Body neutrality: accepting and appreciating our reality

School life always comes with a host of cherished memories and bitter-sweet nostalgia. Today I would like to look back and share one of those moments. I didn’t know at the time that this particular theme would play out for years afterward. I faced an occasion when I was excited to perform on stage in a school event. I was early to school and happily wandering around, all ready to go and perform. Until I ran into the shocked faces of one of the teachers in charge who sharply remarked,” I hope you’re not going on stage like this”. I was promptly rushed into one of the empty classrooms as if I was an emergency case and assigned to 3 older girls to make me “presentable”. The message was clear – I wasn’t acceptable or stage-worthy until I had on 4-5 layers of make-up. I still don’t remember much else from that day.

I was watching a video of Youtuber Dolly Singh and I couldn’t help but yell “Same” and felt a startling moment of connection. It wasn’t about her comedy skits or her Insta-worthy apartment. It was her talking about being body shamed in school. She now makes a living on her own Youtube channel as well as acts in several comedy skits. Basically she spends a considerable amount of time in front of the camera. Recently comedian Sumukhi Suresh was told to “f***ing lose some weight,girl”. Celebrities such as Serena Williams, Jennifer Anitson, Beyonce, Vidya Balan , Leonardo Dicaprio ( called Great Fatsby, seriously ?), Jason Momoa, Ben Affleck and several others have received hate for their looks. It seems no one is immune. I understand that it took a lot of courage for them to open up about their struggles and I write this after much debate myself over opening up like this. Well,here I am.

Fast-forward to several years later. My weight has changed, my hairstyle too. In fact I had gone through 2-3 haircuts only I seemed to like. My dressing style had changed. Most importantly, I felt that I was finally reaching body positivity and accepting my appearance for what it was. But the comments never stopped. I still flinched when a “friend” patted my stomach and giggled every time I wore a t-shirt. I was told that I could be pretty if not for my pimples. I felt that same sinking feeling when I heard ,” You’re curvy, just in the wrong places.” I would have thought that arteries were the wrong part for fat build-up but I guess I was wrong.

Sadly enough, my experience isn’t that unique. People all over the world have been peering into mirrors, wincing at perceived flaws and hurtful comments. In a country where the common greeting is “Kitni moti hogi gayi ? “, body shaming is nothing new. We have all received casual suggestions from seemingly well-meaning teachers, neighbours, relatives and even friends on our appearance. Adolescents who are already undergoing hormonal changes are especially at risk. Many of them battling issues of insecurity and identity are prone to mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and even suicidal tendencies.

On the heels of shame over these painful comments came anger. I had done the work to accept myself. I thought I had grown comfortable in my own skin.The Body Positivity movement with its celebratory messages and the chorus ‘to love every inch of your body’ had arrived. Stretch marks were ‘tiger stripes’, daily affirmations rolled in and we were all set to proclaim “All bodies are good bodies”. So why was this happening to me ?

What happened was that the recently popular ‘body positivity’ clashed against decades of deeply ingrained conventional beauty standards. We couldn’t resist slapping on a filter, using clever camera angles, snarky comments and the internalised need to idolize the beauty models we grew up with. Here’s where the devil lay – Body positivity, cheery and rose-tinted as it was, still focussed on outward appearance. Repeating positive affirmations you didn’t really believe in, only left me feeling fake and worse than before. The feelings of internal conflict it generates results in feeling worse. Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, author of Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, agrees that the pressure to focus on your body and maintain such high self-esteem at all times is enormous.

Having been considered both “skinny” and “curvy”, I’ve come to realize there’s no pleasing anyone. Being called ‘curvy’ instead of plain ol’ ‘fat’ didn’t make me magically happier. I believe we have always been taught a very confusing relationship with our bodies. If you worry about your appearance and invest time and money into it, you are considered “vain and superficial”. If you don’t, you are considered ” lazy and unattractive”. Go to gym and diet and you are labelled one of those fitness freaks who eat only grass. Use beauty products and be labelled plastic, fake, filling yourself with harmful chemicals. Hearing these constant suggestions, even if well-intentioned, only decreased my self-esteem further.

What then are we to do ? Should we keep repeating the affirmations hoping we would one day believe them ? How could we replace the clamour of negativity from outside and within our own minds ? Enter Body Neutrality. Body neutrality focusses on function, the ability of the body to support our life, what it can do as opposed to how it looks. The concept gained popularity with the Body Neutrality Workshops by former fitness instructor, Annie Poirer, who defines ‘body neutrality’ as the next gradual step towards acceptance and self-love.

Body neutrality frees us from the constant pressure to sculpt our bodies to perfection or love it in all its imperfection. There is space to simply exist as we are. At times I dreaded trial rooms and googled home remedies. On other days I was struggling desperately to see beauty where I only saw flaws before. This constant oscillating between the two extremes was tiring. Body neutrality reminded me of a simple truth that I had forgotten while searching for crash diets and staring at the mirror in disappointment. My legs didn’t need to look stunning in every pair of jeans in the store. It helped me go places, run, play and dance the blues away. My face need not always be photo-ready. It was enough to smile, frown, talk and express my mind. My nail polish may be chipped and the wrong shade for my skin and my arms unwieldy and tanned. Still they happily typed, cooked, hugged and helped me through life, didn’t they? Simply put, hitting a pause on how I looked and considering what I did and how I felt allowed me to enjoy my favorite brownie without guilt or the need to convince myself I was still beautiful.

Mumbai based dietician Sheryl Salis and Dr Kavitha Fenn Arunkumar, consultant psychiatrist at Hannah Joseph Hospital in Madurai agree that being grateful for a healthy, functioning body is beneficial for mental health too. The Instagram campaign ‘I Weigh‘ championed by Taylor Swift and Jameela Jamil encourages women not to focus on or feel ashamed of their body weight but rather observe the unique individual as a whole.

A word of caution: Body neutrality doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the very real risks of obesity and unhealthy choices. It means being mindful about your body’s needs and how it feels. This may mean merely enjoying exercise or dancing without worrying if you look graceful. It could be wearing clothes you feel comfortable in. It could be grabbing your favourite treat once in a while without berating yourself over the added calories. Being mindful about your need for sleep and nutritious food and honouring that is a necessary step too.

In the moments of silence when I put on hold my complaints about my appearance, my body seems to ask me this, ” What haven’t I done for you ?”. I have subjected it to teeth-chattering cold and scorching sun. I have pulled late nights, skipped breakfasts followed by bingeing unhealthy snacks, gruelling trekking and 12 hour bus journeys. I have popped zits, ditched sunscreen or moisturisers and expect radiant, clear skin. I have gotten on various recommended diets and skincare products and crashed even faster onto junk food, ridiculous sleep cycles and enormous amounts of coffee. Yet it fights everyday to keep me alive and functioning. When I show it just a little patience, care and warmth, it readily blooms and carries me through life.

What I’ve realised is that self-acceptance and inner growth aren’t one-time-cure-all pills. There will keep being moments where you slip up and go back to old patterns. There may be treatments and diets to boost your immunity. There may be vaccines against polio and rabies. But there is no magical shield against casual insults and thoughtless words. To me and everyone else who is going through something similar, let’s keep fighting !

The Survivor’s Guide to Life

TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions of Suicide, Self-harm, Depression, Anxiety

My first attempt at taking my life happened when I was 13; I took 26 sleeping pills, two for each year I had existed uselessly.

Now, which part of the above sentence strikes you the most, dear reader? The fact that it was a suicide attempt, or that it implies that I had many others, or that I was a mere teenager when I first attempted? Or maybe you’re wondering why a 13-year-old felt the (repeated) need to try and kill herself?

I don’t think there even exists a valid answer to your question. Peer pressure? Bullying? Misunderstandings on the side of my family/society/friends? Fear of the future? Hormones? Depression? Even now, almost a decade later, I couldn’t tell you if it was any of these things individually or all of them combined, which made me swallow those pills on that fateful Thursday in early May. 

Oh yes, I remember the month, day, date, and even what I was wearing when I attempted. I remember that it had been raining. I remember wondering, hoping, as I held the bottle of pills in my hand, if my pain would be washed away and if I would arise anew in another world, just like the earth rises clean and fresh after every shower. I remember giving the afterlife; heaven and hell and all the mythological stories my dad used to narrate to me about punishments, a fleeting thought as I lay in bed drowsy and half-conscious. I remember murmuring a ‘Sorry’ to my mom, for hers was the last face I saw in my head (or was it in reality?) before the darkness pulled me under.

Unfortunately, having been blessed with an eidetic memory means that I have the capacity to recall even the things I don’t want to, in perfect clarity.

I recall briefly regaining consciousness in the ICU as they pumped my stomach. I recall looking down at my own pool of sickness and thinking, ‘Oh crap, I failed.’ I recall waking up much later in a normal ward, gazing up at the disappointed and worried faces of my family. 

And later, I recall the weeks of tense silence that followed me as my family skirted around the issue. I recall searching for a Band-aid one day to find that the whole medicine cabinet in my house had been wiped clean. I recall being paranoid about seeing if my guilt followed me around like a shadow. And I recall shattering the long mirror in my bedroom one day, because I just couldn’t look at myself. 

