Yesterday, I had the privilege of delivering the keynote address at this year’s Dress For Success luncheon. (If you have not heard of this amazing organization, do yourself a favor and check out the incredible work they do every day to empower women in our community and around the globe.) I was nervous the whole time I prepared for this speech, right up until the moment I climbed up to the stage. But as soon I looked out over the audience and saw so many familiar, supportive faces (including my mother’s), I knew that this day was about so much more than getting over my nerves. Read on for my full speech, and find links here and here to learn more about our incredible experience with the inspiring, impactful women of Dress For Success.
It is truly an honor to stand in front of you today. Thank you for having me and for supporting this amazing organization. The video you just watched was the culmination of a few months of planning, lots of happy tears, and the hard work and talent of many willing hearts.
Under the direction of Executive Director Jody White, founding partner Theresa Choi, the boots-on-the-ground service of Nicole Sickels, and Board leadership of Christine Osborne, Dress for Success serves as a guiding light for so many women looking to better themselves and further their professional careers. When searching for a female-empowering non-profit to partner with, there truly was no other option in my mind than Dress for Success.
The women in this video are participants of Dress for Success’ Professional Women’s Group. These women have worked hard on their lives, making changes, setting goals, and working their way toward personal success. But progress is hard to see from the inside. While supporters congratulate us on massive milestones and achievements, we’re still bogged down in the everyday experience of our own journeys.
I believe in my gut that a powerful portrait is transformative for the participant. Having an image that reflects your worth and value serves to reinforce your worth and value. The idea of playing a small part of the Professional Women’s Group’s journey to success – of being someone who could reflect and reinforce all their hard work, perseverance, and value – that idea excited me!
The day of the Dress for Success shoot, we had 10 women arrive, bravely willing to take a risk with us. In addition to my own team, I had arranged for three hair and makeup teams plus a videographer to be on site to create and capture the experience. By the time the women arrived in my studio to be photographed, they were glowing. It was apparent that the attention of my amazing colleagues had succeeded in making them feel truly beautiful. These women had just experienced the luxury of sitting for two hours, having professionals fussing over every detail of their appearance. If you’ve ever had your hair or makeup professionally done, you will understand just how amazing it is to be pampered in this way.
As I started in on my process, assuring them that I would do all the work, that all they had to do was follow directions, I could still see the apprehension in their faces. Can I do this? Will I like the way I look? Will I like the way I am represented?
As I turned the camera around to show them their powerful presence on the small screen, I had the pleasure and pride of seeing their whole demeanor change. Some women cried, putting their hands up to their mouths or waving the tears away from their eyes to keep their makeup in tact. Every single person had a variation of the same reaction: “…Wait, that’s me? That professional, boss-lady of a woman in that photo, that’s me?”
It was in that moment, a small shift in their demeanor, a sudden and real mental realization, that they were, in fact, already the professional women they had been striving so hard to be.
I see some of the faces of these women in the audience today. I’ve had the chance to touch base with a few of them. Jasmin was recently on Wednesdays with Whitney with me, and is moving ahead full-force in realizing her dreams of owning her own business. Randi recently got a new job and was able to proudly use her headshot for their website. These women both verbalized to me how transformative our experience together was for them. How with one click of a button, one moment in time I captured as proof of what they had always hoped to be, I could turn the camera around and show them how much grit they had in them and how much potential they had yet to realize.
You see, this moment they were having. This is the moment I get to witness all the time. Those of you who have shot with me, and I see so many of your amazing, supportive faces in this room, you know that I take control of the situation and assure you that you can’t mess it up. I’m there to guide you and coax out all that brilliance and beauty you’ve been hiding under modesty and reservation. I live for the moment when I turn my camera around and my client gasps or sighs with relief, acknowledging that for perhaps the first time, they feel like they’ve truly been captured. They feel like they can relax, because somebody sees them for who they are, somebody sees their worth and has captured it on camera.
I often say, modesty has no place in my presence. Whatever you are good at, I want to know about. I encourage people to brag to me. Tell me what you’ve accomplished. Tell me your big dreams. Be bold in front of me. Be unapologetically extra. That is what the Dress for Success women were that day. They were bold, beautiful, polished, and completely and totally themselves.
Who out there in this audience has declined to be photographed? I won’t make you raise your hands, but I’m fairly certain I would see around 400 arms in the air, and mine would be one of them. Can you hear the words you say to yourself when you make a quiet excuse to step out of the frame? I can pretty much guarantee that the words you just said to yourself are not words you would say to your best friend or your child. These words are the foundation for the apprehension and the mindset we bring when we’re being photographed. This is the hurdle we set out for ourselves. This is the hurdle I am there to coach you over.
I see it as my duty and honor to create space in my studio. Space for the people who enter to truly be themselves, to dig into their power, their presence, their ability to stop traffic and command attention. I hope to create a space where people can prove to themselves that all the good, amazing, powerful things they say to themselves are, in fact, true. And then, together, we create visual proof of their power.
We encounter situations every day where we are forced to either prove our worth, advocate on behalf of our worth, or resign ourselves to the thought that we are not, in fact, not worth it. That the job we didn’t get an interview for, the text we didn’t receive after a 3rd date, or the work meeting where your idea was ignored…. That these moments validate our deepest insecurities. And that little shadow of self-doubt creeps in, whispering to us that perhaps we are not worth it.
Then imagine you have been incarcerated or physically and emotionally abused by someone who, at one point, you said yes to loving. Imagine if you had a mother who told you you weren’t enough, or a father who left and never called. Many of you in this room don’t have to imagine these scenarios. You have lived them, breathed them, struggled to overcome them, and somehow, miraculously, come through on the other side. You have woken up every morning and decided to continue, decided to keep fighting, to keep being yourself.
