Incredible Women

20 Incredible Women on what they wish they had known at 20

Clockwise from top left: Isabel Marant, Janet Mock, Emilia Wickstead, Margaret Atwood, Dr. Barbara Sturm, Jane Fonda, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Donatella Versace

In the month that NET-A-PORTER celebrates its 20th anniversary, PORTER asked 20 Incredible Women – the designers, the storytellers, the performers, the founders and the activists – to share the words of wisdom they would give their younger selves

Jane Fonda, actor and activist

“I would tell myself that ‘No’ is a complete sentence. At 20, I was like a colander – I had no boundaries; I desperately wanted to be liked and so whatever anybody wanted, I would be compliant. I just thought my role was to please. I was about 60 when I learned that ‘No’ is a complete sentence. It was as if, for many years, I was in a boat that had no oars – and you’re being carried by the current in a direction that you don’t necessarily want to go, or should go. Then, little by little – through life, therapy, study and the type of friends I chose and who chose me – you begin to discover the value of having an oar. And you can put the oar in the water and you can actually steer yourself.”

Jane Fonda, age 20, 1957

Margaret Atwood (left) and Janet Mock

Margaret Atwood, author

“Twenty isn't the best time for anyone. Will you achieve anything, meet anyone, get a job? For a writer, there are extra anxieties: it’s 1960 in Canada, few writers make a living, and everyone knows women writers are bat-shit crazy and doomed to be single. My advice: times will change and so will attitudes. You can help change them. It won’t be easy. There will be pitfalls and rejections. During good times, don’t get puffed up: puffed is always hazardous. Oh, and do something about the wardrobe. Think pink, pack black, add a colorful scarf. That’s all you need.”

Janet Mock, writer and director

“I would say: you are right. Absolutely nothing is wrong with you. You are deserving of everything. Your vision for your future is real and worthy of pursuit. Don’t let anyone’s lack of imagination, low expectations or distorted projections sway you from your path. Shut out the noise – the negative thoughts, the ‘I can’t’, the ‘This is impossible’, the ‘Who are you to think that you’ll make it?’ You know exactly who you are, you know precisely where you’re going, so keep doing the work. Oh, and stop waiting for him to text, sis. He won’t be along for your journey.”

Gillian Anderson, actor

“Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks of you. Your opinion is the only one that matters! Fostering belief in yourself is radical and vital and essential to your wellbeing, till your last breath.

I went to a small high school in Michigan, with no theater department. There was an all-city competition coming up, where the high schools were performing one act of their productions, and I wanted to participate, even though we didn’t have a school play. What has this got to do with self-care? Well, the night before the performance, my boyfriend at the time, and a couple of his band mates, suggested that it would be fun to glue the locks of my school closed so no one could get in. And instead of saying, ‘That’s actually not a very nice thing to do and, anyway, I’ve got a play to perform tomorrow in front of hundreds of people,’ so as not to appear weak or a downer or, heaven forbid, for people to think I wasn’t game, I said, ‘Sure! I’m in.’ We all got chased away by security, but I was the one who got caught, because I stepped on a nail. They took me to jail and I had to call my parents to bail me out. Next day, I performed the play hung-over and with a hole in my foot.

“I’m now quite good at not giving energy to what other people say about me, [but] I have to believe that if I had started fostering these healthy habits earlier in life, they’d be easier to fall back on when I stray… Though, believe it or not, we won the theater competition.”

Misty Copeland, ballet dancer

“This is just the beginning. You’re here. A member of American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet. A black woman. The road will not be easy. You’ll work hard, but you will learn not to be too hard on yourself. You’re human. You’re flawed. And that’s OK. Perfection is a pursuit, not a reality. Most of all, embrace all that is to come and know that your voice can be used to bring about change far beyond what you’ll do on the stage during your career. Your story and presence will be the catalyst to people believing that classical ballet can be a part of their experience, that those doors are not closed to them. And when you hit that historical marker of becoming a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre, they will be there to celebrate with you. So, remember this as you endure injuries that threaten to end your career; when people who don’t have a clue tell you, ‘You don’t look like a ballerina’; when the doubts in your mind become louder than the positive thoughts you have about your purpose and place in classical ballet; and every time you take the stage in a leading role that, prior to that moment, had never been danced by a black woman in a major international company – you have earned your seat at the table. You’ve worked incredibly hard to get here. And no matter what, your presence on the stage will make a difference.”

Gillian Anderson

Bernardine Evaristo, author

“My 20-year-old self had no idea how much she would experience and change as she journeyed through life, although her essential, creative, rebellious self would remain the same. I’d tell her to consciously develop a positive mental attitude sooner rather than later, because it will get her through the difficult times, which might last many years. It will also help her grow her talent, achieve her goals and make her more compassionate towards her fellow humans, which is important for a writer who needs to understand and be non-judgemental towards their fictional creations.”

Bernardine Evaristo, age 20

Emilia Wickstead (left) and Isabel Marant

Emilia Wickstead, designer

“My advice to my 20-year-old self would be that if you’re following your passion, you’re doing the right thing. At 20, I was a year into my studies at Central Saint Martins. I was full of energy and felt enormously proud and excited to be there, but slightly anxious about what might come next. It’s easy to doubt your choices when you’re young; there are endless possibilities and opportunities, but you’re still learning and don’t have all the answers. In fact, you later learn that you’ll never have all the answers. But choosing a life path that follows your greatest passions will always be the right thing to do in the end. It will force you to make necessary sacrifices, work harder and learn quicker. But do remember to slow down and to live in the moment, too. I was always a dreamer, a hard worker and very impatient – I still am – with big ideas about what I wanted to achieve, and all by a certain time. I’ve only fully realized now, at the age of 36, that I never had the time – or rather, didn’t find the time – to make slowing down once in a while a priority. It’s easy to get swept up when you’re following your heart, but appreciating the present is an important part of the journey.”

