We talked to YouTube star Ingrid Nilsen about feminism, her interview with Obama, and being a U.N. ambassador
This past week brought me back to YouTube Space New York, where I met up with U.N. ambassador and YouTube fashion and beauty guru, Ingrid Nilsen. I knew of Ingrid as “that awesome chick who asked Obama about taxation on tampons and came out on a YouTube video,” but that only grazes the surface of Ingrid’s accomplishments. Her YouTube channel (YouTube.com/ingridnilsen) boasts 3.9 million subscribers and 270 million video views. Her vlogs are informative (I learned A LOT about the smokey eye), personal and vulnerable. Below is my interview with Ingrid. Prepare to be inspired by her insightful views on growth, change, equality and much more.
HelloGiggles: Last week I interviewed fellow YouTuber, Jackie Aina and I asked her this same question: Change Ambassador to the U.N. Sustainable Action Campaign has just started this past March (Women’s History Month) and will last this whole year. What topics are you most excited to explore with your fan base and in your content?
Ingrid Nilsen: I am really excited to talk about, obviously, gender equality, but equality beyond CIS* women’s equality was really my main thing going into Change Ambassador. You know, sometimes you really have to fight for stuff like that, because it’s just now becoming something that some people understand. Change takes time. This is something that’s really important to me and I was like “there is no way I’m walking out of this room without everybody agreeing that we are going to make this an inclusive space for everyone.”
HG: During your meeting with the six other U.N. women ambassadors, you discussed issues with the usage of public bathrooms within the LGBT community and how trans men/women are often shamed when using them.
IN: I’m really interested in the bathroom situation that’s currently happening in this country and the conversations around that, because I think it’s so relevant to what I’m talking about within Change Ambassador.
HG: Can you explain to us the difference between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation, because understanding these terms might help us understand the frustration people are having with the signage used on most bathrooms.
IN: I think this is a really great question, because I think that a lot of times those three terms get lumped together. We will hear people say “trans” or “straight” and those are two separate things.
So, Gender Identity is essentially what you feel internally: who you know yourself to be, whatever gender you identify with, whether it’s man woman or gender nonconforming, something non-binary. That is what you feel inside and who you know yourself to be.
Now, Gender Expression is how you choose to express that gender that you feel, and that may not align with what we are used to in the traditional sense of what we think of femininity and masculinity. I think in the decades to come we are going to see a lot more non-traditional expression. You can identify as, say, a man, and you can wear something that is traditionally more feminine and still identify as a man. It’s how you choose to express yourself. I think that it’s confusing to people because we’ve been so ingrained with what a man or woman looks like and there’s virtually no representation of anybody in between. And I think, also, our ideas of what trans people look like are very specific. A lot of times they can be cis normative or people think trans is a costume. It’s not. It’s what you feel inside. That is what gender identity is. You could be trans and not change anything about the way you look and I think that’s important for people to know because not everyone has access to hormonal and surgical intervention. So I think it’s really important for people to understand the differences and to not make assumptions about people.
The last term, Sexual Orientation, is whom you are sexually or romantically attracted to. That kind of sums it up, it’s like, who do you want to love/kiss on a little bit?
HG: I love that when you interviewed Obama for YouTube, you did your “sense of self” series with him. What would you show for your “sense of self” objects?
IN: I would have to be around my stuff to pick out all five but I have a book called Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed and Cheryl signed it for me, I actually got it as a birthday present from Eileen, who I work with, and it’s become one of my most precious possessions that I have. I take it everywhere I travel. I normally carry a tote bag with me during the day and I have “Brave Enough” wrapped in a paper bag because it’s so precious to me that I need to hide it! It is such a thoughtful gift and I love her words so much, they resonant with me so incredibly deeply and I can flip through that book and just get the hug that I didn’t even know I needed in that moment. I think what she does for so many people is that she provides solace and comfort. She wrote in the book, “stay brave, trust your heart,” and that’s actually something I wrote on my motivational board. Whenever I find myself trying to make a difficult decision or find courage, I repeat that over and over to myself. It gives me the courage I need. And I guess something that I have on me right now, (shows delicate black beaded bracelet on her wrist) I guess this would be either touch or sight. I would say more so sight, because when I look at it just makes me really happy and makes me think of the person who gave it to me.
HG: Is there any entertaining anecdote you can share with us about something unexpected or crazy that happened during the process of planning or carrying out your White House interview with President Obama?
IN: So one thing that all three of us didn’t know we were getting into with the interview is that there was a possibility of our questions being cut. You can’t predict how long his answers are going to be and since this was only the second year that he was doing in-person interviews, they only had the previous year to base his possible response time. So the interviews were timed out to the minute because he’s the President and he has a lot of stuff to do! He has exactly 45 minutes, which is why we had a stand in for the President (during rehearsal) to give us answers. They had someone standing off to the side with a marker board just in case one of the questions had to be long. So if one of the questions went a little bit longer they would stand off to the side and tell you which one to quickly cut. I told them I really wanted to do the tampon question and sense of self. It all worked out! I didn’t get to do all of my questions but I was happy that the ones that did get cut were kind of related to ones I’d already talked about.
HG: I want to ask you about bravery. You came out on YouTube. Coming out is so difficult in and of itself but you did in the most public forum, where people are not always so nice. You interviewed President Obama about terrorism and taxation on tampons…among other things. How do you get so brave? What do you do to calm yourself before huge things like this?