Some say that suicide is a coward’s way out because only people who don’t have the courage to face reality and the challenges of life take the apparently easy way out. Well, having survived multiple suicide attempts and having learned something from each of them, I’m here to tell you otherwise. 

It takes an extraordinary amount of determination to make the decision to end your life, and an exponentiated amount more to continue to live after a failed attempt. There’s tonnes of research and psychoanalyses pondering the question of why people consider suicide at all, so I won’t delve into that now. Let’s look, instead, at a group of people that society treats as pariahs – the survivors. 

You would think that if someone comes back from the cusp of death, their near and dear ones would celebrate them, molly-coddle them and never let them out of their sight, right? Unfortunately, that’s not what happens in most situations. 

Most survivors’ second lives (I like to think of them as being born a new person) are filled with awkward silences, misunderstandings, and lots and lots of heartbreaks. Our very normal and perfect society views them as abnormal and imperfect, making the survivors regret and start to hate their second lives, more so than their first. 

My situation was very similar. In the months following my attempt, I found myself more confused and lonely than I had been in my entire life. 

My family was walking on eggshells around me; talking to me only when necessary, I wasn’t allowed to go out socially anywhere, not even with a chaperone, not even to meet my only friend at that time, I was asked to lie to everyone that I had taken time off from school because of a stomach ache, and the list went on. So how did I deal with this?

I went into self-destruct mode. 

But then, after numerous cuts, burns, popping painkillers, and a night where I spent hours and hours throwing down countless bottles of alcoholic cocktails (don’t worry, I was no longer underage) which made me end up in the hospital (again) with (another) pumped stomach, it all ended.

How, you ask?

It’s no great miracle; it’s something you see happen to everyone you pass on the streets, probably. It happened to me, too, when I was 21. 

Love, the destroyer of lives. Which actually ended up redeeming mine. 

Yes, reader, I fell in love. Madly, irrevocably, head-over-heels in love with probably the most understanding, caring, and loving being in the entire universe. 


He was my entire universe. 

Coco, my savior, friend, and the best therapist one could ask for!

Within four seconds of seeing him, he had me floored (and I mean literally, with my back on the floor, with him licking me furiously). However, redemption is not as easy as falling in love. It is a long, difficult, (mentally and physically) exhausting road filled with more thorns than roses. Which is probably why, come to think of it, one of the only two ways to destroy a Horcrux (to the non-Potterhead, it is an object of dark magic where a witch or wizard hides a piece of his or her soul) is to seek redemption for your deeds (the other one being stabbing it with something that has Basilisk venom; at this point, I would highly recommend everyone just pick up a copy of Harry Potter). 

After what seemed like endless visits to therapists and psychiatrists, heart-to-heart discussions with my family, and many, many tears, I learned to deal with it all. 

Oh, no, I wasn’t fine all of a sudden, far from it. All the panic attacks and the depression and the self-harming tendencies and the suicidal ideation (yeah, my latest therapist has an extensive vocabulary) didn’t go away. They were very much there. I just learned to deal with them in a healthier way. 

For example, Therapist #2 introduced me to the wonderful world of bullet journaling. It was a really calming activity, especially for someone like me who used to have a creative streak before all this went down. Therapist #3 taught me mindfulness and grounding techniques and ways to deal with the urge to self-harm. While I don’t really appreciate all of them, some of them, like the 54321 exercise or even simply holding an ice cube in my hand, really work for me at desperate times. 

So what am I trying to say through this (ridiculously long and depressing) rant?

That it’s okay to spiral into self-destruction as long as you come out of it? Of course not.

That love makes everything perfect? Definitely not; perfection doesn’t exist.

That people shouldn’t be stigmatized for attempting suicide? Well, yes, but that’s beside the point. 

Then what is the point, you ask?

It is this; the night is darkest just before dawn. 

Okay, I might have just recited a quote from Batman: The Dark Knight, but let me elaborate. 

I’m not saying everything will be peachy at some point in your life, that all the trauma you suffered will fly away as though it were never there. In fact, I’m saying quite the opposite; there will be the ‘Bad Days’, there will be the days you would want to punch the smiles out of everyone’s faces (the ‘Fudge-You Days’), and then there will be the days when you would feel as though the world isn’t ending (the ‘Okayyy Days’).

I’m saying, trudge through the bad and the worse and try to live for a better day. 

Because that’s all anyone can really do in life – try.

LonePack: The Journey So Far

What is the most resilient thing in the world?

An idea whose time has come

They say that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. LonePack’s started with something much more abstract – a deep, almost desperate need to bring about change. 

Oh no, we’re not talking about enacting change on a global scale, like achieving climate stability or anything, but the one we wanted to do was equally difficult to achieve with just as far-reaching an impact. 

To talk about the change that we envisioned, we would need to retrace our steps a little; go back in time by a few years. 

Six years ago, three youngsters; Samiya, Siddhaarth, and Naveen, engineering students who preferred to be identified first as ‘friends’ before ‘classmates’, had an idea.

The idea for LonePack was conceived in 2015, but we were a little apprehensive about taking the plunge. We were not trained in this field, nor did we have any idea about how non-profits functioned. However, by the time we were graduating from college (2016), we realized that we could not ignore this issue any longer. We took the leap and decided that whatever we didn’t know, we would learn; if we needed help, we would ask for it; but doing nothing was no longer an option,” recalls Samiya.

So what is the idea that we’re giving all this hype about?

What we wanted to do was to tell people they were not alone, that their mental health mattered, as lonely as it seemed to them when they were not ok. We wanted to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage open conversation about it. To provide a safe space for people to be candid about what they were going through. This was what LonePack was about, says Naveen.

But why mental health, when there are a million other causes to support, one might wonder. Well, Siddhaarth has the answer to that!

“My own experiences and those of my close friends have shown me how important mental health is to overall well-being and quality of life. Sadly, there is still a lot of stigma and misconceptions about mental health that prevent people from seeking help to improve their well-being. In many other social causes, mainstream society at least acknowledges that we need to improve (in principle at least). However, when it comes to mental health – there still exists a lot of prejudice that prevents people from giving it due importance. There’s a long road ahead of us to make mental health accessible to everyone and we’ll need plenty of allies and activists to reach that goal!”

And so, faced with what seemed like an unscalable mountain and armed with only their beliefs and visions for a better future, the trio started out.

Of course, part of the fun is the people you meet on your journey, and in that aspect, LonePack has seen a lot of fun, joy, and excitement over the years.

“Most of us have heard this, ‘It’s the journey that matters, not the destination’. But it’s the destination that drives you through the journey, brings you closer to people taking that journey and makes it all more worth it. At LonePack, I found a community traveling towards the same destination – to make mental health accessible to all. And taking this journey with people who are as equally, if not more, passionate as you to reach this destination, just makes it worthier to travel on.” Divya, who heads the Research team, reinstates with a smile.

LonePack has been a space where you feel like you belong. You eventually learn and accept that it’s okay to not be okay and start to believe in the importance of being there for people. It’s amazing to be working together as a team, with folks who believe that mental health matters, and it’s been such an enjoyable ride!says Aishwarya.

It’s all about the collective effort; the effort that goes into pushing for better awareness, with the thirst to want to improve the perception of mental health in our circles. And since it’s a collective, there is a vibrant collaboration, and as a result you end up meeting super cool and smart people along the way. I see it as a win-win!” Suhas adds.

Aishwarya and Suhas head the Marketing and Social Media Management teams at LonePack.

“LonePack is the fruition of a deep want for change. To be the lighthouse that we didn’t really have to help guide us through the rough waves at sea. Life is kind of like the ocean and sometimes, lighthouses are what you need to know that this rough journey will end and that the shore is nearer than you think it is. LonePack is our hope – reaching out to help anyone who might need it. And to me, personally, LonePack is about building a strong community to be there for everyone as their support system. That’s why I do what I do here.” quips Srivasupradha. She heads LonePack’s Content team.

As they say, it is not the destination that matters, and LonePack has seen a lot of interesting pit-stops and milestones, too! 

“We designed LonePack Buddy – a safe space for everyone to talk about anything, without fear of judgement. After all, we think everybody could use a buddy, especially in these trying times.” says Siddhaarth, talking about LonePack Buddy, which is a free, online peer-support system. Try it out here!

“Our flagship on-ground awareness campaign, LonePack Letters, reached over 60,000 people in over 20 Indian cities in 18 months across three editions,” Samiya recounts with pride. Various organizations and institutions like Uber, IIT Madras, VIT Chennai, etc have collaborated with LonePack to make the Letters campaign a success. Read more about it here!

And that is not all! From its highly informative blog page to the extremely colourful and engaging social media accounts, LonePack has a lot of gears churning (quite smoothly) on all ends!

When asked what are LonePack’s hopes and dreams for the future, Naveen says with a fond smile, “We hope to reach a lot more people to create awareness and support. We hope to grow Buddy to serve each and every person who needs help, make Buddy available in a variety of languages, and on even basic-feature phones. We hope to hasten the creation of a world where battles against mental health are no longer fought in the dark!”

