Growing up · Self-love · Women's issues

A tale of two women, gratitude, and why it matters

I have met a couple of women who have made a notable impact in my life. I need to thank them, and I also need to talk about them.

Both of these women were my teachers, and I met them a couple of years apart. They both come from different backgrounds, look different to one another, and you would also probably never guess that they have much in common when seeing them. But not only did they both teach me the same subject, they also taught me essential life lessons that I have carried with me beyond the realms of the classroom, and hope to retain for the rest of my life.

My relationships with these women went deeper than the subject of study. Between lessons, we had conversations  about our personal journeys, past experiences, and how we came to be the people we are. Oh, and sometimes there was tea involved as well.

Although I will only be able to share a couple of anecdotes from my time with them, listening to their stories of loss, failure, and even personal tragedy has permanently altered my perspective on a number of things.

Showing gratitude to people who help us along the road is essential. (I actually drew that, friends)

I remember when one of them talked about an accident that almost killed her and had left her severely disfigured. Despite this, she was due to give a presentation a week or so later, and had certainly delivered it, missing teeth and all.

This particular story still stays with me years later because it cements the importance of showing up.

It doesn’t matter what you have been through, and it certainly doesn’t matter what you look like, if you have things that need to be done, and you are fit enough for a task at hand — because self care always comes first — then execute them the way you know best, even if something as crucial and glaringly obvious as facial reconstruction surgery is due in the forseeable future.

The version of this woman that I had met almost a couple of decades later was a fun, empathetic individual who truly didn’t sweat the small stuff. In fact, she herself credited the accident in changing the way she viewed life.

She always seemed very interested in the diverse lives of people she met, and had enjoyed talking about what she learnt about and from them. She was also embracing of opportunity and change. The last I heard from her was when we said our goodbyes during our last lesson together, before she was set to start a new life, in her fifties, with her family across the pond.

A couple of years prior, the other talked to me about how as a young teenager, she was somewhat grudgingly pushed out of her comfort zone at school when it came to picking electives for her course of study. Her father encouraged her to pick subjects in which she had little background talent to fall back on, and that’s exactly what she did. But, the hard work she had to put in to catch up with her peers, and to excel, had led to her making great strides throughout her student years.

Over a decade later from those events, she would find herself in a similar situation. She would wind up in a different country, in a completely different continent where she didn’t speak any of the official languages fluently. She was forced to start from the beginning and learn how to live and communicate as she went along.

Between that time and the time we met, she had worked a number of jobs — some unsuccessfully — and her life could have taken many different paths, until she discovered one where she felt more or less centred.

She once said something to me along the lines of “I was fired many times,” but then made it clear how essential it was in molding her into the person she would become. Under her scholarship, she made sure to engrain in me what she had learnt in her younger years: no matter how much talent I have in something to start off, with consistent hard work, I would be able to accomplish whatever I set out to do. The lessons she learnt during her formative years had in turn shaped mine.

Whether from the words they spoke to me directly, or from the ones they shared with me in telling their stories, both of these women have taught me lessons on resilience, stretching my strengths and even engaging with my creative self. Both of them helped me see that my potential reached beyond what I thought, and that most importantly, I could get there. They saw and treated me as a young woman who had a lot more going for her than what she looked like or possessed materially.

They saw a whole person, even during the times when I didn’t see myself that way. And sadly, many young women may not, especially during the years where we’re still trying to figure ourselves out, and trying to muddle through all the mixed messages about how we’re supposed to be. I need to thank these women for playing a role in my reaffirming my unique personhood.

In a world that tells women and girls that the most important things about them are what can be seen externally as opposed to what they think or feel, it’s important for them to learn to view and accept themselves as whole, complex, three-dimensional people. It’s also important for them to recognise and honour the people who remind them of this. And that’s why I felt that I needed to write this, and that it matters.

Body image and body positivity · Body Positivity · Self-love

Hiatuses, conversations on self-acceptance, and selectiveness

السلام عليكم و رحمة الله و بركاته

It’s been over a year. I know, I am sorry.

I never intended to be away for this long, but see, a lot of things went on between now and my last post. Let’s say that I successfully graduated university, and I have done well and I made myself and others proud. I pulled through quite nicely despite the rough patches in between. Alhamdu lIllaah. Does that mollify my absence a little bit? (Please say yes)

My sister and I talked about something a couple of moons ago that I have been meaning to share here.

