Opinion and Editorial


Anjaly Thomas
Filed on June 5, 2021

Being comfortable in your own skin — regardless of social media filters or look-good apps or public criticism — doesn’t imply complacency or arrogance. It’s just a healthy way to love yourself. Unconditionally

Browsing through my Instagram feed, I pause over a familiar face. The face is of a delicate woman with rosy cheeks and a sunshine halo. A supernal beauty. I know this person. She was my batchmate in law school, decades ago.

Was it only three months ago that we’d discussed her wrinkles and sagging skin? In response to her beauty woes, I remember joking that the only way to get rid of her problem was via photo editing apps.

Clearly, she didn’t get the joke. But as I stare at the result of that leading conversation, my worry over her emotional wellbeing is growing.

In her defence, her heavily-edited angelic picture has garnered over 500 likes, while my photo with my knees pressing into the earth beside a coconut palm I’d planted three years ago was liked exactly 99 times.

My picture is filter-free.

Meanwhile, I think of Shashi, a character from the Bollywood drama English Vinglish, who walked into everyone’s hearts with “I am Shashi from the India”. When a coffee shop waitress drives her to tears, I wished she would not be intimidated into buying espresso when she really wanted a filter coffee at Starbucks.

After all, it is about being comfortable with who we are, right?

But what is worrying is the manner how social media is pressurising people to represent a certain image as well as providing the tools to attain those seemingly impossible standards. I have nothing against Photoshop or mobile phone filters and apps, but they end up painting reality in unrealistic hues.

There is an even bitter truth: the lack of empathy is real life that is forcing people to filter their life for online approval.

The hashtag victims

Colombo-based journalist Zinara Rathnayake believes in understanding her skills and capabilities, something she learnt to do over the years. At 26, Zinara has accepted that her journey is not about comparing herself to others. “I am my own competition,” she says. “It has taken me many years to overcome dejection and ridicule, so I won’t be letting anything take away the confidence I have built. Growing up, I had crooked teeth. I was bullied at school and always told that I smiled badly. I never smiled for photos. It was only in my 20s that I could move beyond that.”

Zinara explains how she easily shrugs off criticism these days, not letting it stop her from slipping into a dress she wants to wear even if someone body-shamed her. “My style is not for social media. I care little for how people perceive my style. It is unfortunate that today’s generation lives for an online image. I believe that social media criticism or validation is a digitalised version of our friendly neighbourhood moral police with an opinion on everything.”

Today, she is done with being a people-pleaser. Preferring to always wear sneakers — be it with a dress or a saree — she claims she is even going to wear it with her wedding gown. With a smile. “I smile a lot these days. People might think it is defiance, but I love my crooked teeth.”

Meghna Singh, a Dubai-based travel consultant, says she has always been a “I am who I am” person, happy with her flaws and

content with self-love. Her journey from roses and sunshine to what she is today has been long and not without its share of criticism and human filters.

“Every time I failed at something, a new business venture or a goal, people jumped at me from everywhere — real and online friends included. I fought back. What matters to me about a sense of competition is that I am comfortable accepting failure.” According to her, that instant you pretend to be someone else, you have proven yourself weak. “Being comfortable is about being yourself and ability to be your own person.”

Sangita V moved to Canada from India, fleeing the toxicity and orthodoxy that threatened to engulf her life. As she slowly settled down in her new environs, she eased out of depression, going from being shy to completely in charge. “Knowing my strengths and weaknesses, accepting them and being comfortable with them and no longer bullying myself for not measuring up to someone else’s standards is what life is about.”

“In the past, I have walked into a crowded room and felt smaller than everyone there. I was openly shamed by people close to me (for a laugh) who also pointedly ignored me in my own home. It was as confusing as it was hurtful. I had no idea what caused that behaviour. I later concluded that their actions defined them and not me.”

Eventually, Sangita worked herself out of her anxiety and learnt to ignore social or peer pressure. “Social media is just the digital version of measuring up to someone else’s standards for approval. Although the medium of expression has changed, people’s behaviour patterns haven’t.”

Beauty apps and ‘photoshopping’

Taipei-based Sandy Fan defines “being comfortable in your own skin” as the ability to speak and act freely. As representative of the tourism sector in Taipei, she occasionally meets people who make her feel uncomfortable because of her Asian looks, creating an unpleasant situation which she chooses not to be in. “I must be comfortable with the situation more than anything — be it at work or anywhere I am,” says Sandy. “If someone is being overly critical or showing me down, I’d rather leave than react.”

We carry the notion that people are waiting to judge us and that somehow we have to fit in with their idea of us. “When you stop thinking like that, your perspective changes.” Sandy believes that individual comfort level has a lot to do with themselves and not others. “In the absence of self-comfort, people tend to look outward for admiration and validation. Hence looking great on social media becomes important.”