On the other side of the closet door – the problems plaguing the LGBTQ+ community

***TRIGGER WARNING: References to sexual assault and substance abuse***

“Two-thirds of LGBT people avoid holding hands in public, for fear of negative reactions”

UK Governtment Survey

This was the finding from a 2017 government survey of more than 100,000 LGBT people in the UK. While great strides have been made for gay rights in the West, true equality is still a pipe dream. 

In India, even now, where the majority of educated younger people are more accepting than older generations, ‘coming out’ remains a fantasy for most. The creation of various LGBTQ+ support organisations and online activism has greatly propagated the message of acceptance among the youth. However, awareness about alternate gender identities and sexualities hasn’t yet penetrated the core sensibilities and value systems of the traditional Indian family. The situation is far worse in rural India where honour killings and systemic family-sponsored corrective-rape are still a horrific reality. 

Given this extreme context, talking about the more nuanced issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community, though important, seems frivolous. While the life experience of an LGBTQ+ person is often compressed into the, ‘coming out’ or ‘transition’ event, shedding light on other day-to-day issues faced by this community might help provide a different perspective, a better understanding and hence, hopefully, greater awareness.

Here are a few of our blog articles covering a range of issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community:

The Invisible Spectrums – Asexuality & Aromanticism

A Look at LGBTQ Issues – Relationships, Religion and Access to Resources

Does a Rainbow Flag equal Inclusivity?

The Rainbow Struggle

Crucial progress in the West has been both a boon and a bane for the LGBTQ+ community in the other parts of the world. The legalization of gay marriage in the United States was celebrated across the globe. Pride month and Pride parades are held to celebrate the community and commemorate the long history of struggle for equal rights, in particular the Stonewall riot, the first significant uprising that happened in New York City. This Western progress is inspiring but incomplete and there is a long way to go in making progress, especially in countries like India.

However, an interesting change is taking place in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights.  In 2002, Tori DeAngelis wrote for the American Psychological Association cover story that LGBT clients are facing a new generation of issues.

“In the 32 years since patrons of the Stonewall Inn challenged police who raided the now-famous gay nightclub, lesbians, gays and bisexuals have grown in personal and political power, creating their own communities and finding acceptance in traditional ones as well.

Conversations taking place in today’s therapy offices reflect this change. Although many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) people still bring issues of discrimination and fear of rejection to their psychologists’ offices, they are just as likely to discuss such mainstream issues as parenting and fears about aging.”

A new generation of issues for LGBT clients, Tori DeAngelis

52 years after the Stonewall Riots, and nearly two decades since DeAngelis’ article came out, the issues being discussed in the United States have moved on to topics that aren’t even on the radar for the rest of the world. In a controversially headlined article, The Struggle for Gay Rights Is Over, published in the The Atlantic (June 28 2019), an American news and literary magazine, the author records,

As the topics of conversation at America’s largest assembly of gay activists (The National LGBTQ Task Force) suggests, America is rapidly becoming a post-gay country.

The Struggle for Gay Rights Is Over, James Kirchick

While more and more causes are being brought under the umbrella of LGBTQ+ rights in Western countries, progress is woefully lacking in the rest of the world. In a host of countries such as China, Taiwan and the Middle-East, people of the LGBTQ+ community fear for their lives. In this case, activists and voters in more liberal countries must press for legislation and foreign policy to help the international LGBTQ+ community’s still very real fight for basic rights. Although the rainbow struggle for a variety of wide-ranging issues encompassed under the LGBTQ+ agenda is a sign of progress, the fight must maintain a focus to champion LGBTQ+ rights across international borders.

Internalized Homophobia in a Heteronormative Society

For many individuals who identify as LGBTQ+, even fundamental rights and basic personal liberties remain out of reach, including the right to express oneself and the right to love and be together with a loved one. Confessing their sexuality to family might get them forced into conversion therapy. They can get bullied for simply being themselves, for walking, or even speaking a certain way. Even holding the hand of a loved one can result in violence. The results of the UK government survey found that more than 40 percent of the respondents have experienced a hate crime at some point, and 25 percent of them have concealed their identities from their families.

And it is not just the actions of others – the difficulties faced by individuals of the LGBTQ+ spectrum can often come from within the self. In a Huffington Post article, ‘Together Alone’ that went viral within the LGBTQ+ community, the author, Michael Hobbes draws from his friends’ experiences in disturbing detail about how loneliness and mental health issues plague them post-coming out.

“For years I’ve noticed the divergence between my straight friends and my gay friends. While one half of my social circle has disappeared into relationships, kids and suburbs, the other has struggled through isolation and anxiety, hard drugs and risky sex.”

Together Alone, Michael Hobbes

People who are part of the LGBTQ+ community have a substantially increased risk of suffering from a range of mental health issues. One that is seldomly spoken about is internalized homophobia. The Rainbow Project offers a simple description: As we grow up we are taught the values of our society. In our homophobic, heterosexist, discriminatory culture, we may learn negative ideas about homosexuality and same-sex attraction. 

When someone from the queer community calls out one of their own for being, ‘too gay’, or ‘not gay enough’, it is these internal biases that keep them from complete acceptance. Fear of discovery, discomfort with other gay people, and engaging in humor that stigmatizes LGBTQ+ people are a few examples of how internalised homophobia can be expressed. This hurdle prevents LGBTQ people from fully accepting themselves and their peers, making it that much harder to find community.

In a different Slate article, critiquing Hobbes for focusing exlusively on an overly cis white male perspective and solely talking about the problems of a group of people who are the “A-gays”, the author doesn’t disagree that gay loneliness is real, but adds to it the wide range of unique problems faced by other, often overlooked parts of the LGBTQ+ community.

“In the community, we have a name for these people: A-gays. They enforce the social rules of a certain kind of urban gay space, implicitly or sometimes explicitly excluding other types of gays (and almost all queer people) who don’t fit their strange standards. They are the donors and board members of the big gay nonprofits, the setters of the mainstream gay agenda.”

Gay Loneliness Is Real—but “Bitchy, Toxic” Culture Isn’t the Full Story, Ben Miller

The lack of safe spaces for non-cis gay sub-groups is a major contributing factor to the toxic culture within the gay community. While online forums are good to start a conversation and seek anonymous camaraderie, especially for youth, this is often insufficient to counteract the hate and negativity that exists elsewhere. Further, the anonymous nature of the interaction doesn’t create a lasting bond, just a temporary escape from the feeling of isolation. For adults, online dating and hookup apps quench the need for company and validation but the dangers of catfishing sometimes with catastrophic consequences is always a very real possibility. Others resort to meeting people at bars or clubs, which might be intimidating to some where they might be forced into uncomfortable situations with substance abuse.

Why Substance Abuse is Higher within the LGBTQ Community

Call to Action – Creating a place in the Society

Reintegration into society – one that is free from both discriminatory heteronormativity as well as  the toxic and ultra-exclusive LGBTQ+ one, is the one true solution to these wide-ranging problems. Creating a place in society through institutionalization and rigorous protection of the fundamental rights regardless of gender or sexual orientation is the first step.

A 75-point action plan created in response to the UK Government Survey of the LGBT people outlines several key measures that need to be enacted to protect them from injustices and hate crimes. One of the salient points was that the government will work with their Department of Health and Social Care to improve mental healthcare for LGBT people. 

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP India) in collaboration with AIM NITI Aayog jointly launched the Youth Co:Lab, aimed at accelerating youth-led social entrepreneurship and innovation in India. One of the focus areas in selecting the community-led initiatives for incubation was LGBTQ+ allyship. This is a promising start. Our very own peer-support virtual chat service, LonePack Buddy, was one among the 30 initiatives selected across the nation in this specific focus area. Trained listeners are available 24×7 to confide in anonymously and this service is perfectly suited to address the problem of isolation and loneliness among LGBTQ+ people.  

Community centres are the need of the hour – open from early in the morning to late at night, to meet others of varied backgrounds within the LGBTQ+ community and welcome to not just to those suffering from a crisis. The opening of one such centre by The Humsafar Trust in Delhi provides hope that this concern is being addressed. But this needs to be replicated in all major cities, towns and villages.

A Novel Inspiration

The words of Nadiya Hussian from the show Great British Bake Off to her children are especially apt here.

“Here’s a thing that I tell my kids. I say ‘elbows out’. There’s a rule in our house: whenever you feel like you don’t fit in or feel like there’s a place that isn’t there for you, stick your elbows out – not physically but metaphorically. Get those elbows out and make space…’”

Nadiya Hussain, Great British Bake Off

When a heteronormative society scorns and shames an LGBTQ+ couple for something as simple as holding hands, when a toxic “A-Gay” marginalizes a person of their own community as ‘too gay’, and when self-doubt or internalized homophobia forces a person to fit into a rigid mold, we can reflect on these words – ‘Elbows out, make space’. LGBTQ+ Pride is a symbol of that very spirit – as the voices grow and the fight is won inch by inch, together, we can make space for this community.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Expressive Arts Therapy ft. Avantika Malhautra

Throughout our journey in Season 2, we’ve introduced ourselves to and explored various alternative means of therapy that can aid our mental health and help us express ourselves better.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie. 