Unique personalities and life experiences are valid. (Image by flickr user richardoyork)

We spoke about the different parts of our identities, and how we live in a world where people try to make us and others less multi-dimensional than we actually are. We said that this takes shape in several ways; some want to flatten and tune out certain parts of us that we are born with, or even do that with certain personality traits and idiosyncrasies that have been a part of us for a long time. Others may want to narrow us down to certain stereotypes or perceptions that come with whatever labels they’ve assigned to us, and may still be unwilling to budge when they learn, inevitably, that we don’t and can’t strictly conform to them.

The conclusion for us was that we were going to accept and completely acknowledge all parts of ourselves: the weird, the funny, the ugly and the contradictory. We also decided that we weren’t going to entertain people who make us feel deficient, or want to snuff out the bits of ourselves that feel uncomfortable to them.

I felt like I needed to talk about this here because this conversation wasn’t just important for me or my sister. I felt that there was a common theme with a lot of us; we feel the need or at least the pressure to smooth out bits of ourselves that we think are too much or are just unpalatable, especially when it comes to thinking about the way others perceive us.

And I am not talking about the character flaws that we can all have and work on, but we are indeed unique people who have our own special markers that are not going to be liked or accepted by everyone. And that’s okay. The point is that we, above everyone else, should at least be accepting of them. But liking them is certainly cool and a step ahead, totally work on getting there if you can.

And that’s where selectiveness comes in. It’s absolutely okay to weed out the people/things/situations that give you a diminished sense of self worth. You certainly won’t miss out, and doing this just might make living a little bit nicer and lighter, because only the nicer and lighter things around you are left. Even looking back now at some “toxic” (this word is so overused online, I know) circumstances were snatched away from me against my will, I can now honestly say — after some bickering and crying, of course — that I don’t want them back.

So, yeah. Be self-accepting, and totally selective. You deserve it.

I hope to write to you all again, soon.

Photo credit: richardoyork Memorial, Bilbao via photopin (license)

Islam · Self-love

Islam and (My) Identity Politics

I have recently found myself caught up in a lot of thinking about the concepts of race and identity and so on, perhaps due to being bombarded with a lot of news and events that centre on these issues. Not infrequently, I wondered where I could place myself in the mesh of labels that exist, because codifying my existence in such specific ways within the human race is “important”, apparently.

Yesterday, after neglecting to pick up the Qur’an and recite from its passages for a while (May Allaah Subhanahu wa Ta’aala forgive me, please don’t do this, dear readers) I decided to do just that.

A photo of an open Mus-haf, a copy of the Qur'an, seemingly with tafseer (exegesis) written on the sides of the page with a black background.
I was reading passages from Surat Aali-‘Imran, where many figures from Islamic tradition were mentioned, such as Maryam (Mary) radi Allaahu ‘anha (May Allaah be pleased with her), her parents Radi Allaah ‘anhum (May Allaah be pleased with them), Prophet Zakariyyah (Zachary) ‘alayhis-salam (peace be upon him) and Prophet ‘Easa (Jesus) ‘alayhis-salam (peace be upon him).

My mind wandered into the concept of identifying with figures in Islamic tradition based on geographical region. I knew that this was a flawed approach, even while engaged in thought. Then, thought about the fact that in Islam, labels like that don’t mean anything, and that human diversity was created by the will of Allaah Subhanahu wa Ta’aala and was a sign from Him, as He tells us in the Qur’aan:

“And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colours. Verily, in that are indeed signs for men of sound knowledge.” [30:22]

“O mankind! We have created you from male and female and have made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Indeed the most noblest of you with Allaah is the one who has the most taqwaa.” [49:13].

It felt refreshing to (re)realise that what ties people with the figures that we revere in Islamic tradition is not any of the worldly things such as ethnicity, colour, wealth, tribe or social status, but it’s the belief and the acceptance of the message with which they came. That is where brotherhood in Islam comes from, nothing else.

photo credit: Al-Qur’an by Ibn Ar-Rashid via photopin (license)

Growing up · Self-love

Ramblings on pauses, reverses and fresh starts and the like

بسم الله

AsSalaamu alaikum wa rahmat Allaah wa barakatuh and greetings to everyone,

Welcome aboard..again..after a long break  (an extended period of negligence?) and thank you all for sticking around to read this.

Life this academic year turned out to be quite different than expected. For starters, although it was an “academic” year,  it wasn’t an academic year in the I-am-in-full-time-education-and-I-am-solemnly-abiding-by-that sense. Somewhere between Julyish and Augustish in 2014, I decided that I wasn’t going back to university for my final year, because although  the university experience was swimming with positives, I couldn’t go back immediately just yet. I had things to sort through, perhaps even ever-so-slightly, a life to fix .