But that question, that nagging question, am I worth it? Am I valuable? This is the question we never verbalize, but it affects every single action and decision we make. This is the question that is the hardest to answer because we have to do for ourselves, by ourselves. And we need tools to be able to make the right decision.
So what are these tools? The pathways to deciding that you are worth it? I’m afraid it seems, like so many of life’s mysteries, there is no right answer and no paved path. Everyone reaches the curve in the road to self love at a different point, with different pit stops and U-turns.
But today I’ll give you my strategy. This is not foolproof. I fail at giving myself credit and validating my own worth almost as many times as I succeed, but I do believe that these strategies have propelled me forward and brought me to stand in front of you today.
Number one: Take small risks.
Two years ago, I started planning out a weekly video segment. I even pulled out a video camera and did a few interviews around town with the intention of cutting and splicing until the content was perfect and I felt “comfortable” with the outcome.
It should come as no surprise to you that you’ve never seen those first few episodes of Wednesdays with Whitney, because they were never produced. My need for perfection, my insecurity that I would look bad on video or say something inappropriate held me back from producing a final product.
A year of this dance passed, and I realized I was playing chicken with myself and that I had to step it up. I made a commitment to myself to start taking one small risk every week. And that’s how my Facebook Live series, Wednesdays with Whitney, was born. Because I decided I was worth it. I trusted (or hoped) that I could do it. And that any mistake I made would be worth the risk.
I am now 56 Wednesdays into this risk, and this weekly series has given me so much. It taught me all about the beautiful repercussions of generous collaboration. It taught me the value of planning ahead, and preparing content and guests for weeks in advance. It taught me to ease up on my vanity, and that the show must go on. I have filmed Wednesdays with Whitneys wearing no makeup, wearing the same outfit I wore the day before, on very little sleep and after an outburst of tears, sometimes all of these things at the same time. But I don’t skip a week. And so many of you continue to watch and support me and even join me on camera.
So what is that one risk you’ve been playing chicken with? What is the thing you want to do, that takes a little bit of effort and feels a little uncomfortable? I encourage you to do it. Do it and then honor your risk by allowing that risk to turn into habit. And then let your habit build you up to your next risk. And then you take another leap because you’ve built up trust in yourself.
Number Two: Reach your limits.
There are lots of books and quotes out there telling us to be kind and gentle with ourselves, to let ourselves be and do what we can. I personally don’t subscribe to that philosophy. I think the best way to learn our limits is to reach them, and then figured out how to get beyond them.
I encourage you to figure out what is creating your limits. Because very often, what we see as external or permanent is simply a limit we allow ourselves to observe. Our society sets out arbitrary measures of success. And it is my opinion that the bar is set fairly low. Once you reach these benchmarks, we are encouraged to slow down, sink in, and get comfortable.
You have a notecard in front of you. I ask you at this time to write down your limit. Let this be a gut reaction. Be bold on this page. It is today’s playground.
Now take a look at your limit. What is stopping you from going past it? Do you need to take a risk? Make a plan? Ask for help? Or do you simply need to shake the dirt off, get out of your Netflix binge cycle, and realize that you get to set your own limits?
Change doesn’t live in comfort, and neither does impact. To have an impact, you have to jump and you have to land hard on your goal. To make an impact, people have to see that you leapt, hung out in the sky for a while, and then came down directly on your mark. To make an impact, you have to first decide that limits are yours to define.
Number Three: Have a mantra that reinforces both your beauty and your ability.
My mother gave me a great gift when I was younger. She told me at every downturn and every precipice of decision or disaster, “everything always works out” for you.” Now, this was not told to me because I was lucky, or she would save me, or that life would be easy, but because she wanted me to believe that I had control over my destiny. That if I believed everything could work out, I would take all the necessary steps to ensure that it did work out. My mom has continued to repeat this mantra to me as I’ve experienced every moment (or month) of crisis and self-doubt. As I’ve had to build and rebuild and use every last ounce of my strength to reach my goals. My mom is the creator of my mantra, but it is my job, responsibility, and right to make this mantra work for me.
She also told me consistently and without hesitation that I am beautiful.
“I am beautiful.”
I’d like you to take a moment and repeat those three words in your head. Just those three words. No caveats and no rebuttals.
When I look at myself in the morning, I try first to think that I am beautiful, before I think anything else. And when the barrage of harsh secondary thoughts start flooding in, of all the things I could do to elevate or improve upon that beauty, of all the times I have failed my body and myself by not living up to my own standards, I try my best to go back to the beginning and remind myself that I am beautiful. I think this belief and knowledge of my own beauty is one of the reasons I’m able to encourage and coax out the beauty in my subjects.
So I encourage you to hold two mantras close. They don’t have to be mine, but they can be if they give you strength. The first mantra reinforces your capabilities. You are capable. You can achieve more than you ever thought possible. Things will always work out for you. The second affirms your physical worth, because I do believe we need to value ourselves physically just as much as we do mentally. And then repeat these things yourself daily, hourly, or by the minute if you need to hear it. Say nice things to yourself and let those nice things you say become your truth.
Thank you for going on this journey with me today. Thank you for nodding along and smiling up at me, for contributing every time I’ve asked. The amazing ability of the people of Des Moines to show up and support one another is the model on which I’ve built both my business and my life. You all have led the way, and I’m so honored to be a part of your journey.
Today, I got on this podium as a person who had never given a keynote address, as someone who was nervous that perhaps I wouldn’t do it right or wouldn’t meet my own, very high expectations. I’ll exit this stage proud, as someone who took a risk, surpassed yet another limit, and affirmed that I am beautiful and everything always works out for me. Friends, today I decided I was worth it and believe me when I say, you are, too.