Today we’re talking to Avantika Malhautra, a psychologist and registered Expressive Arts Therapist. She’s the founder of Soul Canvas – Art for Wellness, and a faculty member at the Dance Movement Therapy training courses with the Creative Movement Therapy Association of India and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Hey, Avantika!

Avantika- Hi, Valerie.

Valerie-  Thank you for being here. 

Avantika- Thank you for having me.

Valerie- As mentioned earlier, we’ve had people with backgrounds in different modalities of alternative therapy introduce us to art, dance, music, writing, narrative therapy and much more. How does Expressive Arts Therapy differ from these forms?

Avantika-  Expressive Arts Therapy is really an inter-modal process which means that you’re moving between different art forms within a particular session. With each of those intermodal transfers from one art form to another, there is an exploration of another layer and depth that is revealed in that process of using the arts for self-expression. It really taps into this multi-sensory approach. Some of us might notice that we are more visual, we think and perceive the world more visually, for some of us it’s more based on sound and auditory sensations, for some of us it’s about touch and feel and the kinesthetics of it. 

Expressive Arts Therapy includes all of those different art modalities because when it was founded in the 1970s by Paolo Knill and Shaun McNiff, and then others who came along on the journey, they were all artists from different fields. They were musicians, visual artists, but realising that there were overlaps between the artforms itself, they included sight, sound, voice, movement, breath, gestures, dialogue and writing. All these different forms came into the process and that’s when they realised that it’s hard to separate them and that there’s a lot of value in bringing in these different forms together and tapping into all these different sensory mediums in order to facilitate individuals to release, express, share, have insights, and all of this in the context of growth, transformation, healing and even social change. 

Valerie-  Right. You told us that it’s a way of bringing different art forms together for purposes like healing, sharing, expressing and releasing our emotions, in a way. What kind of mental distress has Expressive Arts Therapy been able to help with?

Avantika- It’s all kinds of mental health issues that one can explore through Expressive Arts Therapy. The basis is really creating a safe therapeutic facilitated environment with a trained Expressive Arts Therapist and if we look at the kind of reasons that people might come for therapy, it’s going to range from stress to anxiety, depression, working with trauma, maybe exploring relationship dynamics, conflicts, decision making. 

So it’s really the whole range all the way to exploring grief or eating disorders or body image, gender and sexuality because if you look at all of these mental health issues, they live in our bodies and we experience the world through our bodies. The memories and experiences that contribute to some of these issues are related so the mind and body can’t really be separated, it’s one. That integrated approach can really help you look at all of these mental health issues. It’s really not different from Talk Therapy in the sense of the benefits that one can have and the reasons why you might go for Expressive Arts Therapy. 

Valerie-  Avantika, what got you interested in Expressive Arts Therapy as opposed to Talk Therapy? What’s a form that you resonate with the most?

Avantika-  Personally for me, it’s really my love for the arts. Right from my schooling years as long as I can remember, I’ve seen singing and speaking in public, creating art as a child and moving onto college, I was engaged with dramatics and in my teenage years, I used to really dabble with oil pastels and poetry and those were really the spaces where I came alive.

Valerie- So you’ve really done a little bit of everything then!

Avantika- Yeah, pretty much! I’m definitely one of those and I can’t say that I’ve specialized in any one but of course, I have my preferences. What I can remember is that I was a shy, nerdy but also a very social child growing up and the school I went to really put a lot of emphasis on extracurriculars and the arts, and that was just amazing for my own personal growth and development and it brought a certain aliveness and confidence in me. So of course, it was the love with the arts and engaging with the arts throughout my life, along with having studied psychology and falling in love with the subject. 

Being someone who wanted to help and support others, it led me to taking this path and quit a more conventional safe corporate life. That’s what really brought me here and I’ve never looked back. I think it’s been one of the best decisions, to do something you love for work. In my work personally, I use visual art and writing and poetry. I’m most comfortable working with these languages of the arts and writing. When it comes to choosing to attend workshops for myself, I think movement and drama seem to really bring out different sides of me that are very revealing and it helps me explore my edge in those spaces. 

Valerie-  That’s nice! You said that Expressive Arts Therapy is an intermodal form of therapy. You have a little bit of all of the alternative forms working together, right?

Avantika- Yes, you may have two or more in a given session. 

Valerie-  Is it easier for someone who doesn’t have a preference for one specific form to do Expressive Arts Therapy where they can maybe understand what they’re more inclined to, as opposed to starting with one specific form?

Avantika- I think the way we approach it in therapy is firstly to help the individuals feel at ease with the materials and with the modalities. It’s a very gentle bringing in and helping them express through just basic sound or gesture, it could be really small movements, it could be painting to music for instance, or just getting comfortable with the different modalities. For that, it doesn’t really require you to have any kind of skill in it. The only thing that’s really needed is a level of interest and curiosity to want to explore through the arts. 

You might ask the individual if they’ve had any previous experience with the arts and if they have a particular preference when it comes to a certain modality. If you look at it at a really basic level, it’s about playing, it’s about shaping, it’s about creating and experimenting in the realm of a particular theme that’s being explored in therapy, which is linked to what the person came in for and the issue they might be bringing in. 

In that play, it’s not about skills or about how beautiful the art is or how well you’re moving your body, it’s more about connecting with yourself through this language and through this being the medium, and that is possible when there is a non-judgemental space, when there’s no sense of right and wrong, and it’s really the job of the therapist to bring the person into it very gradually and smoothly. There’s a whole system and method to it in order to ease the client into the process. So at that point, it really doesn’t matter whether they’ve had experience or not with a particular art form.

Valerie-  Following up on that, when you talk about the job of the therapist, how do you, as an Expressive Arts Therapist, group together various forms of these creative therapies for each client to know what they’ll resonate with best and help people understand what they’re feeling through the process?

Avantika- It’s a good question! If I were to take you through a session for instance, every session has a particular flow. The client might come in and in the beginning, you would engage in some amount of talk to understand what brings them here, what it is that they’re looking to work with or explore, and then the session moves into a warm-up. This warm-up could be to ground and sense into the current moment, it might be to move into music and really coming into your body, it may be painting to music. These are all different ideas as to how one might warm-up to the space, the materials and coming into the present. 

From that warm-up, you lead them to an immersive experience with the arts. This could be a movement exercise or a visual arts experience and really staying with the art itself, staying at the surface of the work, looking at the quality, textures, colours, and what feelings are emerging from that, what sensations it’s bringing up. It’s woven around a theme which is explored in depth. We may move from visualizing to painting to writing, within this process.

Valerie- So when you say “theme”, what exactly do you mean?

Avantika- By theme, I mean that we might be exploring say boundaries for instance, and the theme could be that or the theme could be experiencing grief and expressing what that feels like through paper or clay or collage. The theme would be the topic of exploration, it could be exploring different paths and having to decide which one to take. It could be about staying in a relationship or leaving it, it could be about a career. It’s any question or intention that’s being held or a particular issue that the person is dealing with that could be more long term or long standing. 

You might explore a particular theme over many sessions and as the theme develops, you’re exploring the art and the art is what you’re shaping and creating, and you’re staying with it at the surface level. At this point, you’re really engaging the left brain, which is the creative, emotional side of you and not bringing any rational mind thinking into it. The arts really take you into a different world, an imaginary play space where you are constructing and deconstructing and transforming things through the medium of the arts, through the props and through working with the body. 

After this, you step back and observe the process. Everything that just happened, looking at it and saying what was that like? Was there something that stood out? Was there a particular moment in that movement or a part of a picture that really seems to attract you or surprise you, and what is this opening up to? It’s more of this reflective space, from where you transition into bridging that into asking how this now has meaning for you in your life? 

We circle back to the original conflict or distress that the person came in with, and then we look at what insight is emerging from this process. Then typically, the session ends with that sharing and debrief so talk therapy is also a big part of Expressive Arts Therapy. Then we might end with a closing ritual at the end of the session. 

Valerie-  Right. It sounds like a very comprehensive process where you talk about what you want to explore and then through art, you express yourself and then at the end of it, you have something to take away and learn from, so that you can help transform your life.

Avantika-  Absolutely. The beauty is that when you’re working with the arts, it gives you an opportunity to move away from that rational thinking mind and really tune into your body, where you’re tuning into the more subconscious layers and tapping into a wisdom or a truth that is inherent within you.

Valerie-  Looking back at all the episodes we’ve had so far, we’ve understood that therapy for mental health goes far beyond conventional talk therapy, and that people can express themselves and their emotions through various modalities. Keeping this in mind, where could people go from here? How do you envision the future of alternative therapy?

Avantika- I think that alternative therapies are becoming extremely relevant and very very valuable in our present time, especially when we’re moving so fast in our minds, sometimes our body is not at the same pace and it’s so important to pause and step back and actually bring those two together in alignment. I think there’s an openness now more than ever before, to even higher creative or expressive arts therapists as part of teams of counsellors in schools and NGOs and even in hospitals as a part of mental health departments.