As with any variation in life’s seasons, I had inevitably embraced this one with all its crookedness. Despite taking the conscious decision to do things differently for the year, back-tracking, regret and the feeling of missing out were themes that appeared less infrequently than I would have liked.

But fruits had been borne. Lots.

Walking the actual walk of experiencing life with less linearity is definitely one of the things that I have found to be easier said than done; I know, how obvious. But we plan and God plans, and His plans are always better than ours.

Even when they sting at first.

Feelings of regret and shame, and even slight envy at those who were doing things closer to the way they planned had occurred less infrequently than I would have liked. But how? After all, I made this decision, yes? But I wanted to stick to plan, and this was not what my 18-year-old “fresher” self had planned.

I really didn’t want to feel answerable to anyone about why I didn’t just get university over with once and for all, or what had prompted me to do things this way or whatever. I wanted to absolutely fall head-over-heals for my own choices no matter what, and to just twirl in the honeymoon phase, always and forever.

I spent the months between September and December doing and trying to do different things and then since January, I have been working as a schoolteacher. So that’s where I have been. I (partially) swapped the journalism/blogging/miscellaneous writing life for 5 AM starts, board markers, instant coffee, constantly-multiplying pieces of paper, excessively-boisterous children and of course, report-card drama. That awesomely challenging chapter of my life had wrapped up over two months ago. Alhamdu lIllaah.

That was the vocational bit. But, as is with everyone else, I’m probably a bit more than skin, bones, clothes and a designation, so we all know that this post won’t end here.

The simple act of taking myself out of the environment I was in — even if only for a little while — had given me the ability to detach myself from whatever I formerly perceived as expected or routine,  and because of that, I could form a more honest perspective on things and make decisions that better served me.

The result? A melange of better self-care, increased clarity and direction, and episodes of sadness and despair which were often born out of both a heightened awareness of just how destructive some of my habits were (are) and unsavoury circumstances, and joy I couldn’t anticipate .

Treading on the subject of self-care, it is true what the self-help folks say, oodles of positive things do result from it. And it isn’t all about scrubbing up well for every living second of the day, or burning a lavender candle in your room; taking the time to do anything that is important for you to live a positive, quality life is self-care.

My version of self-care included tweaking bits of my daily routine, welcoming perspective changes, getting treated for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and even working to make my spell as a teacher smoother.  God entrusted me with the blessing that is life and all the other blessings that come with it, and I am still to give them their due.

It is true that not everyone will be in a situation that will permit them to move away from current life in a conspicuous way, and I know that my combination of circumstances will not always be readily available for everyone, perhaps not even myself in another point of time. But I hope that you,and everyone else, can acknowledge that it is possible that there is no inherent rightness in what is seen as “linearity” or conforming to expectation. I hope you can forge a way to work things out. If you’re struggling with the way it’s all going, be it because of hardship or a mere desire for change, it doesn’t have to be this way forever.

Get a bit uncomfortable if you need to. Just do you, correctly and with good intentions.  And Allaah Subhanahu wa Ta’aala (God Exalted be He) is the Most Generous.

Now here’s a visual account of what my version of The Teacher life (#theteacherlife) looked like:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

See you all soon.

Body image and body positivity · Body Positivity · Self-love · Women's issues

Living through the noise (or, Part 2: What having a body while being female means + loving thy body)

If you’ve been here before, you’ll know that I write quite a bit about body-image, self-esteem and self-love generally, and that these topics are some of the nearest and dearest to my heart. You may have also  stumbled across (Slightly Edited) What having a body while being female means + loving thy body before ( subtle nudge at you to read it) and gained some sort of understanding of where I stand when it comes to this. This post might be a smooth continuation of its predecessor, or something completely different, or just a daft attempt at saying the exact same things again, you decide.

Disclaimer: This topic is very personal to me, so a large part of this post is going to be reflective and I will be speaking from my own experiences. Any ideas or tips I shell out in this post will be a reflection of that. I am not a professional of any kind, and I recognise that I won’t be able to speak for everyone who has struggled or is struggling with body-image issues and I apologise in advance for any shortcomings in this post. I just hope that this can help someone see things from a different perspective or at least bring forth some conversation.

