Few sights are as inspiring as the coming together of a few hundred people to celebrate who they are and the way they look. “I am powerful. I am valuable. I am unique. I am strong. I am me,” they proclaimed in unison at the TEDxWarwick 2018 event. Body image activist, Harnaam Kaur, recounted her journey from being a child at primary school and loving all aspects of life, to turning suicidal throughout her teen years, through to how she finally found a way to live with what she was given and embrace it to give her a new-found sense of purpose.
Harnaam Kaur was brought up as a Sikh. A key belief in Sikhism is that bodily hair is part of God’s perfect creation, and that to cut it would be to disrespect God. This meant that as a child she was used to not shaving her arms or legs. However, when puberty hit, something unexpected happened. She started growing hair at an unusually fast rate and gained hair on her arms, chest, legs and her face. This is when the bullying against her started. Children would laugh about her having a moustache and she would wonder why she was different to women on TV or on posters who were completely hairless on their body and face.
When she was 12, she decided to ask a doctor about her excessive hair growth and after taking multiple tests and scans, they found that she had Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). She had never heard of this condition even though it affects around one in every five women in the UK (although, according to the NHS, half of these women do not have any symptoms). The three main aspects of PCOS are irregular periods, excess androgen – the cause of excess facial hair – and polycystic ovaries that can lead to infertility.
It must have been terrible to find out, as a twelve-year-old, that she would grow up looking different to her peers, and that there was nothing she could do to change this. Harnaam admitted that she struggled and found it very hard to cope with it all. Aged 12 to 16, she would shave, use hair removal cream, pluck her hairs out and suffer threading – all so that she could ‘fit in’ with society. She felt depressed and had anxiety attacks at both home and school. Most worrying, though, was the fact that she was suicidal as a teen. Harnaam tried to end her life multiple times. She also self-harmed. Society’s beauty standards had put so much pressure on her that she struggled with just living. She said during the talk that, “we need to consume food to survive but also we consume images too”. This is becoming even more important in this day and age, with social media putting continuous pressure on people to look good, eat well and to be happy at every point in their life. The irony is that trying to obtain this type of life causes the pain that people like Harnaam went through.
At the age of 16, however, she decided that she wanted to embrace her beard and decided to stop removing her hair. She realised that her unhappiness came from trying to change herself according to society’s standards. She was trying to change for the benefit of other people and not herself. She revealed that, “once you have reached rock bottom, you cannot go any lower. So build yourself up – however you want to.”
Harnaam named her beard “Sundri”, which translates as “beautiful” in Hindi. Her mantra for life is: “My body, my rules”. She became an activist for anti-bullying, PCOS and body positivity. She shares her story with people and helps people who are going through similar things. She spends part of her time also trying to change society’s views on how we should look. She stated that “99% of images on TV or in posters are edited in some way” but that is not the problem. The problem is that we are told that there is a perfect body-type (that has a flat stomach, for example), and so we all strive towards this image instead of embracing who we are now. That does not mean that we should try to change, but that the reason for us to change ourselves should not be to conform to someone else’s idea of perfection.
As a final thought, Harnaam addressed why is it that bad things happen to good people. “We are given a purpose for our lives,” she said, “to become a testimony of someone who has gone through hard times. And, hopefully, other people who are going through hard times can look at us and we can help them.”
NHS. (2018, 03 03). Polycystic ovary syndrome. Retrieved from NHS UK: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/polycystic-ovary-syndrome-pcos/
Header Image Credit: Paul Michael Hughes/Guinness World Records