It’s really exciting to see that slowly and steadily there are job opportunities that are opening up, there are many more training programs in India itself, and this physical-emotional health connection is becoming undeniably important. If someone is experiencing persistent headaches, body pain or indigestion, it certainly has some roots that are connected to their emotions, beliefs and ways of thinking, and we can’t run away from that. 

With all the awareness that’s there and thanks to podcasts like yours, there’s now a possibility of seeking therapy and seeking it through different creative and alternative ways and very slowing, the stigma around seeking help in a country like India is starting to dissolve or at least there are healthier narratives that are coming to the surface. Being part of the community of therapists working in this field, all of us dream for it to become mainstream and also to have an equal respect and value for the arts and the science, which comes together in this whole umbrella of Creative Arts Therapy. I’m really hopeful!

Valerie- I think you summed it up really beautifully when you said that it’s so important to keep your mind and your body in sync because they may move at a different pace and when you take about alternative therapy, you talk about how you can use your body more and actually just take a step back and understand yourself better. You explained to us the motive of alternative therapy and you take these little steps towards trying to shatter that stigma around seeking help and seeking alternative therapy as a means of therapy.

Avantika- Absolutely.

Valerie- Avantika, thank you so much for talking to us today and spreading light on what Expressive Arts Therapy is. When we spoke about different alternative means of therapy, it’s only fitting to end our series on Expressive Arts Therapy which basically brings all of these forms together in different ways. You spoke to us about the importance of alternative therapy, knowing that we can understand our bodies so much better. Hopefully it’ll help bring awareness to people about what alternative therapy is and help bring it into something that’s more mainstream and sought by people without that stigma of what it is or what it’s like.

Avantika- Absolutely, You summed it up beautifully and I think it’s just important for people to know that no problem is big or small and that there’s absolutely no shame in seeking support and there are so many ways in which you could seek it. Thank you so much for these really insightful questions. It really got me thinking and reconnecting with my own journey in this field. 

Valerie-  It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much, Avantika

The Invisible Spectrums – Asexuality & Aromanticism

A look into their struggles to be seen, heard and accepted

This June, as we navigate through talking about issues and how far we have come as a part of and as allies to the LGBTQ+ community, it is also important to talk about the groups within the community that still struggle to be seen and validated for who they are. In particular, Asexuality and Aromanticism are very underrepresented in mainstream media and are only now slowly gaining attention and visibility.

Understanding Asexuality & Aromanticism

Asexuality is the term used to refer to experiencing very little to no sexual attraction. Asexuals do not have any desire for a sexual partnership. Asexuality is different from celibacy (where a person deliberately abstains from sexual activity) and it is not the same as being aromantic.  

Aromanticism refers to experiencing little to no romantic attraction towards anyone. People who are aromantic are not always asexual and vice versa.

And the most important thing to remember here is that asexuality and aromanticism exist on a spectrum and that there are a lot of different identities within that spectrum. For instance, Demisexuality falls under the asexuality spectrum and refers to experiencing sexual attraction only after forming an emotional bond with someone (which need not be romantic either). 

To learn more about the many different identities within the spectrum, start here.

The Struggle with Visibility

Here lies the biggest obstacle that the people in these communities have to overcome – visibility. A lot of asexuals and aromantics struggle with their own feelings and rather than allowing for space to come to terms with their questioning, they suppress their true identities because let’s face it – we live in a very heteronormative society. And even within the LGBTQIA+ community, most of the narratives and stories talk about acceptance and finding happiness through love and sexual exploration. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with those narratives, it is a fact that there is a definite lack of space to narrate the stories and experiences of those exploring identities that have no desire for either. 

We have come to constantly associate happiness with love and finding romantic partners through all the movies that we see growing up that it becomes difficult to even think about the existence of people who have no desire to find romantic love or to explore it through sexual intimacy. In mainstream media, asexuality and aromanticism are almost never talked about and even in the sliver of instances that they are, it is a subtle implication rather than an explicit statement. 

The most popular character in media that had openly identified as asexual was Todd Chavez from BoJack Horsemen in 2014. Till 2018, GLADD (which is an NGO that was founded as a protest to the defamatory coverage of LGBT people in media)  had found that he was the only character in any streaming platform that identified as asexual. But perhaps the most revolutionary piece of literature that goes under the radar is The Deed of Paksenarrion (1992) written by Elizabeth Moon. The titular character,Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter, openly rejects the idea of marriage and expresses no desires for love or sexual intimacy. 

For aromantics, the list dwindles down even further, with the first ever representation coming in the form of the book Parahumans by John C. “Wildbow” McCrae where the character Wilbourn Lisa identifies as aromantic and asexual published in 2011. 

The most interesting thing to note here is how most if not all aromantic representations are tied to also being asexuals when they are not always intersecting in real life.  And even more interesting is how there is almost no representation for ace/aro people in India.  It is 2021, there are only a handful of asexual and aromantic characters globally and the ones being represented come with a slew of problems and misrepresentations. With the last article mentioning how important it is to diversify representations in media and culture, asexuals and aromantics get the shortest end of the stick even within the LGBTQ+ community.

What does the struggle for visibility mean for mental health?

At this point, it shouldn’t be surprising that the lack of visibility also translates to mental health. There is very little data available about the mental health status of ace and aro people and the very little data that is available, does not show many positives. 

A new poll by Sky Data asked UK adults how confident, if it all, they would be in defining asexuality. Of the 1,119 people questioned, 53 per cent said they were confident in explaining the term. However, when they were put to the test 75 per cent were either wrong or did not know that some asexual people do experience a sex drive.

A study done in 2011 also suggested that the prevalence of anxiety, depression, interpersonal problems and suicidal tendencies do seem higher in the asexual individuals when compared to people from other identities. 

This can also be understood as a problem arising due to lack of understanding and empathy and validation of the identities of the people in the ace and aro communities and could severely affect their mental health. 

Conflicts within the LGBTQ+ Community

There are a lot of other struggles that the asexual and aromantic communities face and surprisingly it comes from within the LGBTQ+ community. The early 2010s saw a lot of discussion about how asexuals and aromantics are not a part of the LGBTQ+ umbrella terms since they do not experience as much hatred and pushback as homosexuals do. While this sentiment is absolutely misinformed, it did gain traction. A lot has changed since then but the belief that asexuality is just celibacy or abstinence still exists. And the notion that aromantics are soulless, cold robots with no emotions is also still prevalent. The LGBTQIA+ communities are safe spaces that welcome anybody and everybody; from those sure in their identities to those questioning and should never become places of exclusion of any kind for it would defeat the purpose it set out to serve.

Self-acceptance & Internalized Ace-/Aro-phobia

However, the biggest struggles often come from within and it is often true when talking about questioning identities as well. The lack of representation, awareness about LGBTQ+ spectrums and barriers from all sides often leave the asexuals and aromantics feeling invisible and pushes them to question their newfound identities and develop an uncomfortable distaste for it. For what good is a person if they cannot love someone in the way “they are supposed to be loved” right? At least that is the narrative that society pushes on them. The Indian cultural influence and pressure to have kids but to stay celibate until marriage leads a lot of people to misidentify themselves or forces them to become someone they are not, to satisfy society’s expectations of them. Hence, a lot of aces and aros stay closeted or do not feel comfortable to openly state their identities and end up believing that there is truly something wrong with them. 

Below is a wonderful and poignant comic on a person’s struggle with accepting their asexuality and aromanticism and serves as a glimpse into how those belonging to either or both to these spectrums feel alienated and unheard. 

Here is the full comic: Aromanticism comic by Kotaline Jones

Here are a few other voices from aces and aros on the struggles they face and what it feels like to be themselves.

With asexuality and aromanticism being very fluid, it is often such that the identities keep changing with the passage of time. But that does not mean that any of them are invalid. You and your identities are valid no matter what and your worth does not lie in your ability to love someone romantically or in revelling in sexual intimacy with them. The world is too big to be put into boxes and labelled and the same goes with people. You are wonderful and deserving of all good things just the way you are, and fear not for we have Spongebob Squarepants on our side! (Spongebob is identified to be asexual)

Here is an article on how to be a good ally to the LGBTQ+ community which unequivocally also includes those in the asexual and aromantic spectrum.

Resources to learn more about asexuality & aromanticism

  1. To learn more about the asexuality and aromanticism spectrum
  2. How to be an ally to asexuals and those in the spectrum
  3. How to be a good ally to aromantics and those in the spectrum

Navigating token representation and diversity

Come June, we have Pride month to commemorate the Stonewall riots, to celebrate non-binary sexuality, and to demand systemic change for the LGBTQ+ community in society. It is also the time when several companies come up with a range of Pride-themed products and marketing campaigns aiming to display inclusion and cater to the LGBTQ+ community. The community is a “growing market” with increasing spending power ( estimated to be 3.7 trillion dollars worldwide) and firms have taken note. Social media sites provide options for rainbow emojis and backgrounds.Companies like Fastrack, Adidas, Reebok, IBM, Anouk, Godrej, Times of India, Brookebond etc. are letting their rainbow flags fly and churning out rainbow-themed products.

Are rainbow stickers and colourful packaging enough though?