My personal experiences with negative body image were  sadly not limited to short-lived strops at high-street shops or  quick bouts of insecurity after hearing a comment on my appearance. The confusion arising from conflicting A couple of brown coloured hands aggainst a purplish background making a heart shape. The heart shape is made by joining the thumbs together to make a the pointy shape at the bottom of the heart, and joining the index fingers together to complete the heart shape on top. The picture has been edited to give it a sketch like look.external messages about my physique, unwelcome comments, coupled with the messages I got from society about what my body means/should mean/should be had obviously skewed the perception I had about my body and my relationship with it for quite a while. This propelled me into the cobweb of seeing my body as less of the amazing, intricately-fashioned medly of systems and functions that it truly is, and more of a mess of hair and skin that worked almost-full-time shifts as a tool to exercise people’s judging and opinion-making abilities. This learned insistence to be hyper-aware of the way my body is viewed externally meant that I myself had often looked at it from the outside in. I was self-objectifying, which I later learned to (sadly) be quite a thing with women and girls.

Naturally, the socially-perpetuated idea that my value lies heavily on my exterior was reinforced in me, and my self-esteem in those facets had suffered. I say “facets” because I do not believe self-esteem and confidence to be monolithic. While I was growing to be quite an outspoken adolescent who more often than not stood by her beliefs and opinions and was self-assured and confident in quite a few ways, all praises and thanks to God Almighty, the self-objectifying bogeyman still didn’t miss out on holding the floor when it could. I think that when people start to think that their value depends on things they really don’t, they become vulnerable to believing that a lack in those things will limit their living experience somehow. I believed some of those limitations. I now feel a type of disconnect thinking about all of this, because as I grow into my beliefs and increasingly go understand my creed, these types of ideas can no longer really fit. All praises and thanks to God, always and for everything.

One day, during a rendezvous with the interwebs a few years ago, and I stumbled across a blog where a young woman wrote about her journey with body image.  I found that surprisingly/exhilaratingly/my insides-quietly-jumping-with-happiness-and-relief-ingly her struggles resembled were similar to mine. But, she saw things differently to me and in ways I didn’t used to believe were completely possible. She didn’t see that self-love, even when it came to body image, was conditional in that it could only exist if she changed the things about her body that she didn’t like and if she got her body to “behave” the way she thought it should. To her, there were no befores and afters where body-love and other self-love were concerned. Although I was blessed to grow up with parents who didn’t really stress on my appearance, and had repeatedly drummed into me the message that it wasn’t the most important thing in the world, their ideas couldn’t completely settle with all of the other conflicting ones. And they just didn’t understand, so I thought. But there it was, someone who understood “the struggle” and was navigating through it with a refreshing outlook. It felt good learning reading further, so I just gave it a chance.

All the things I read about loving myself just the way I am, even if I do want to change/I am trying to change, had properly sunk in for the first time in probably, ever…Well…. pre-adolescent childhood doesn’t count because micro-mini Tesneem wasn’t really about the body-negative life. And let me tell you, it was really, really, nice! All praises and thanks to God. Learning to wholly embrace myself, flaws and everything, was wonderful. Seeing myself differently, and my body differently, by seeing the functional miracle it is, learning that health and wellness doesn’t look the same for everyone, and simply respecting physical diversity represented in myself and others felt much lighter, a lot more positive and just plain fantastic.

I was beautiful, righ then, and not to the exclusion of my imperfect exterior either. I found more beauty in it, and I just didn’t think it was all that necessary any longer to be next-to-perfect. Yes I had to keep improving the way I treated my body, by feeding, moving, and resting it in ways that will make it feel top — something I am still working on even today. But the motivators for this had changed slightly. It was also more grounded in me that everyone needs to get on with the same things, no matter who they are or what they look like. Health and wellness is for everyone, not just for people who want to lose a stone or two. I started doing more things that made me happy, wore the things that I felt were flattering (with limits and varying according to where I was, obvs, I observe the hijab) and I walked with confidence. It’s not even that I didn’t do those things before; it’s just that this time, I actually meant it and cared a lot less about the way any of it was viewed by others.

Of course, as with anything in this world, it wasn’t all linear and confortable all the time. I certainly had setbacks and I really felt the troughs. But it was definitely the start of bigger, better, and definitely sparklier, things. And that’s what it is. Loving yourself right now. Thinking you’re beautiful enough right now. Realising that you are worth so much and owning that fact, right now. No questions, no exceptions. I haven’t conducted any studies on this sort of thing and base this very largely on my experiences, but I think that when it comes to learning to live and work with your body, and on a grander scale, your whole self, it’s much harder to make lasting, positive changes when you’re running short on self-love. Remember that your whole self, including your body, are going to be with you for an entire lifetime, and have been with you non-stop from the day you were born. So, your treatment of them, like the opinions you express on them and your validation of them, matter a lot more and will have a longer-lasting impact than anyone else’s .

