How Shonda Rhimes Harnesses Her Self-Esteem & Embraces New Challenges

Photo: Getty Images for Unilever/Dove.
It might be odd to start an interview with Shonda Rhimes, showrunner and mastermind behind Thursday night TV, by asking for advice about your own life — but then again, she's Shonda Rhimes, so how could you not want in on all her secrets to success?
Nevertheless, that's what happened on Saturday at the Dove Girl Collective, a day-long workshop in Los Angeles aimed at teaching girls how to challenge beauty stereotypes and build confidence. Rhimes, who was the keynote speaker at the summit, told the audience of 300+ girls about how writing and making up stories helped her find herself as a "very smart, not cute" kid.
Advertisement
"I was different, and no one is crueler than a pack of humans faced with someone who is different," Rhimes said in her keynote speech. "My imagination, and the stories I told myself, and the characters I created really saved me. They protected me; they helped me be me."
Afterwards, Rhimes sat down with Refinery29 to share more insights. Now, if you've read Rhimes' book, Year Of Yes, you know that there was a time in her life after this "Coke bottle-glasses, not-cute phase," when she said no to everything out of fear of failure. That's me — and it's probably lots of other people, too.
So, my big question for Rhimes was, how do you get over that paralysing, crippling fear? "The best way to get over a fear of failure is to just do," Rhimes tells me. "The actual 'yes' of doing the thing undoes the fear. Because what happens is all of that fear — of failure, fear of looking crazy, fear of it not working — the minute you do the thing, you realise how silly the fear is... And it truly is life-changing. I highly recommend it." It sounds easier said than done, but ahead Rhimes provided some wisdom about how to build confidence, embrace self-esteem, and have a life outside of your job.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It often seems like people are either born extroverted and confident, or they're not. But, do you think that confidence and self-esteem can be taught?
Advertisement
"I think both of these things are true: I do think you’re born an extrovert or introvert, that's just how it works. But I also think that self-esteem is not the domain of an extrovert. Plenty of introverts have a lot of self-esteem, and I think that confidence belongs to a lot of introverts as well, I just think it’s displayed differently.
"One of the things I feel like I've learned through Dove in this experience has really been the idea that, whether you’re introverted or extroverted, it’s how you choose to harness your self-esteem that matters. A lot of extroverts do it in a very loud way, but I'm not that person. For me, it’s really about the smaller ways of thinking about myself, and looking at myself. I have daughters who are introverts and extroverts, and [I've been] watching how they look at themselves differently."

I never believed that there was anything I couldn't do, because I had a mother who did everything and parents who believed in me.

Shonda Rhimes
Mentorship is a big part of the Dove Girl Collective. Did you have any mentors growing up?
"People always use that word, and I never know what to do with it, because it always suggests something formal. I'm the youngest of six, so I lived in a house full of mentors, if you want to put it that way. But I also had an extraordinary mother. People always say like, There weren't very many strong women on TV or We never saw women who looked or seemed like you.
"My mother was like the best example of a powerful woman who worked, and who got things done. I never believed that there was anything I couldn't do, because I had a mother who did everything and parents who believed in me. In a weird way, my parents really were those people. In my career, once I got out into the world, I really did meet a lot of interesting women along the way — and men — who felt like they were just very supportive of me and what I wanted to do."
Advertisement
I don't know if this is a millennial thing, but many people I know feel defined by their jobs. How can you seek fulfilling outlets in life when work is your one source of confidence?
"I don't think it's a millennial thing, I think it's an age thing. For a long time, I definitely felt like I was defined by my job. I told myself that, because I was a writer, it was my calling, which is very different. You're at that age where you feel like succeeding in your job and getting set up in your job is the most important thing right now.
"I also think we live in an age where people are very isolating, and [work is] where you find your social life, your people. Work becomes your hub now. The challenge for everybody really is to figure out how to have a life outside of that, and force yourself to do it. That's the thing that's most important. When I decided I was no longer going to read emails after 7 p.m., or work on the weekends, it was startling for me at first. I was like, I don’t know what to do with myself. But honestly, that's when I began to feel like I got a sense of who I am."
Often with body positivity there's an assumption that you can only feel positively about your body, otherwise you're wrong. But in your book, you talk about how your relationship to your body changed over time. Where are you at now?
Advertisement
"Body positivity should encompass the idea that you get to be happy in your skin, whatever that means. And if that means you want to get healthier, or get more fit, then that is also a positive thing. For me, it was about how do you feel? That seems to me the most important thing. Self-esteem should be about how you feel. It shouldn’t be like, no matter what you look like, you have to be great — it's an ever-changing thing, it's an evolution.
"I feel better than I did before. Now it's about the fact that I am a mom and am about to turn 50 in a couple years. I wanna be the fittest mom I can be. Do I embrace a new crazy challenge? So like, my new crazy challenge is, do I want to become somebody who feels like an athlete? Do I want to see my stomach muscles? Do I give a crap about that? Do I want to embrace a challenge about it or am I good where I am, am I comfortable?"

We live in an age where people are very isolating and [work is] where you find your social life, your people. Work becomes your hub now. The challenge for everybody really is to figure out how to have a life outside of that, and force yourself to do it.

Shonda Rhimes
There has been so much in the news lately about women's bodies. How has what's happening in the news influenced the types of conversations you have with your daughters?
"I have a 16-year-old, and it's really interesting. She goes to a really great school, and they watched all the [Kavanaugh] hearings, and paid attention. She's at home like, 'Times Up!' [and is] very much into it. But I don't think it's changed the way I talk to my daughter about her body, mainly because I feel like I've always had the conversation about the idea that, your body belongs to you.
"There is this power involved in the idea that nobody has the right to comment on your body, tell you what you can do with your body — and certainly you’re not beholden to anybody in any way, shape, or form in terms of how you choose to look or choose to be. That power and that ownership has always been something we've talked about for a long time. It's come to the forefront now that there are lots of people who don’t think that way."
Dove paid for hotel stay and airfare as part of a press trip the writer of this story attended. However, Dove did not approve or review this story.
Advertisement

More from Body

Watch

R29 Original Series

Watch Now
Fashion
A look at the subcultures around the world that colour what we wear — and why.
Watch Now
Travel
Explore the world's most vibrant cultural and culinary centres—in 60 seconds, of course.
Watch Now
Beauty
The craziest trends, most unique treatments, and strangest subcultures in the beauty world.
Watch Now
Lifestyle
Millennial survivor-woman Lucie Fink dives headfirst into social experiments, 5 days at a time.