Here I am, sitting in the train, thinking should I or should I not? Do I really want to show that I have been vulnerable in life? What will others think of me? We can even fool ourselves into believing that we are invincible until it all catches up with us. We forget we are human. Being a mental health professional, I should practice what I preach, so here goes.
Living on the darker side of society
Our society has people who are fixated in their ideals of beauty for a man and a woman. The messages communicated from the media and those around us are constant – “a man should be tall, dark, handsome and muscular” and a woman should be “fair skinned, slim with thick, long, shiny black hair”. If you do not meet these criteria then you are unlucky and should compensate for it by excelling in other areas to cover up these “flaws”. Growing up, I too had a similar experience.
I came from a “khata peeta khandaan” and as a child, I was always on the heavy side. This along with my thin hair and darker skin tone was often looked down on by many friends, relatives and even strangers.
From childhood to teen years many people made negative remarks about my appearance. To give a few examples – “her name is Sonia but which angle is she sohni from”, “her colour is not saaf” and some even advised my parents to keep my younger sister, who is fairer skinned, away when potential suitors come to see me.
As a child, my confidence, body image and self-esteem dropped. I became a quiet child preferring solitary activities like writing and dancing where I got to express myself. I never took pictures with others, always covered myself with loose clothing and avoided social interaction wherever possible. I did not want to give anyone the opportunity to put me down even further. But the vicious cycle continued. I was bullied by my own friends for doing well in my studies and the way I looked during my school years. They would tease me and then apologise. To top it all, I developed severe acne at the time. This took a toll on me. I was increasingly becoming socially anxious.
In all of this mess, I lost touch with who I really was and began compensating for being “fat” and “dark skinned”.
I threw myself into my studies to escape. My educational achievements became my main source of confidence. But I kept going back to asking myself – Why couldn’t I just snap out of it all and just be me? I was conscious of other’s reactions and was afraid to speak to my family about what I was going through. I did not want to let them down. I felt I was the only one affected by it.
Taking back control
Being bright at school meant I was put in classes separate from my friend circle. This gave me the opportunity to mix with people who were going through similar issues and did not judge me on the basis of how I looked. I began realising that everyone does not think in the same way. My form tutor helped me realise that there are only so many chances you should give an individual. I took the decision to leave my friend circle and became friends with those who were like-minded. My form tutor also encouraged me to talk to my family. It was not easy but I did and that was the main turning point for me. My family was shocked to hear what I was going through and supported me. I remember my father saying “Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. You are different Sonia, cherish that. People who truly love you and care about you will love you unconditionally for who you are”. That stuck with me. My parents encouraged me to seek therapy.
My therapist helped me make sense of the mess I was in. She created a safe place for me to tell it as it is, without any inhibitions and in my own time.
We worked together on seeing how my experiences had affected me emotionally, my views about myself and how I related to others. Being able to put these pieces together empowered me to take action. I understood myself better.
Despite the remarks made, I did not use skin lightening creams, foundation to cover my acne or tried to lose weight even though, some people had suggested that.
This was the rebellious part of me that was taking a stand. We worked on bringing this part out. This part led to other parts being brought out. Overtime, my solitary activities became solitary and social activities.
Hindrance or a boon?
Yes, my social anxiety gave me grief but at the same time it has made me who I am today. I am able to be the Sonia I was deep down. Now people say I talk too much and I can’t stop taking pictures. I am not going to change that as that is me.
My social anxiety has contributed to my passion for working in mental health, my hobbies, interests and achievements in life. It has made me a better person and I have learned things about myself, others and life that I would not have known without the experience.
I still get the odd occasional negative remarks and can get angry but now I respond in Sonia’s way with “hum kaale hain toh kya hua dil wale hain”. My father’s advice will always remain with me. Yes, I have now lost weight and occasionally wear make up but that is a choice, it is not to compensate. Why should you compensate or feel guilty for being you? As Gandhi Ji has said “You should be the change you wish to see”. If you don’t accept yourself, how can others accept you?
Understanding myself helped me feel less angry towards those who had made the comments.
After all, you can’t control what others say or do but you can control the impact of it on you. This does not mean suppressing how you feel or ignoring the impact. It means accepting and being aware of how you feel, taking ownership over it and then making a change.
I am not invincible. My social anxiety is still there at times and it will be. After all, a certain level of social anxiety is normal in us all. We just have to be mindful of when healthy becomes unhealthy for us.
I am hoping that through this people can see that no one is immune to mental health issues and how common they are. Having a mental health issue does not mean life will go downhill. In fact ignoring it will make things worse. With the will and right support, everyone can turn things round. I am also hoping that you will become more mindful of what you say and how you treat yourself and others.