Yes, reinforcement from others that you are marvellous, loved and simply enough just the way you are at the moment feels good and nudges you a bit more to believe those things too. But people change their minds all the time and perceive things in their individual ways, and that’s just too fickle for you to rely on, and you’re worth more than fickle. To some people, you’re going to be very close to a real-life version of their idea of aesthetic perfection, and that’s lovely. But to others, you’re going to be just the opposite, and that’s fine as well. We are all unique and have unique beauty to go with, just not everyone sees it. That’s cool. In the end, you’re going to have to live with yourself and your thoughts, so it’s worth making this journey as pleasant as it can be.

You’re not going to be kind to yourself every living second, or every day, week, month and maybe even every year, but you owe it to yourself and the God-given blessing that is life, to give it a go.  I wasn’t even put here on this earth to stress about my body-image , and God Almighty knows that I am not, nor will I ever be perfect, so why hate on myself? Why hate on yourself? The way I see it, if God Almighty can forgive me infinitely if I seek it, then I am worth living, learning and giving things a shot — I just am!

Look around. There  are beautiful people out there across the shape, size, colour, ability, and even ethnic and cultural spectrums who are living happy, colourful, fruitful lives. People who are doing spectacularly cool, positive things and are contributing to the lives of their loved ones, their communities and the world in with all their idiosyncracies , and in the most wondrous ways. People who have all kinds of fulfilling relationships with others who have accepted them and their human-ness, wholesale. So clichés and all, none of the factors written above should stop you from being the person you want to be and having the type of life you want to have. And if anyone wants to put limits on you based on them, that you know objectively do not exist (which you may need to double-check that with those in a position to tell you, because your version “objective” is not always that), nor have been codified in any type of law or policy or whatever, pay no mind, no matter how much it stings. They can’t even tell the future anyway.

And the noise eventually becomes quieter.

Body image and body positivity · Body Positivity · Self-love · Women's issues

On girl to girl relationships, competition and bla

I figured that this would be a relatively touchy topic for a lot of people and may just get a few people clicking onto this post’s link a bit apprehensively. But I promise, I will not be going into the conventional woman-hating dialogue (you know that won’t come from me!)  In fact, I want to make my baby-footed effort to help quash it.

I’m going to be “real” here and tell it to you as it is: I love my girls and think that sisterly bonds are just marvelous.

I’ve always been a girl’s girl, and I hold my girl-friends dear. I have always loved it when we banded together, whether it was for planning how we’ll spend time together, or figuring out how to pull-off something of more importance. I have similarly pleasant feelings when it comes to working with women who aren’t closest to me.

It goes without saying that because I feel what I feel, I am absolutely bugged by the commonly churned-out rhetoric that we women are and are always expected to be out to get each other, that we only bring drama and cannot be trusted with one another. It’s almost seems like we’re made out to be perpetually envious, and incapable of wanting good for one another without letting the green-monster have a foot in so that together, we could conspire to bring other women down .

Unfortunately, this competitive buffoonery is not something I can say I have been sheltered from. Witnessing the consequences of this competition-oriented socialisation has not been pretty — but this didn’t all come together in a vacuum. As females we are told subliminally and not-so-subliminally that our value is directly proportional to the amount of the superficial and volatile we have at our disposal. Prettiness and popularity, coupled with male attention and validation are some of the things shoved at our face as things to give primary importance to. Because there isn’t anything else we need to pay attention to, is there?

If from a young age, females are exposed to the mantra that they can only find their value in such  “all-important” determiners of worth, and that these same determiners are made to seem almost scarcely distributed and therefore chase-worthy, even at huge costs, what type of dynamic do you expect to resonate with their malleable minds? We need to do a better job at examining where the blame for all of this really lies — and this is not to suggest that we can or should pin it all down to one place, either.

I find it tragically laughable that it is anticipated that I will swallow the nonsense that I should expect to compete with and have my back stabbed by a fellow woman, by the exact same culture whose values could be the reason that Ms Hypothetical Woman stabbed me on the back.

How about this: let’s reject the venomous jibes that tell us we need to constantly look over our shoulder and simultaneously be insecure about things over which we have limited control, and that can only stay and benefit us for so long.  Let’s understand that hating on the people who are probably victimised by the same things we are is only a recipe for self-sabotage.

