Apiece Apart Woman: Samhita M.
Teen Vogue Executive Editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay has just shared a part of herself with the world. When we speak, a very personal essay she wrote is going live, a piece in which she lays bare her resistance to accepting the word ‘fat’, and the liberation that comes with embracing herself as she is. “It's very hard to always be performing this empowerment when it doesn't feel authentic—because it's very radical,” she says. “And because of that, it's very hard to do.” But that kind of openness is nothing new for Samhita; she has been writing passionately since she began blogging a decade and a half ago at Feministing, one of the early internet spaces responsible for kindling the conversations that are still crackling in today’s much more feminist mediascape. Back then, with all the academic theory that comes with a fresh women’s studies degree in her back pocket, she found solidarity highlighting disenfranchised groups that she felt were left out of feminism, including her own experience growing up as a larger woman in a working-class South Asian immigrant family. “In many ways, I feel like I wrote myself into existence,” she says. Today, as executive editor at Teen Vogue, the stories she gets fired up to tell haven’t changed.
Here, a candid conversation on Samhita’s feminist education and what it means to step back, create space, elevate voices, and facilitate environments where others can flourish.
On finding her style through magazines:
I grew up very pre-digital, so I was a Sassy girl. But I wasn't into women's magazines as much because I was such a feminist. I was really into zines, which expanded my mind and connected me to a community that I didn't have. I was growing up in the suburbs of New York, where no one was cool. It was pre-grunge but I was starting to dress in that way … everyone thought I was a freak and a weirdo, but just a few years later everyone else would be wearing Nirvana T-shirts. It felt like a really special and exciting moment because I think you had to really try hard to be different.
On music as her gateway to feminism:
I started identifying as a feminist and embracing the language of it around 15 or 16. I was really into Bikini Kill, L7, the riot girrrl bands that talked about feminism, and Ani DiFranco. In high school I used to always run these crazy cases on the debate team about eco-feminism, but my first formal entrée into feminist studies was when I took a women's studies class my sophomore year of college—and then the rest of my life changed. It became my life's work. It gave voice to all the stuff that I had been thinking about, and I felt like I had a language to describe what I had seen.
I was very aware from an early age that all of the women in my family had not married people by choice. They had all been arranged in a marriage. My mom wanted to teach me how to cook but she tells me now, “You just wanted to play outside and catch snakes and dig holes in the yard. That's what I let you do because that's who you were as a kid. You just weren't interested in anything girly.” Which is funny because I am obsessed with fashion now.
It's a very exciting time for someone like me to be working in fashion: companies that have never done extended sizing are doing extended sizing; women are choosing silhouettes that are not just about making them look skinny; everybody wants to rethink the types of bodies we've elevated, and the idea of fashion as a source of empowerment rather than pain for women. I think people have a long way to go on that, but it's really changed what I think is possible for myself, how I see myself, and being respected—not just as a fat woman but as a fashionable woman without the modifier.
We are living in a time when radical politics have been centralized in public conversation. It's what keeps me motivated and excited and plugged in.
On soft leadership:
I wear a lot of dresses, a lot of animal print. I always wear hoops, that’s my go-to. I wear caftans to work, flowy, feminine silhouettes. It is a reflection of me: I have a softer leadership style. When you're in a position like mine, people assume that you're this ball-busting woman executive, and that's never been my style. I've always been more of a listener. I've been doing a lot of work around embracing the fact that instead of trying to fit myself into this mode of what a female leader is supposed to look like.
I'm okay with being vulnerable with my team. It's okay to not feel like I always need to be the first person to speak in a room, to not feel like I need to always be proving myself. What does it look like to be a powerful woman who uses femininity as a way to manage and lead?
I'm obsessed with music. My mother is a classically trained Indian singer and plays the harmonium, and my brother is a musician. My mom was always giving music lessons and she ran the choir at our temple. It's just been a part of my upbringing and cultural surroundings. It makes me happy, and I know a lot about it—it's a weird secret weapon that I pull out.
The music she puts on when she needs to escape:
The music she puts on when she needs to get pumped up to clap back at someone on Twitter:
Cardi B or Nicki Minaj; I love both of them. (Sorry, they hate each other.) I also still listen to Rage Against the Machine... that's not off the radar.
Something radically honest she’s admitted to herself recently:
That sometimes I just can't do it all and I am tired and it's okay to take the space. I don't always have to be on and I don't always have to be on top of everything. Sometimes I need to disconnect and unplug—and that's okay. I've been taking days off when I need to. Amidst some difficult times, it’s been very tender to be able to do that.
Photos: Lucy Laucht
Words: Ellen Freeman
Hair/Makeup: Marie Schumacher