IN: I think courage and bravery, they essentially come down to having, let’s say, two decisions in front of you and opting for the decision that’s going to promote change. That’s what makes it scary. If you don’t opt for the decision that promotes change, you’ll be going down the same path and you’re comfortable with that and you’re used to that. That’s what’s scary about being brave, is that change is inevitable and you’re moving in the direction of change and you don’t know exactly what that’s going to entail. I think that’s really the tricky thing is that line of fear. We have this fear of our dreams and then the actual getting of our dreams. You have to either figure out, okay, am I going to reach for change or am I going to let my dreams walk all over me and let me crumble. It’s like your dream is taking hold of you and punching you in the face continually! That’s what it feels like to be afraid of going for what you want. It’s scary and you have to push through that.
To get through these moments where I feel really nervous I find that doing a gratitude practice is really helpful. I remember so clearly standing in that ballroom at The White House and I was standing next to my set and President Obama had just walked in, I had tears in my eyes and I took several deep breaths in and out to be present and hang on to every single word that comes out of his mouth. I told myself, “you never thought you’d be doing something like this and here you are so f**king enjoy it Ingrid!” I was still definitely nervous but it got me out of that frantic anxiety.
HG: How do you define feminism? What is the most important part of being a feminist for you?
IN: For me, feminism is about ending discrimination, all forms of it. Not just for women. Any groups of people that are being oppressed, I think that those people should be included in the feminist movement. That’s why it’s so important that feminism be an inclusive space because we as women should know what it feels like to be oppressed, pushed down, to be told we don’t have a voice and be told that we aren’t worthy. This is our chance to break that cycle and to be like “hey there’s room and space for everyone, let’s do this together!” I think its allowing people to make the choices that are best for their body, their mind and their heart.
HG: We saw how the YouTube community embraced you coming out online. How did your family feel about it? Who was the first person you confided in?
IN: The first person I confided in was my friend Cat. She was the first person who I told and we had a really long conversation about it. She continues to be someone I confide in and who I talk to on the daily. My Mom has been really supportive and I’m honestly really proud of her. She comes from a totally different world. She grew up in another country and grew up so differently from me. She has evolved and changed a lot. She loves me. I’m so proud to be her daughter and be a part of her path and her journey. She doesn’t always understand what I do all the time but her main concern is my happiness and well being. It also wasn’t a perfect process and there are people who aren’t in my life and that’s my choice. So much of life is about being patient with others and yourself and giving yourself the time you need. It’s a two way street. Both sides need to be ready to step towards each other and that’s not always going to happen at the same time.
HG: How has your life changed since coming out on YouTube?
IN: It’s gotten phenomenally better! It really is true when people say when you come out you can just be. It is a process, it’s not like you come out and everything is perfect but at least you don’t have to worry about that one thing that’s looming over your shoulder. It’s such a big thing to have following you around and to face that, recognize it and push through it is so huge and liberating. That’s why they say “coming out of the closet” you’re freeing yourself! It allows you to step into who you are. I think there’s always work to be done on ourselves as people and this allows you to take the next step and you will continue stepping towards who you know yourself to be. It was a combination of being afraid to do it and that excitement and joy and also the fear of the unknown! For me, it felt like I had pushed myself I had pushed myself to the ledge and jumped off and now I had this canvas in front of me to paint. It’s a work in progress, one step at a time. You’ve gotta give yourself your best chance! A lot of times that permission is coming from us, you are worthy of it, so go and do that!
HG: You’ve often said you, like myself, see yourself as a shy person, and started making videos as a way to express yourself. Can you speak on this a bit? What advice do you have for our readers who see themselves as shy?
IN: I think that being shy essentially stems from a fear of judgment. This is something I relate to SO much, especially as an only child. I think it’s especially common for kids who grew up around a lot of adults to have that shyness in them and fear of judgment because you’re the one they are paying attention to. I think so many of us naturally want to please our parents, even as adults there’s still that “I want you to be proud of me” feeling. Recognizing that my shyness came from a fear of judgment has really helped me a lot. It doesn’t make me a bad person, or mean there is something wrong with me. I could still operate in the mode of being shy but I want to connect with people. So how can I feel comfortable doing that? I’ve realized there will probably never be a time where I can walk into a room full of people I don’t know and be comfortable. It’s like a shy person’s worst nightmare and maybe an introverts worst nightmare. I’ve realized I really thrive in one on one dynamics or a small group, because I love to connect with people. I think that that’s what we are all seeking in our lives is connection with another person. I try to create environments where I can connect with a smaller group of people. If I see someone standing off by themselves I go and talk to them.
One of my closest friends, Cat and I met this way. We were at a shoot and I didn’t really know anyone. Cat came over to me and started talking to me and we recently connected on that moment that sparked our friendship. Cat always wants to talk to the quietest person in the room because they can be the most interesting, and I remember how wonderful that made me feel, like somebody saw me, and that’s what we all want, for someone to see us. Pull yourself away from the thoughts of who you think you should be and what you should do and start pushing yourself in the direction of who you could be and what you could do. Making yourself open to the possibilities is so powerful, that’s the first step in owning who you are.
HG: You’ve gone from posting videos on YouTube to being selected by the U.N. as an ambassador for changes for women all over the world! A lot of young women post videos and work on making their own YouTube channels; what do you think it is about you and your voice that so many people have hooked into and been inspired by?
IN: I think it all goes back to that idea of connection. I was reaching for connection. I didn’t know whom I was reaching out to but then people started to reach back and that is the connection that has kept me going and I think my community with me, because I’m always reaching. I have changed so much in the six and a half years I’ve been doing this. I started when I was twenty and I’ve obviously changed as a person but from the very beginning I was always reaching out. More and more people kept reaching back and that’s what’s so special to me.
*CIS is short for “cisgender” (opposite of “transgender”), used to describe someone whose gender identity matches their anatomical gender at birth.