It isn’t really a secret here that I  am a Muslim, and therefore, a believer in God, so I will share with you how I see all of this with my personal life-view:

There is absolutely no reason for me to compete with a woman who is just like me. A person. Incredibly flawed and has her own quirks, difficulties and insecurities. This brings me no benefit, because tearing her down will not make me any better and will not make my life any better, and will in fact,  worsen it somewhere in the long-run. There is no scarcity in anything, even those things that we’re “supposed” to be trying  snatch before they “run out”; because beauty, popularity, grades, career prospects and yes, ladies, even marital prospects (this is a pre-mature-bridal-war-free zone, thanks) are in God’s hands. No, that doesn’t mean I sit idly and wait for things to fall into place because I do need to take action; but no amount of stepping on people, eves-dropping, rumour-spreading or mirror hogging is going to change what is to come. Fate. It will be what it will be. I need to drive my attention to, invest in and cultivate the things that I can control and that will serve me in the long-term.

I need to me-positive, and I can’t do that with heightened antenna-like awareness for things are probably none of my business. I can’t keep waiting for things, people and circumstances to validate my existence.

That’s pointless anyway because as always, haters gonna hate, craters gonna crate.

Uncategorized

Updates, and so on, and so forth

Hello Cornerers! (I need to get better at this)

Although I’m sure that blog-reading has not been the same for you in these almost two months that I’ve been missing, it’s okay now, I’m here again.

I am kind of writing this post for myself in an attempt to de-construct what has been going on in my world but in a verbosely palatable way. If you found that this hits home with you in any way, then I am glad that this shareable was relevant to you. If it didn’t, then consider this to be my way of letting you in, and maybe when you gracefully depart from these premises, you would have taken a sweet little knick-knack that might come in handy someday. Just maybe.

So these passed two to three months have been a bit turbulent and a lot has happened, and of course, being who I am I often had a lot of semi-quality time with my own head and undoubtedly, thoughts were born. I realised that it really bites losing sight of the things that I want and think are important, in exchange for catering to and investing mental energy on things that beyond superficial, ephemeral gratification, neither serve me nor actually have my care at a profound level.

A spider diagram  drawn with a black marker on ruled white paper
A (definitely exaggerated) representation of my thought processes lately.

I am of course all for enjoying things for just what they are sometimes, and I don’t want to always think too deeply about everything; but in time, things have got to give. Putting my energies in the fleeting in hopes that they will fix what was supposed to take a bit more than a glue-on job, or that they will somehow manage to  fill  deep, specifically-squiggly edged holes, was not cutting it. Nor was swaying from one numbing and/or distracting agent to another, mostly the mental kind ( the rest occasionally came in the form of Nutella).

I think it’s a common human behaviour to put off stripping down all the all the phony layers and confronting what is really happening, head-on.  And it’s not just when it comes to the things which unsettle us, but also the things we need to and might really want to do, because of looking at the perceived enormity of the work needed to be done to do it , or that it might just be a little bit uncomfortable, even if said thing could be one of the best things you could do for yourself, or at least a catalyst to make what could be the best of things happen.

And what a way for me to lose sight of important chunks of who I am! Inevitably, detracting from the things that are the most important to me and focusing on what I see as “lesser things”  would have very well made me lose sight of who I was or what I want to achieve. The way I see it, these things that we hold so dear and think to be essential probably acquired that status because they are probably also the things that make us, well, us! A good portion of them are probably the values to which we aspire to live up or to just keep.

I haven’t exactly made any huge transitions yet, but I am definitely getting there. It’s been interesting seeing myself deliberately decide that I was going to make a move; I was going to pack my things and get away from the things I just didn’t want to linger in any longer. Thinking about it now, the decision itself is rather weighty and can be compelling, for some. I talk quite a lot about self-love here and making the best of your current circumstances and so on, and so forth, so on that same token, I also want to be the one to say that when a disconnect (or two, or three) starts to materialise, it may be time to go back to the start – home, in a way.

It’s also nice to hear from you all again.

 

Article · Body image and body positivity · Body Positivity · Interviews · Self-love

Interview: Surviving Breast Cancer at 27

Breast cancer is an illness often associated with older women and although 8 out of 10 cases of breast cancer are those of women aged 50 and over, young women can also be affected. Lauren Bash, the vice-president of Fighting Pretty, a charity dedicated to helping women going through the illness to regain confidence and feel beautiful during or after their battle with it, speaks to me from across the pond about her own battle with the illness. The now healthy 30-year-old recalls what it was like to be diagnosed with breast cancer and having to fight it at the tender-age of 27, and talks about why she is now giving back.

A pink breast cancer ribbon painted against a black background made by paint but not fully covering the light-brown/beige surface (paper) on which it is painted
Owning it in pink.

