of proud of myself, I still couldn’t understand why people put so much importance on sitting there.
I had a hard time with all the attention I got there. People stared at me, took my photo. I told myself I was lucky.
But I never wanted to admit that being there made me feel fragile.
I wanted to be strong. I believed in what I was doing. I knew the internet was the future. That being placed there in the first row, even if it was sometimes a difficult position to be in,
made total sense.
I’d never felt thin enough, or perfectly dressed enough. Or “important” enough – I was certain I was a bother to some people. I had not, like so many editors in the room, climbed the ladder step by step, going from assistant to editor. I didn’t have a team around me to protect me. I came out of nowhere. I was taking photos all the time, and that was annoying in the front row, where you were just supposed to sit, look chic, and watch all the figures passing by.
I knew very well that the front row was artificial, that it had no importance outside the confines of the front row. Sometimes I would reassure myself by telling myself that.
But most of the time, I was just waiting for the lights to go down and the show to begin. When that time came, I finally knew what I was doing there.
But this particular day, the show wasn’t starting. It was a long wait, much too long. I was sitting there, waiting and waiting.
Then, you arrived – tall, thin, impeccably dressed, walking like a king. Behind you was your court. On your face, self-satisfaction, self-importance, with a touch of fake detachment.
Then suddenly you looked confused as you made your way to your seat. Furious. You turned red, paused, then turned on your heels.
You came back a few seconds later, escorted by a publicist who looked so scared her face was diving in her black blouse (the outfit of choice for publicists – you’d never want to overshadow the editors). You said a few words to her, which I couldn’t hear, but I quickly understood.
Dear editor, just writing these words to you makes my heart race with shame.
You had decided it wasn’t fitting for someone of your rank to be seated next to me.
The publicist made her way toward me, asking me to check that I had the right seat. We checked. That’s where I supposed to be, seated right next to you. Your team had been placed in the second row, as is the way at fashion shows.
Everyone was seated now, except for you and your publicist, dear editor. Everyone was watching us.
You threatened to leave the show if no one came up with a solution. All this you did, without ever once looking at me.
I sunk into my chair, mortified. I felt so fragile in the eyes of all these people. I felt less-than, minuscule, inadequate.
I was used to this kind of treatment, dear editor-in-chief. I knew that was the price to pay when you’re one of the first. The first bloggers to be placed in the front row, the first to believe luxury had a place online, the first to question a world with such well-established rules.
I’d already had doors slammed in my face, I’d been invited then uninvited. People had pretended not to recognize me, only to then decide what I was doing was important the next day, swooping in on me like an eagle catching its prey.
That’s the way it was. But that didn’t stop me from moving ahead.
In contrast, the people who were curious and open-minded were my heroes. The people who welcomed me, gave me advice, and helped me long before I became unavoidable.
And I have to tell you, dear editor, those people are now far more successful than you and your little army. They knew how to adapt. They evolved with the times. Some of them are now my dear friends. And others have no idea how much a simple smile brightened my path. Just a smile. It’s as simple as that.
I had always gone out of my way not only to ignore, but also to forgive ignorance and mean behavior. I understood. I understood that the fashion world was built on some unshakeable rules that I couldn’t be angry – it just took a little compassion, and an understanding that my fragility was a reflection of my own insecurities.
I kept moving forward, staying open, and trying to have a short memory when it came to grudges.
But that day, I’ll never forget.
The tension continued to build until there was no longer a sound in the room. All eyes were on us. You kept waiting with your arms crossed, looking revolted. You loudly threatened to leave the show.
It was ridiculous. I felt like I was in an arena. It was cruel. I wanted to disappear. And that’s exactly what I did.
From the second row, an arm reached out and offered me a seat, which I accepted.
Dear editor, you raised your nose, and did all you could not to look at me. You sat down on your plastic bench, right in front of me.
Your world had finally returned to normal. You didn’t have to sit next to someone who didn’t belong.
I spent the entire show looking at the back of your head, so terribly hurt by such inelegant behavior that I stopped thinking about you and started thinking about the direction my life was taking.
After the show, I probably left to go gobble down a scone at Chelsea Market next door.
That day, one of my dreams was crushed. The dream that style translates as elegance. Because stylish you are, dear editor-in-chief. But elegant, certainly not. And a king, even less.
A narrow-minded and cruel imbecile, that much is certain.
Dear editor, I will never take revenge on you for that day. My mother always told me life will take care of it, just continue to love, be happy, and stay open. I wonder why today is the first time I’ve ever spoken about this brief but painful moment.
Maybe because I have no reason to care about the front row anymore.
Maybe because at the time, I didn’t love myself enough to react with more confidence and pride.
Maybe because I was a bit ashamed and afraid, the kind of shame and fear you feel when you’re a child being bullied on the playground.
That’s why today I decided to write to you. Because I’ve grown up, and I’ve decided to stop making myself small.
Throughout my years at the shows, you never let up. You continued to ignore me, to turn your heels when someone had the misfortune of trying to introduce us. You pretended you had no idea who I was when someone far more important than you forced you to give in and shake my hand. There were times when your behavior was so absurd, no one could figure out what was going on. I continued to ignore your behavior. I even started to laugh about it.
And I, too, started to turn on my heels whenever I caught a glimpse of you in the crowd.
A few months ago, I was at the airport when I saw your unmistakable silhouette in the distance.
You had aged. You were alone, and without your perfectly tailored suits, you looked like anyone else, just a little more lost. The world had changed around you. Your magazine getting slimmer every month, probably suffers enormously, because that’s what all magazines are going through these days.
Your privileges and gifts and all the press trips and all the obsequiousness you loved to surround yourself with were probably cut by the new economy which you refused to watch grow. And you probably eventually had to sit next to the new generation of people from the internet who are now expected to be in the front row. The people who, unlike me, never had to apologize or work to be accepted, or prove themselves to anyone.
And to whom I wish lots of success.
And since I’m the type of person who always says hello to people I recognize, I saw you approaching. It took everything I had to resist my natural impulse to smile politely, despite all I think of you.
I saw you turn toward me, and for the first time in your life, looking at me and saying hello. I looked you right in the eyes and went on my way.
Maybe that’s nothing to you, but I suspect that after making every effort to project your feelings of inferiority on me (and on so many others, as I later discovered) this insignificant detail was probably a smack to your ego.
I hurried to catch my flight.
The world is much too big to waste any more energy than that on a bully.
Translated by Andrea Perdue