Looking through a coloured glass

While Thomas Mwiraria, a Nairobi-based author and multi-media journalist, aims to be “nimble as a verb” and “smart as sarcasm”, it doesn’t always end up that way. In his typical style, the author of The Land of Bones jokes, “I am comfortable when I have no aching tooth or bloated stomach, when publications are accepting my pitches and my country is not taking out another elephant loan. But when that happens, I stay away from public eye and opinion.”

He owes his attitude to his mother, “a dear woman who only wore her hair in one way all her life and looked most beautiful every day.”

“My mom, a schoolteacher where I studied, has kept one hairstyle from her girlhood till now. She is 70. She travelled through decades being comfortable in her own skin and hairstyle. When kids in school wanted to make me feel bad, they would mock her hairstyle. Well, I laughed about it too — but, you see, you cannot put me down without my permission. That’s where I learnt not to give haters any attention. And my fear of being judged died. I am not perfect, but who is? The person who hides behind a coloured glass?”

Thomas built his confidence, layer by layer, over the years. Today, he has the answers to the most basic, albeit impertinent, question: who are you? “I am a square peg in a round hole. When there is a reluctance to push boundaries or embrace innovations, I want to scale up the wall and escape. I appreciate criticism but pay attention to competent critics.”

Social media is unavoidable due to digital disruption. Digital communities, marketplaces and opportunities are a snare. But the flipside of it is that lookism is a mounting problem. “Even adults, who are finally able to enjoy digital adolescence thanks to A1 picture editing tools, are becoming victims of it. It is atrocious how they edit off years to seem younger.”

Self-acceptance is the operative word

Nikhil Lanjewar, based in Nagpur (India), is a slow coach (he tutors individuals and corporates to “slow down”), and founder SlowCo. For Nikhil, self-acceptance is the operative word. Having abandoned pants in favour of dhoti (a type of sarong) years ago, he quit a full-time career at 31, and survived scathing criticisms, harsh judgements and social ostracisation. “I have been shamed into thinking I don’t fit in and judged professionally as well — from my choice of living and working, turning vegan to switching to handlooms. I have done a thousand things that did not align with the status quo.”

He recalls the time when he was seeking help with his jeep at a local mechanic, who wanted to know his last name (considering that only Brahmins wear dhotis), the reason for wearing boots with dhoti and why he drove a restored jeep. “It was hilarious, but then he realised that clothes were worn for comfort and not as a representation of caste, profession or image.”

Nikhil identifies as a non-conformist. “I don’t do things differently as an act of defiance. And if anything upsets me, I work on the root cause of the emotional conflict. Looking for validation amounts to emotional insecurity and sadly people around us are quick to criticise forcing us to look for virtual validation which comes with its own set of rules. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Peer validation

Dubai-based psychotherapist and life coach Asmaa Adry believes that validation is not just a curse for the younger generation; it is a major concern among people in their 40s and 50s, who use social media platforms to present a false image — and not necessarily of their physical self, but of success, while being completely disconnected or miserable.

“The high fabrication potential of social media is tempting for those looking for a quick gratification, which is not at all healthy. Searching for external validation instead of really working to fix the unsatisfactory parts of their lives is a most disturbing trend.”

More often than not, physical appearance has always been an issue especially with teenagers because of their needs for peer validation, she explains. “Because they succumb to made-up standards manufactured by media (including cinema, magazines, TV), where literally everything is screaming perfection, they become impossible to measure up to and suddenly everyone is either too fat, too thin, too short or too tall to meet the standards.”

Asmaa says this trend is not new to the social media-driven society; the only difference is the speed in which metamorphosises an image into an opinion, making the race to perfection fierce.

“In the realm of appearance, I’ve seen filters and apps made specially to make you look fuller, prettier and slimmer. People are fabricating their appearances to fit into impossible measures because they’re scared of imperfection. And in my opinion, until people accept who they really are and push through that fear of being unloved, they will never experience being themselves.”

Saying no to how-to living guides

I find how-to guides on social media tiresome and intrusive. And why shouldn’t I eat chicken drumsticks with my hands? Or debone a fish in a restaurant? Or have flabby arms?

The reason I drag myself to the gym has nothing to do with hashtags. My aim is to firm up those calf muscles for them to be of use when I hike the Tian Shan Mountains in Kyrgyzstan. No hashtag is going to get me to use a filter or makeup. The only filter I want is of the morning sun dancing its way through the clouds on the mountaintop I hope to be on.

A friend once pointed out the scars on my legs and suggested ways to cover it. “When you look good, you’ll feel good,” she added firmly. “Especially about your legs.” She didn’t realise that I really love those scars. I’ve collected them over the years under exciting circumstances — a slip on the glacier, a leech bite, a paragliding mishap, bushwalking in Papua New Guinea, to name a few.

And I know those legs are going to take me places and come back looking worse.

Being comfortable in my own skin doesn’t mean I shy away from change. I am happy to wear gaiters the next time I walk through a tropical forest.

(Anjaly is an author and travel writer based in Dubai. You can contact her at anjaly@anjalythomas.com)

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