Isabel Marant, designer

“I didn’t feel very secure when I was 20; I wasn’t really loving myself. I was missing a lot of self-confidence, which, in the end, I think is quite normal at that age. I wore a lot of makeup to try to look older, and in a way to hide myself. I think your twenties is a period in which you search for yourself and an age where you can play a lot with your look. And that’s something you should do, to find yourself and to gain self-confidence.”

Barbara Sturm, doctor and skincare founder

“Don’t spend too much time worrying about things you can’t change. Just move on and smile, because it doesn’t matter in the scheme of things. I always wanted to please everyone, but sometimes it just wasn’t possible or wasn’t the right fit. But instead of worrying, it’s better to spend that energy on something else. Life is a flow and, as you go on, you gain wisdom about yourself and what defines you, which makes you stronger and more resilient.”

Barbara Sturm, age 20

Ava DuVernay, filmmaker

“At 20, I was at UCLA, very ambitious, very focused on being successful – whatever that meant to me at that time: an office, a car, buying a house, taking care of myself and my family. I was trying to control everything, checking boxes and fixing problems, reacting to things instead of learning from them. I only learned in the past decade that whatever bad thing you are going through isn’t happening to you, it’s happening for you. I hold that really close to me; it really changed me, and I wish I’d learned it earlier.”

Gucci Westman, makeup artist

“Never be afraid to push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you don’t try, you will never know what that new opportunity could have brought you. Above all else, always be true to yourself. It will be challenging, it will be hard, and you will have push-backs. But do not give up. Because when it does work out, it’s magic. It’s all you – everything you believe in and stand for.”

Ava DuVernay

Tata Harper, skincare founder

“I would go back and tell my 20-year-old self to not take young love too seriously. Go out there and experience the world through your own eyes without someone else’s influence. Return the flirty phone calls, say thank you for the beautiful flowers, go on dates and adventurous trips. You never know where spontaneous escapades will take you. This is a time that you will never get back. Put yourself out there and don’t let anyone or anything stop you. Most importantly, have fun!”

Tata Harper, age 20

Charlotte Tilbury (left) and Donatella Versace

Charlotte Tilbury, makeup artist

“My advice to my 20-year-old self would be to dream big and turn every no into a yes! I remember when I was starting out, I received a note from a beauty editor saying, ‘Knock it to them, Charlotte. I know you’ll be a star.’ It encouraged me to keep following my dreams during tough times and really gave me motivation when I was cold-calling for jobs and struggling – it made me realize that I just had to believe in myself. It’s because of this that you will find a hand-drawn star motif all over my brand, as a reminder to follow your dreams.”

Donatella Versace, designer

“When you are 20, life is still full of possibilities – even if perhaps they are not the ones you are dreaming of. I would tell myself that I am going to have an incredible life, full of love, but also with its share of pain. That I am going to share everything with two incredible children and an enlarged family who will adore me, and fill some of the gaps left by other people. That looking back does not do you any good and that the best is yet to come. That I am going to be a survivor, and for that reason I will feel a stronger connection to people, especially those who suffer or are being mistreated. That not all my ideals will change; I will still fight the system to make this world a better place, a place in which everyone will be free to be themselves.”

Zainab Salbi, activist

“Oh, how I wish for my 20-year-old self to know that she is so beautiful. That her beauty comes from her loving heart and radiant soul. How I wish she owned her beauty without much energy around it – neither in denying nor in wanting it. That beauty is all around to be celebrated, honored and respected, in grace and in kindness, that only can be given by the beautiful woman that is you.”

Zainab Salbi, age 20

Alison Loehnis, NET-A-PORTER and Mr Porter President

“You are younger than you think. You will never feel like a grown-up. Never underestimate the power of a smile. You will never regret time spent with family and friends. Travel, travel, travel! Grades don’t really matter that much, hard work does. Go with your gut – it rarely lets you down. What does not kill you makes you stronger – truly. Your long-standing love of fashion will one day come in handy.”

Róisín Murphy, singer-songwriter

“My 20-year-old self was my most instinctive self. I signed my record deal when I was 20, so I would tell myself that following my gut, going with the flow, was the right thing – but take away the anxiety that I didn’t deserve it, that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I would tell myself that it’s only going to get better. It’s hard to imagine how many friends you’ll have by the time you’re in your forties, and how much you will make a beautiful life.”

Alison Loehnis
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (left) and Maria Balshaw

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author

“I was a fairly self-confident 20-year-old, and I was determined to follow my passion, which was writing. But I also always felt that a better version of me existed somewhere else. That I wasn’t enough as I was. Especially physically. I thought, in particular, that my belly was too big, my legs not straight, and even my toes were not exempt from the charge of imperfection – I thought them too stubby. Looking now (at 41) at photos of myself at 20, I cannot believe how much time I wasted believing that I was not enough just as I was. Not only is there nothing wrong with your body, but there is so much right with it.”

Maria Balshaw, director of Tate

“I wish someone had told me how much better it is being 50 than being 20. The things that have made my life richest are all things that have come with experience: the marvel of seeing my children become amazing adults, friendships over decades, the long view that comes from nurturing a garden, and the joy of learning how to live with a partner long term. It would have been nice if someone had also tipped me off that I would one day run the Tate that I so loved visiting when I was 20. But I wouldn’t have believed them.”

Simone Rocha, designer

“I was in my first year of my masters at Central Saint Martins when I was 20. I would say to myself: listen, concentrate, and contribute – and visit the library more. I was procrastinating and far too interested in socializing, being in Soho and living in London for the first time. Perhaps then I would have had a few smoother college crits.”

Simone Rocha, age 20