Autumn Whitefield-Madrano



University of Oregon - B.A., Magazine Journalism + Women's Studies

Try this on for an assignment: Write down how many times you look in the mirror each day. Whether you’re brushing your teeth, touching up your makeup or catching a glance in a window as you walk by, jot it down. It could change your life. It did for Autumn Whitefield-Madrano.

A journalist who previously worked at female glossies, including Ms., CosmoGIRL! and Glamour, Autumn went on not one, but two month-long breakups with her mirror, allowing herself only the tiniest of views to make sure her makeup was properly applied. The experiment was so popular and fascinating that Autumn suddenly found herself not the byline on a story, but the topic of it, with buzz hitting The New York Times, The Today Show and the Guardian, among others.

But Autumn is no one-hit wonder. Beauty, and all the topics surrounding it, is a subject she finds endlessly fascinating. She writes about how society views the topic (as well as her own views on it) daily on her website, The Beheld. Autumn is also a frequent writer on all things beauty for a variety of publications. Her essays have appeared in Marie Claire, Whole Living, The Huffington Post and Salon. Her book, “Hot or Not: What Science, Language and Sex Can Teach Us About Beauty” will be released during spring 2015.

Have the trust that what you have to offer the world, the world wants.

What inspired you to launch The Beheld?

I’d always dabbled in writing, and I knew I wanted to do more of it. So I’d been trying a few different tactics, from personal essays for women’s magazines to reporting. But at the end of the day, it just wasn’t very rewarding. I started thinking about what I really liked to write and what I felt passionate about. I kept a live journal and one night I looked through it and saw that the posts that had received the most feedback were about appearance and body image. It was very specific, but it had a broad base. I thought, “This is what I should be writing about.” Beauty is fascinating, and after working in women’s magazines it was a topic I had thought a lot about. So, I launched a blog, I began writing and I started getting readers quickly enough that it felt like it was something rewarding, and most of all, worth doing.

As a blogger, how do you monetize your writing?

I had been working in magazines in some form for 14 years, and most of that time I’d been a freelance copy editor. I’m built to be a freelancer in many ways. I don’t like having a full-time job, but on the other hand I also wasn’t satisfied just going into places, copy editing and then going home. On the positive side, there’s so much flexibility built in, that it allowed me to do what I wanted—whether that was take two months off and travel or pull back on my work and focus on my writing. For the past few years, I’ve been working probably 70 percent full time freelancing and then creating my own work 30 percent of the time. And now that I have a book deal, I’m able to expand the time I spend on my own work even more. I want my writing energy to go into the things I really care about, and I’m lucky I’m getting more time to do that.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is when my experience as a woman and my skill as a writer comes together and I’m able to articulate something that hasn’t been said before. When I hear feedback from people that also is so validating and so wonderful. I hear a lot from readers, and I love that feeling that what I’m putting out there is authentic, honest and true. I also love this feeling because it means that my experience is larger than my little life. It becomes something that can help others articulate their own stories.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

Burnout. Burnout has been my No. 1 battle. Initially, my battle was motivation. I spent a lot of time wanting to write and then not doing it. But once I got into a daily process of writing, I realized writing is not that hard.

But now I’m having the opposite problem—burnout. Writing is physically static. You’re sitting down, often for hours at a time, and you just see words jumbled on your computer screen. It’s easy to burn out when your brain and body burns out and you find yourself zoning out in front of a computer. I do have a standing desk, but I mainly use that for my freelance editing. When you’re in that zone it takes away the very reasons that drive you. That’s the worst.

There was a point a few months ago when I was working on my book proposal and sent out a really cynical tweet about burnout. A friend told me, “You need to stop. Now.” So, I hired a guest blogger to come on for two weeks so I could finish my book proposal and not go crazy. I quickly found it’s really important that you take that break for yourself.

Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?

Not anymore. It was when I first started freelance copyediting. At that point in my career, I’d really only had one job [as an editorial assistant at the now-shuttered CosmoGIRL!], which was for less than a year. So, the idea of work was still relatively new to me. I’d start work at 10 p.m. and finish at 5 a.m. I was lousy at it.

When I came back to freelancing years later, I had the experience of other jobs under me, and it was easier to work from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. I really try now to make it my job. And people say that’s difficult, but if I did it any other way, the work just wouldn’t get done. Sometimes the two [work and life] will blend together. For example, the other day I was writing and I just wasn’t getting into the groove. I tried all my usual tricks and nothing was happening, so I started baking. That did the trick, and a few hours later I found myself able to write again.

What has been the biggest “WOW” moment so far in your career?

The first time an agent contacted me I felt that way. It’s funny because now I am writing a book for a major publisher, and that’s enormously exciting, so this is when I should be feeling that “Wow” moment. But, I just remember I had been blogging for maybe 6 months when I received an email from a literary agent who wanted to meet up with me. That was the first time it really clicked that people who didn’t know me found value in my work. Friends and acquaintances, of course, are very valuable readers, but it’s different when strangers connect with your work. Agents only reach out to you if you can make them money, and here was this moment where I was writing what I wanted to be writing about and that was the only reason he contacted me. At that moment I realized that by doing what I wanted to be doing, I could really be successful with it. It was validating that there was a concrete reason I should really be doing this for a living.

What are some of the rules you live by?

I treat my writing like a job even when I’m making absolutely no money from it. I start working at 9 a.m., and I quit working around 6 p.m. I also keep myself fueled and healthy. I’ve written about this a little bit before, but I’ve had eating problems [See Marie Claire’s “The Imperfect Anorexic”]. I couldn’t write when I was going through that period because I wasn’t feeding myself properly. If your body isn’t working the way it should, your mind won’t work the way it should. I eat healthy, I exercise, I drink water and do those things I need to do to keep my body and mind strong.

I also don’t put down my work. I don’t think I’m a bragger, but I think it’s really important for women to not be afraid of taking themselves seriously. I think some people probably think what I’m writing about is really trivial stuff, but you have to take it seriously. To take myself seriously, I don’t put myself down. And even though I might sometimes think things in my head, I don’t say them out loud. I don’t feed myself that same negative message. And I try to be generous, respond to others and remember there are so many bloggers out there doing their thing.

What qualities does one need to possess to be successful in your line of work?

You have to have a certain amount of discipline. I never thought of myself as a self-starter because it took me so long to get started. But once I started, I found I was sort of disciplined in my life. You have to have the discipline within yourself or find what motivates you to get disciplined. You also have to simultaneously be honest about your experience and yourself but not be narcissistic and self-involved in your blog. My readers won’t care about what happened to me necessarily, but they will care about what has happened to me if it has happened to them. You need the ability to have empathy through your words.

What one piece of advice do you wish you could tell a 21-year-old version of yourself?

I think I would tell her to not be afraid of sharing her experience because people have responded to my work when I’m revealing myself. Through sharing my experiences as authentically as I could I was afraid of seeming self-involved or like I was all about me, but I think a lot of it was just fear that other people would think bad things about me. I’d tell her: Have the trust that what you have to offer the world, the world wants.