“It felt like my world was crashing down around me,” Bash says, recalling the moment she received her diagnosis. A month earlier, Bash says that she felt a “pea-sized ball” on the lower left-side of her left breast but waited until she had her annual gynaecology appointment to address it with her doctor. The doctor sent her to get a sonogram which revealed a 10cm lump which spanned from her nipple to the wall of her chest.  At that stage, she says, the lump was still suspected to be benign. “They thought it was just Fibroadenoma,” she says.  Despite the doctor’s suspicions, an MRI was still ordered and was followed by a biopsy which revealed the result that changed her life. “I had DCIS in my left breast,” Bash says. Two days before her best-friend’s wedding and four months before her own, Bash’s diagnosis could not come at a more difficult time: “I had to give a speech [at her best-friend’s wedding] and act like nothing was wrong after finding out I had breast cancer at 27 years old.”

The diagnosis also brought back unease from the past for Bash.“I watched my mum suffer through her surgery just a few years earlier, but I never imagined at the time that I would have to endure what she did,” she says. Bash says that until this day, the shock of her diagnosis feels surreal.

The then young bride-to-be went on with her treatment which consisted of a bilateral mastectomy, and this did not come without its struggles. “My breasts were my prized possessions, so to lose them almost felt like losing an arm or a leg. They made me feel sexy and confident,” she says, “it is hard to face this at any age, but when you are 27 with hopes to start a family someday with your husband, it makes you question if you will ever have the self-confidence to do that.”  The big up-side, she says, is that she did not require chemo therapy or radiation and after having the mastectomy, her treatment was complete and she was declared cancer-free soon after. She was given the all-clear over 18 months ago.

Although breast cancer is no longer a part of Bash’s anatomy, being the vice-president of Fighting Pretty still makes it a big part of her life. She says that she felt that the only way she was going to get through the trauma the illness brought was if she helped other women who also went through or are going through the same thing: “by making other women feel strong, I was going to become stronger and be able to cope with what I had just been through.” She also says that meeting women who also went through the breast cancer is “very therapeutic”, and until this day she maintains ties with women she met who also survived the illness.

These days, Bash sees every day as a blessing and won’t let a day go by without making the most of it. “Sometimes it takes such a devastating experience to realise what a good life you have,” she says.  Bash also says that she isn’t going to let the way her body changed hold her back, and even though she has hang-ups sometimes, she strives to keep moving forward. “I survived by removing my breasts, and that’s all that matters,” she says, “I look at the scars that replaced them [her breasts], it reminds me of how strong I am and what a fighter I am.”   When feeling down, Bash says she she looks to what she calls her “support system” to bring her back up. Someone who she credits for sticking around throughout her battle is her husband: “my husband has supported everything I’ve done to survive and doesn’t physically look at me any differently.”

So if you’re a young woman and you think you have breast cancer symptoms, what do you do? Bash stressed that seeing a doctor ASAP is important and says: “if something doesn’t feel right, do something about it.  Don’t wait and see what happens.” And if you already have Breast cancer, Bash says that support is available: “know that you are not alone. There are support groups and resources out there for you.”

If you want to know more about Fighting Pretty or to contribute by sending a donation or a Pretty Package, or just want to know how to get in touch, visit: http://www.fightingpretty.org.

Article · Features

Feature: Britain’s Invisible Faces of HIV

According to the National Aids Trust (NAT), the number of children under-18 estimated to be living with HIV in the UK is around 1,200 and as treatments and awareness continue to improve, this number continues to see a decline. However, because silence persists about this invisible HIV-positive community, the stigma still remains. I investigate just what it is that is keeping paediatric HIV a silent taboo.

Image

Although it is true children make only a tiny proportion of those living with the virus in the UK, HIV can still be as – if not more – destructive  for them as it is for the most at-risk groups – men who have sex with men and heterosexual, UK-based Black Africans – to whom the majority of HIV-awareness campaigns are targeted. Darshan Baskaran, a cell biologist and PhD student researching HIV says: “the only thing I am aware of [in terms of differences between the effect of HIV in children and adults] is that the progression to Aids may be quicker in children because they have a young immune system.”

For children currently living with the virus in this country, the most likely way they contracted it was through mother-to-child transmission, according to Abi Carter, the participation officer of the Children’s HIV Association (CHIVA).

“Most of the children we work with were born in the 90s,” she says, and says that they don’t work with as many younger children in the organisation thanks to the relatively new introduction of routine testing of HIV in pregnant mothers which has kept mother-to-child transmission of the virus under control in recent years.  Carter adds that these days, only around one per cent of all babies born in a year to HIV-positive mothers will carry the virus.