This kind of marketing, also known as rainbow washing or rainbow marketing, is sheerly opportunistic and draws attention away from the core message while promoting no real change. With the entry of corporate brands in the Pride march, tickets have become expensive (with free tickets being cancelled altogether), further alienating those with lesser incomes.

Several retails brands like H&M and Adidas manufacture products from countries where homosexuality is banned and have not made any efforts to improve conditions there. Fashion labels that are said to support the cause refuse to recruit LGBTQ+ models. YouTube has mostly ignored hateful homophobic content to remain uncensored, despite claiming to value diversity. Goldman Sachs has recently come under criticism for discrimination in hiring and treatment of employees, going so far as to exclude an employee from an important conference call, because he sounded, “too gay”.

However, there are other organizations that have gone beyond cheery slogans and walked the talk for inclusivity that everyone can take note from. Absolut, Smirnoff and Wells Fargo have been closely associated with the cause for 30 years despite the initial backlash and have donated more than 400 million dollars for the cause. Apple’s Tim Cook openly called out the government for its anti-homosexuality laws and Disney threatened to move to a different place over Georgia’s similar laws. P&G has partnered a million-dollar deal with GLAAD to increase visibility for people from the LGBTQ+ community. Swedish furniture giant IKEA led the way in 1994 with a dining table ad featuring a gay couple. They were portrayed like any other couple and the company didn’t gloat or pat itself on the back. It went about integrating the ad into a larger campaign of inclusivity for all kinds of families.

Older members of the community agree that it is progress to see brands openly allying with LGBTQ+ community, but the Pride march is not just about celebration and tribute. It is about demanding change for those still suffering. In various countries, same-sex relationships and marriages are still banned, conversion therapy is legal and discrimination and harassment are a fact of everyday life. As Ahalya Srikant, Research Fellow points out “Living in a big city can make life easier to be out and proud of who you are. But for a lot of the LGBTQ+ community, pride is still a protest.”
While corporations employ rainbow marketing strategies, movies and tv shows have taken the opposite route. Ever watched a character and felt a stunning moment of connection? When it was like seeing yourself and your own unique experiences mirrored? Well, for a vast majority of LGBTQ+ people, these moments come rarely, if at all.

Remember the last LGBTQ+ character in a movie or tv series? The character was either a flamboyant, effeminate fashionista, as tough as nails, “manly” short-haired fighter, the psychopathic villain or the adorable side character killed off to motivate the hero ( a. k. a. Bury your gays trope). They either appear fitting into these boxes, while also appearing attractive enough to the heteronormative viewer, or not ar all. That’s all the options available for the most part.

Earlier content wasn’t even ready to identify the characters as being LGBTQ+ lest they lose viewership or violate the Motion Picture Production Code. Predominantly LGBTQ+ characters have been relegated to the role of villains like in Silence of the Lambs. Due to the belief that non-binary identity itself was a deviation or perversion, those characters were often linked with psychopathy and violence.

China still bans the depiction of homosexual characters and major big-budget movies choose to feature minor queer characters that can be easily edited out. Another method used is queer baiting (or queer coding) where a person’s sexuality and relationships are implied in sub-text, rather than shown, an often-quoted example being Dean Winchester in the show, ‘Supernatural’. This method draws in queer viewers while also avoiding offending more conservative viewers. Both methods of course tell us that the homophobic view takes precedence.

Casting Straight cis-gendered people for LGBTQ characters hasn’t helped either. Many recent portrayals too have dropped the ball on LGBTQ+ representation. Akshay Kumar in Laxmii steadily belts out sexist dialogues and mannerisms in an effort to play a transgender character. Vignesh Shivan’s portion in Netflix’s “Paava Kadhaigal” is a mess of stereotypes- the foreigner lesbian, the ignorant villagers, short hair and jacket, attempts to demonstrate what a lesbian relationship means and the big reveal. It doesn’t help that these characters are often played by hetero cis-men such as Eddie Redmayne, Timothee Chamalet etc., furthering the myth that queer people are basically hetero people who are confused or putting on an act.

It isn’t all bad, though. With a change in audience perception, thanks to the collective efforts of shows like F.R.I.E.N.D.S, Queer as Folk, and Will and Grace, nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters have been emerging and winning viewer’s hearts. Show writers and actors no longer shy away from acknowledging the sexuality of their characters. In fact, several of these out and proud LGBTQ+ characters like Raymond Holt, Rosa Diaz (Brooklyn 99), Nia (Supergirl), Sophia Burset and Nicky Nichols (Orange Is the New Black), Eric Effiong (Sex Education), Robin Buckley (Stranger things) and Callie Torres (Grey’s anatomy) have quickly become fan favorites. Callie became the longest-running queer series regular. Brooklyn 99 even won the GLAAD’s award for Outstanding Comedy series. What’s more, many of these characters are played by members of the LGBTQ+ community. These much-beloved characters have beautifully balanced talking about their sexuality and yet developing the character beyond this facet of their identity.
From including gay characters only for shock value and easy jokes, Indian cinema has made significant progress. Movies like Fire and Memories in March that spoke about same-sex relationships, and Margarita with a Straw, that talks about the intersection of gender disability and sexuality, did start the conversation in the industry. Yet it took Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan, Kapoor and Sons, Super Deluxe, Bombay Talkies and Njan Marykutty in the last few years to really bring these stories to the mainstream audience.

In March 2021, we will even have the country’s first exclusive LGBTQ streaming service, PlanetOut with plans to venture towards including local stories and talent.

Regional queer literature is harder to come by, not just due to the taboo surrounding the topic, but also because many writers face, “…an increasing demand to fit into the ‘urban, upper class gay’ stereotype from publishing houses and editors…”, mentions Moulee, curator of the Queer LitFest Chennai. However with the rise of smaller publishing houses, self-publishing and the internet, it is becoming significantly easier to publish and access queer content and connect with each other.

But why does seeing LGBTQ+ characters in the media matter so much?
– For starters, it provides comfort and connection to people who are already struggling with so much uncertainty and isolation.
– Watching most characters similar to you portrayed as villains or conveniently killed off can lead to internalized hate and feeling misunderstood.
– Trying hard to fit into narrow stereotypes shown on TV and feel lacking when we don’t is not healthy to anyone’s self-esteem or confidence.
– It is not an easy topic to talk about and the presence of such characters even in fiction is a crucial starting point in normalization in society.
– It is also inspiring to see similar role models thrive and succeed
– Acceptance and popularity of these shows help queer people understand that they can be accepted and loved, too
– It helps everyone gain perspective on the unique experiences of the LGBTQ+ individual
Besides, don’t all stories, all voices deserve to be heard?

As Wired’s Editorial Fellow, Josie Colt frankly sums it up,”…Do corporations ever fly flags out of sincere support? Unless they’ve shown other actions of allyship, rainbow-washing seems like an attempt to appear hip, hop on the current bandwagon and make a few bucks while they’re at it. Should the same question be applied to people who tag along to parades? If that’s your one action of solidarity for the whole year, should you be wearing a rainbow at all? Then again, sincere or not, showing the world that much rainbow doesn’t seem so bad either.”

Let’s take this opportunity to ponder on our actions year-round. Do we happily cheer on regressive portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters? Do we continue to shop, and therefore support brands that utilize the queer identity for their own profits? Do we continue to ridicule and further these stereotypes? It’s time to start thinking because rainbow DPs aren’t gonna cut it anymore.

LonePack Conversations – The Alternative Therapy Series: Animal-Assisted Therapy ft. Dr. Taylor Griffin

Someone once said that “The best therapist has fur and four legs”. Let’s find out how true that is as we explore Animal-Assisted Therapy in this episode.

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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.

Today we’re talking to Dr. Taylor Chastain Griffin, the National Director of Animal-Assisted Interventions Advancement at Pet Partners, an organization dedicated to improving people’s health through positive interactions with therapy animals. She has a background as a dog trainer, therapy dog handler, and in mental health.

Welcome, Taylor!

Taylor- Hi! Thank you so much for having me.

Valerie-  It’s great to have you talk to us. In the introduction, I mentioned that you have a background as a therapy dog handler and also in mental health. How have you found animals positively impact human lives?

Taylor- Yes, that is a great question. I have found endless ways that animals can positively impact our lives. It’s not just in my experiences but also in research. There are so many different findings that support this claim- Animals can help us model relationships. We can learn how to trust and take care of one another interpersonally. They also help us with our physical health. There are studies that talk about us being more active when we have animals. We have more sense of motivation, a reason to get up in the morning when we have animals in our lives

There’s something intangible and indescribable about the way we tend to react when we have animals around us. When I was a counselor and I had animals in my practice with me, I found that people trusted me a lot more quickly. They would just come into the office and smile and feel comfortable because of that animal’s presence.

Valerie-  Right. Taylor, what is your relationship with animals like? As far as I know, you have a lot of dogs at home!