But despite the reality that today you can don a red-ribbon in public without attracting scornful stares, at large, attitudes towards HIV and Aids and those affected by it are far from friendly. Ideas that HIV is a death sentence reserved for the promiscuous, poor and marginalised still cloud British society, and children are not exempt from these stigmas.

Although it is uncommon for children living with the virus to have contracted it sexually, many have been subject to bullying and mistreatment due to the idea that they may have contracted it that way: “we have lots of examples of young people whose statuses have been made public and they would be called ‘slags’,” Carter says.

Because many HIV-positive children are only told about their statuses when they are older, by the time they find out, Carter says, many of them would have already internalised the stigmas attached to the illness: “a lot of them are in complete denial, they don’t want to know that this has happened.” And the mothers of these children are not spared of this suffering either; they often end up shouldering the guilt that comes with both passing the virus onto their children – which may have happened unknowingly –  and not telling them at an early age that they have been infected.

Although charity organisations like CHIVA try to create safe spaces for children where stigma is curbed as much as possible, children cannot be completely sheltered from it. “We advocate that they [the children] are told from an early age about it [their HIV status]…we advocate that it’s always named,” Carter says. But she says that children are told that their status has to be kept a secret because of the stigma they could face: “a school contacted us when the HIV-status of a child became public; they were worried about the parents’ reaction.”

The misconceptions that Carter says some children and their parents have about interacting with HIV-positive people are the kind that HIV-awareness campaigns have tried to debunk time and time again. No, you can’t get HIV from sharing food with HIV-positive people, or from swimming with them, and you won’t get it from hugging or kissing them either.

But stigma and the inevitable bout of ignorance attached to it seem to not just be limited to people’s conversations. A 20-year-old Politics student who just goes by the name “Georgia” thinks that classes like her year seven sex-education class have had a part to play as well: “they taught us that it [HIV] was really easy to catch and that it would ruin our lives, and that we wouldn’t be able to live a normal life, which is completely untrue!”

She also says that she thinks that she and the other children probably left class that day with the idea that even being around someone HIV-positive would have somehow put them at risk of contracting the virus.  She later learned, however, that HIV was not the end-all she thought it was after talking to her mother, whose close friend was living with  the virus.

After that class, she says, the word “Aids” became an insult: “I remember after this [the class] there were a few of the popular boys who if they didn’t like something, they would say it was ‘Aids’, like, ‘the class is Aids’…it was just a big joke.” Georgia also says that at that time, the thought that children could contract HIV was unimaginable, unless they had been sexually-active. But now, she says, she knows that’s not true because she took it upon herself to do some research. “It should have been taught then,” she says.

So what exactly can be done to break the silence on paediatric HIV? And how can we help those who have been affected?  “Kids need to feel like they are not alone, like they’re not the only people in the country going through this,” says Carter. She also adds: “we need the people to raise awareness for themselves. The rates of HIV are increasing among the heterosexual White population.”

Georgia also thinks that awareness is key and says: “I think there needs to be a lot more awareness, especially about the fact that it is not just contracted sexually, and I think people need to know that it is no longer a death sentence.”

If you would like more information on CHIVA or paediatric HIV, visit their website  at: http://www.chiva.org.uk

Creative

Poem: In The Valley

This is a piece I wrote at the end of December, I hope you like it!

I sometimes catch myself wavering from side to side,

Not knowing if its right to stay or hide.
It would have been a lot easier if I didn’t have to care and if my convictions were always true.
But when it comes to this, can a single thought ever see me through?
I would never have thought that I would spend my night being haunted,
After all, what was, had left me daunted.

The burning desire had made me shake and quiver.
Questions, thoughts and yeses and noes have brought to surface what I yearned to keep below.
This thing, about which I wanted to be so sure,
Had washed me up and beached me onto a point of vaguely elusive closure.

Images reeling through my head of scenes from a time certainly lived,
Recalling everything I gave and got and wanted to give.
Dragging myself to territory very much earthed,
Trying to fathom exactly what it was that I had birthed.

If only, I wonder, I just let it stay put;
If only I never what it meant for this to be understood.

But here I am now, a product of it all,
Weathered in ways never thought of before.
Conflicted and confused,
looking out for every possible clue.

Because I am now shrewd and know of what exactly the journey consisted,
And know that should I re-embark on it, it would be met with greater reservation and resistance.
Yet a part of me will go back and is naggingly insistent.

So now I linger in this valley as I am slowly dragged closer to the mountain better climbed and I keep looking back.
As I wonder and visualise just what it would be like to climb the other mountain yet trying not to stumble on my tracks.

Two articles soon to follow!