Taylor- Yes, my love for animals really brought me into this field. I would say that over the years, the more I’ve learnt about animals, the more I can on the perspective that they’re my teachers,- that they have something to teach me and I would just like to do all I can to be a messenger for what they bring into our lives. I see everyday when I come home that my animals greet me with love and with happiness no matter what mood that I’m in. It motivates me to try and do the same in my relationships. I have animals at home now who were rescued. They’ve had really hard starts to life and now they’re therapy animals who share love with people all over the world. I really respect animals and think they’re really complex, feeling beings that we’re only just starting to understand. It’s my goal to understand that and be a microphone for that all over the world!

Valerie-  It’s so correct that you said it’s an incomparable feeling when you go home to an animal and you get all of that love! No matter what mood you’re in, you’re always uplifted after that.

Taylor- I heard a saying once that we “should be the person our dog thinks we are” and I think that’s definitely a goal.

Valerie-  I have a T-shirt that says that!

Taylor- Great! I love it.

Valerie- Could you tell us what Animal-Assisted Therapy is? 

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy is a term that falls within the umbrella term Animal-Assisted Interventions. It’s when a professional is bringing a therapy animal into practice with them to help meet treatment goals. This could be a mental health professional, a physical therapist. There are a lot of different ways that the animal can come in and help achieve those goals but it becomes Animal-Assisted Therapy when there’s measurable outcomes that relate to the interaction that we have with the animal. 

Valerie- What’s the training process like for animals to get registered as therapy animals?

Taylor- It’s an intensive process. For us at Pet Partners, we do not just register a therapy animal, we register a therapy animal team. We believe that the competency of the person is just as important as the competency of the animal because the person is going to be the one who is protecting that animal throughout the process. So if you have an animal that’s going to be a good fit, the first thing we look at is whether it’s a type of animal that’s going to actually enjoy and not just tolerate this interaction. Do they really like to be around new people? 

If that’s the case, the first step is that the human is going to take a course, we have an online course that’s available. Then once they pass that course, they can take an in-person evaluation with their animal. At that point, we’re testing fort basic obedience queues, how they’re going to respond to medical equipment, loud noises. They’re allowed to have responses, of course. We’re not looking for robots but we’re looking for whether they can recover and are still competent and happy. Therapy animals in our organization re-evaluate every two years. We know animals age much more quickly than we do so we like to make sure we’re checking in and ensuring that it’s a good fit for an animal throughout the lifetime.

Valerie- When we talk about therapy animals, what kind of animals are we talking about? How do we know what animal will have the best interaction with which person?

Taylor- We have nine different species of therapy animals at Pet Partners – dogs, cats, horses, llamas, alpacas, rabbits, guinea pigs, eats, pigs but by and large, our most common therapy animal is a dog. I always fall back on the competencies of the handler. For me, I have so much background in working with dogs that I’m definitely most comfortable interacting with therapy dogs because I can read their body language the best. 

There are different clients that have preferences. We find that older adults sometimes seem to have a preference for cats. We see that sometimes our young boys get very excited when we come in with a therapy rat. You can ask for the preferences of the people you’re visiting but really, it comes down to the animal that you’d be most comfortable working with and that’s an animal who’s going to be confident, affiliative – meaning they seek out interactions with humans, and they’re ready to listen to you so you have a safe interaction when you’re in the public. 

Valerie- What interactions do the animals have with people during Therapy? 

Taylor- That can vary depending on the treatment goals. When I was in a session with my client, they would sometimes help model healthy relationships. We would talk about how you can build trust with my therapy animals by giving them training cues or getting to know their preferences, and the same thing goes with interactions with people. You can even do physical activities- I had one activity that I did with young people. They had a ball that they could throw to play fetch with my animal and on the ball, there were maybe ten different feeling words- sad, happy, excited, and as the animal would bring the ball back to the child, they would read the word that was facing them and have to tell me about a time in their life when they were feeling those emotions. So they’re accessing these memories and emotions but in a really safe, playful way. So it really depends on the animal and on the goals of the professional but it can fit into any intervention that the professional has, as long as you’re creative and you’re committed to honoring the welfare of the animal all throughout. 

Valerie- That’s interesting! What does a typical session look like? More importantly, how comfortable does one have to be with the animal?

Taylor- The session will be different each time. When I was doing a fifty minute session, I tend to find that a client would come in, greet my animal, and sometimes we would spend time with the animal just sitting on their lap, as we talk. Sometimes, they would do about ten or fifteen minutes of training activities with them. It depends on the energy level and the preferences of the client. In order to work with a therapy animal though, you should be highly familiar with that animal. At Pet Partners, we have a rule that an animal cannot become a therapy animal until they’re a year old and the handler has had to know that animal for at least six months. We think you should have a well developed relationship with these animals so that you can read their body language, advocate for them and they’re really a partner with you in what you do, not just an accessory. 

Valerie- Supposing someone’s going to psychotherapy, when do they try something like Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Taylor- They can try it at any point in their treatment if it’s something they’re interested in and if they can find a practitioner who has a therapy animal. We consider a person to be a good candidate for this if they don’t have any fears or phobias or allergies of animals. We also like to encourage professionals to set their clients up for success by having the initial session to be one in which you just talk about how you’re going to interact with the animal instead of expectations, before having that hands-on experiences when it can become really exciting and a hard time to learn about how to interact with the animals when the animal is there. It can really fit into any time and treatment. We have animals who are with clients all throughout their process of healing, sometimes they come in every now and then as just a special treat. It’s a really flexible intervention, which is one of my favorite things about it.

Valerie- When you were talking to us earlier, you told us about how having an animal can uplift your mood and just help through the healing process. How is Animal-Assisted Therapy different from psychotherapy when it comes to sessions, in terms of the mental health impact that it has? Can you talk us through the process of healing that you were telling us about, with animals?

Taylor- Any time a therapist is going to work with an animal, there needs to be this core set of competencies. The animal is not a magic solution that brings about healing. They’re joining sides with a very skilled professional, who can meet their treatment outcomes with or without the animal. With that being said though, the animal can be a really meaningful aid. One of the things that people talk about is the idea of relationship-building, that animals assist in that and building trust between the client and the therapist. 

There are also just creative ways that you can access new things when you have an animal in the session. I’m thinking two times when we have topics that are really hard to teach young people. We would talk about consent and appropriate touch, which are hard things to communicate to a child, sometimes but when you’re modelling it on an animal like for example, I have a therapy animal named Lucy. I would tell clients that Lucy likes to be pet behind her ear and she doesn’t like to be pet so much on her stomach and so because that’s her preference, that’s something we should follow. Do you have preferences? What’s appropriate for you? So they can really model ways to set boundaries in a non-threatening way while working with the therapy animal.

Valerie- It’s so interesting that you said you can use these animals to explain things to people in a way that’s not threatening and not something that would be a confrontational conversation that would be difficult to talk about if you were doing it directly.

Taylor- Yes, exactly. You can really do a lot of perspective taking activities with animals. I would often work with children who had a hard time taking the perspective of other people but they could learn to do that with my animals. I would say that when you come into the room, it’s important not to get in Lucy’s face and be too excited because that can be overwhelming for her even though she loves you, so think about how you’re being received. Then we can put that into human context – when you walk into your classroom and behave a certain way, how might it be received by the other people in your class?

Valerie- Right. Taylor, what age groups have you found Animal-Assisted Therapy to work best with?

Taylor- Animal-Assisted Therapy can be successful across all areas of the lifespan. There’s research and anecdotal evidence to back that up. Very young children can benefit from therapy animals, and even all the way up to people with severe dementia. We even have therapy animals who assist in cases of hospice, when it’s an end of life situation. You will want to think about the size of the animal and if there are any mobility issues that will impact a person’s ability to safely interact with different sized animals but really, it’s an intervention that can be safely implemented across the lifespan.

Valerie- Okay. We’ve heard that Pet Partners is soon launching an association for professionals who aim to bring therapy animals into their work. What are your views on this? What has your experience with Animal Assisted Intervention in a professional space been like? 

Taylor- I’m very very excited about this development. For a long time, Pet Partners has focused on serving volunteers who bring therapy animals into places like hospitals, schools and nursing homes, at least in the United States. We get calls from more and more professionals across many different fields who have heard about this intervention and would like to bring a therapy animal into their practice but they don’t know how to get started. That’s what our professional association is going to help with. 

We’re going to provide that roadmap, we’re going to provide education, opportunities to connect with other professionals through an online community, we are also going to have a certification evaluation so that a professional can show that they have competencies in this area. We see this as the next step that the field really needs. At the end of almost every research paper on Animal-Assisted Therapy, you see that there’s a call for more standardization and more professionalization within the field, and that’s what we’re going to be doing through the launch of this professional association.

Valerie- That’s really interesting, Taylor!

Taylor- Yes, we’re excited. We hope to have many of the listeners today join us. It should be launching in January of 2022 and you can visit to sign up for a newsletter that will keep you up to date on all of our advancements in this phase. 

Valerie- Sure, thank you for giving us that information. Thank you for talking to us today about Animal-Assisted Therapy because there is so much we got to learn from you. I have a dog at home and I know just how good you can feel when you have an animal waiting for you every single time you come back regardless of how you’re feeling. You’ve also talked to us about how you can use animals to model relationships, you can mirror the feeling of trust and having a safe space in your relationships with people as well, and it gives you a sense of motivation and upliftment. Thank you for talking to us and sharing all of this information with us. It’s definitely been a very very interesting conversation.

Taylor- Absolutely. It’s my pleasure and I hope that everyone who’s listening is motivated to think about the lessons that we learn from animals, whether it be pets or therapy animals, and how we can use those lessons to make the world a better place. 
Valerie- Thank you.

Does a Rainbow Flag equal Inclusivity?

In my first year of college, we had a counsellor come to us and claim to cure bisexuality. A few events I attended after that had a rather homophobic note. To the credit of the institution, they got a new therapist and we were asked not to make “political comments during events”(at what point sexual identity became political is beyond me). In the spirit of people attaching rainbows to company logos let us see how far we have come and what we seem to have left out. 

At the risk of sounding repetitive, is the world accepting of the LGBTQIA+ community? Companies and organisations during pride month will have you think all of them are allies or actively working towards diversity and inclusion. From Google dedicating their logo to honour Frank Kameny and Linkedin adding a rainbow. But do companies want to be inclusive? Twitter has a marketing page dedicated to how the LGBTQIA+ community is a ‘market to tap into’. Is our identity just a trope and a marketing strategy? 

As disturbing as that is, we should ask ourselves what real inclusivity is.  There are multiple sources to tell you how the cause has been tainted by corporate marketing and token representation. The real struggles of inclusivity are often foreshadowed by corporates acting progressively and tricky policymakers remaining ambiguous. One such aspect not often discussed and almost never regarded as a serious problem is the availability of mental health resources for members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Studies show that despite being at a higher risk for mental health issues like anxiety and identity crises and more likely to have unmet healthcare needs, getting quality help in terms of mental health has always been a struggle for the community as a whole. 

More than half (54%) of LGBTQ youth who reported wanting mental health resources in the past year did not receive it in the United States alone. Another study in India conducted between 2009-2019 showed the prevalence of mental health concerns among LGBTQIA+ individuals in India with high concentrations reporting suicidal tendencies and severe cases of harassment. Yet another study by the Trevor Project showed that 40% of LGBTQ respondents seriously considered attempting suicide in the past twelve months. More than half of transgender and non-binary youth have also seriously considered suicide.

Studies show that even if you are lucky enough to get help, there are multiple unhelpful therapeutic practices and even discrimination based on race, creed, and income brackets, and a person belonging to multiple marginalised groups is likely to receive a lower standard of care compared to their peers. Reportedly, there has been a lack of safe spaces even with mental health professionals and cases of blatant disregard for issues faced by members of the community in India. Another crisis faced by the community is a lack of understanding, even among peers and family members. 

Now that we have highlighted the very serious and relatively-disturbing problems faced by the community, it is now time to see what we can do to make the situation better. 

  1. Try and be a good ally by educating yourself on allyship. LonePack is ready to help you!
  2. Lend your voice as an ally to the community while also being respectful and understanding of the cause.
  3. Support community-building – by members themselves and in conjunction with service providers – which is an important part of improving health for people of the LGBTQ+ community.
  4. Popularise the practice of affirmative therapy. 
  5. Reach out to and/or support organisations like the Trevor Project that aim to make quality healthcare more accessible to at-risk youth.
  6. If you need to speak with a professional, LonePack has a ‘Resources’ page with details of vetted mental health professionals who provide inclusive therapy, often at subsidised rates. 

-Neha Ramesh 

Burnout on the Frontlines

The world has been flipped upside down ever since the COVID-19 pandemic bared its fangs last year. It has swept through the world and has kept everyone gripped in its clutches to this day. Even as vaccinations are very slowly being ramped up, it does not take away from the immediate state of disarray the country is in. Mental health has taken a very big hit and it is extremely important that we address how bad things are openly and start having conversations about it. Talking about health anxieties, survivor’s guilt, and the complicated and conflicting feelings that we have to deal with in addition to trying to shield ourselves from the pandemic might pave us ways to bond over and help us support each other. 

In this article, we’re focusing on one rampantly growing phenomenon that is affecting everyone – burnout. And in particular, burnout experienced by healthcare workers and caregivers. 

Before we get to that, a quick introduction to what burnout is – burnout is not a classified medical disorder or condition but more so a phenomenon characterized by extreme mental and physical exhaustion. WHO defines it as, “…a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  3. reduced professional efficacy” [1].

Though it is said to be most prevalent in healthcare workers, first responders and professions involved with high emotional stress, it can also affect any person in any profession. 

Here is another comprehensive guide to burnout that could also be useful. 

Now, let’s address how burnout in particular has affected our healthcare workers and caregivers. 

Burnout with healthcare workers

No amount of words can come close to the gratitude and respect we feel towards our frontline healthcare workers. This pandemic has tested them to their absolute limits and beyond, and it is no surprise at all that they are the ones taking the most of the mental brunt as well. 

In a study conducted with 2,026 healthcare workers in India, a staggering increase in burnout due to the pandemic was observed. In the 21-30 age group of respondents, the prevalence of personal, work-related, and pandemic-related burnout was around 54%, 33%, and 50%, respectively [2]. It was also observed that women had higher levels of anxiety and incidences of burnout than men. Healthcare workers also showed higher distress levels that could be attributed to the high-risk environment they work in. Nearly 55% of them were worried of contracting COVID-19, themselves and 67% were worried of carrying the infection over to their family and loved ones. 

It is of utmost importance that everyone in the healthcare field do their best to take care of themselves during these very difficult times as well. While the profession they have chosen is oftentimes a satisfying one, they also bear the most emotional and mental brunt when things, though far beyond their control, go wrong. 

Burnout amongst mental health professionals

There has been a continuous increase in the number of calls that national helplines and resource providers are receiving for mental health assistance. From domestic violence to anxiety and depression, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues amongst people. As most forms of counselling and therapy have moved into telehealth mode, mental health professionals are also facing great emotional turmoil as they try to help those who reach out to them. 

India, with a population of 1.3 billion people, has as little as 4000 people in the mental health space [3]. With the amount of people reaching out for help and increasing workloads,\ professionals are experiencing big stress factors to their own mental health in forms of emotional contagion and perceived stress where negative emotions can trigger the same feelings in the professionals helping them. They also are affected by compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic fatigue and the longer durations of therapy required to help people effectively [3]. 

Home caregivers

Nothing will strike fear in people as when something goes wrong with a loved one. We are all struggling with extreme loss, unimaginable amounts of pain that come with loss and the anxieties and fear that accompany seeing loved ones suffer. 

This is a wonderful and poignant article that talks about how being the primary caregiver at home takes a toll on a person’s own mental health. With most people working from home, having to shield their families and loved ones from the virus while also trying to do their best to provide for them takes an immense toll on one’s mental health. Though most workplaces do recognize the distress that their employees are facing, the economic challenges that they face forces them to keep pushing for productivity. Caregivers at home go through an equal amount of emotional and mental turmoil and we all must do our best to help both ourselves and others as much as we can. 

So how can we help ourselves and others?

Apart from depression and health anxieties, the pandemic has caused a lot of distress to people, that manifests as survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress. We are battling not only the pandemic but also the social, economic and cultural disparities clouded by the pandemic. Marginalized and underrepresented groups face more distress and lack policies in place to protect them as well. 

If you are experiencing burnout and are a part of any of the three groups of people discussed in this article, these can be a few practical tips that might help the most immediately that are recommended by the USA CDC

  1. Identify the symptoms of stress you might be experiencing — this can include irritation, anger, exhaustion and even insomnia among others. 
  2. Communicate with your coworkers, supervisors, and employees about job stress and talk openly about how the pandemic is affecting your work.
  3. Please do your best to reach out for mental health help when necessary and take time off if possible. 
  4. Remind yourself that everyone is in an unusual situation with limited resources.
  5. Recognize that you are performing a crucial role in fighting this pandemic and that you are doing the best you can with the resources available.

And if you, reading this article, might know someone who might be experiencing burnout, here are a few things you can do to help.

  1. Try to help them keep maintain a routine
  2. Keep talks about news, negativity and social media to a minimum and check in with them regularly. 
  3. Try to engage them in mindfulness activities that might distract them. 
  4. Make sure to remind them of their importance and appreciate all that they are doing for the world. 
  5. Try to help them get enough rest and maintain good eating habits. 

Most importantly, all of us can provide a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen. Burnout is not something to be taken lightly and the effect it has on the physical, emotional and mental well-being of healthcare workers, mental health professionals and home caregivers can be immense. Let us all try to do our best to stand in support for them. 

This is your kind reminder to make sure to wear your mask, stay 6 feet apart from other people and to get vaccinated as soon as you can!  

Here are resources that might help

  1. LP Buddy is an online peer-to-peer support system that gives you a safe and inclusive environment to talk to trained listeners about your worries. 
  2. Mental health professionals listing platform
  3. Verified helplines 
  4. Donate to India Covid Relief


[1] WHO’s definition of burnout 

[2] Burnout among Healthcare Workers during COVID-19 Pandemic in India: Results of a Questionnaire-based Survey

[3] Burnout: A risk factor amongst mental health professionals during COVID-19