Swarnaa is super passionate about topics close to her heart including colourism, disability awareness, mental health and other issues considered to be taboo especially within a South Asian household.
You have a significant following on social media – how did you go about building the community?
Thank you, I’m truly grateful and thankful for this online community. I have been online creating content, connecting with people from across the globe, finding commonality in our struggles, in our experiences and also passion. I started off on YouTube and Instagram in 2014 and it’s been quite the journey. My content started off with me sharing vlogs of my lifestyle as a Tamil living in Australia. Many people from across the ocean were curious about Australia and it was nice to give them a small peek through my videos. Instagram made me look at content differently. I find solace in writing and I found a place to share my voice on topics that were close to my heart from colourism, disability awareness, mental health and other issues considered to be taboo especially within a South Asian household. As we didn’t have much representation at the time in mainstream media or social media I was able to grow a community of people who were able to relate to what I was talking about.
What did you decide to call your account “Life of a Social Butterfly”?
I’ve always had a love for meeting new people, yearn to connect, hear their stories, be inspired by their experiences and build meaningful relationships. This has been a core part of me from when I was younger. So this led my friends to give me the nickname ‘The Social Butterfly’ in high school and consequently I decided to use the name as a username for my social media channels!
You’ve mentioned your brother as a major source of inspiration. For the benefit of people not familiar with your story – can you tell us why this is?
My brother’s name is Athavan, he’s 21 years old and he’s the baby, the king of the house and apple of our eyes. 21 years ago when my mother was giving birth to him, a medical mistake had occurred causing for him to be born with Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy is due to injury of the developing brain. My brother’s is considered low functioning so he is always with 24/7 supervision. He is my major source of inspiration as there is so much of life he has been robbed of. He can’t walk without our support, he can’t talk, he can’t bathe himself or eat on his own with us. Despite his challenges including the inability to express himself and not always have his needs met, he is so full of life. He is one of the strongest people I know. With a cheeky grin plastered across his face, he’s taught me to appreciate the little things in life. We have to accept the cards we’re dealt with and make the most of what we have.
You specifically highlighted a challenging time in your life where you were living a secret double life where you were battling mental health issues, disliking your degree and not being able to be open with your parents. Can you talk a bit more about this experience?
My parents never coerced me into picking a degree and I’m extremely grateful for that. I went into Psychology thinking this would be a great degree for me to understand my brother better. However, the degree was not what I anticipated. I also experienced a great deal of anxiety and depression that I was finding very hard to manage. I had lost a large group of close friends, I lost the motivation to get out of bed and no matter how hard I studied, my mind always felt clouded. If I was a few minutes late to class, I experienced a great deal of social anxiety that would take over my mind and body which led me to missing classes, missing deadlines and I was drowning in my problems. I didn’t know where to go, where to start and I had a bad habit of brushing my problems under the proverbial rug. Mental health is not something that’s discussed openly in Tamil households so it was really hard for me to grasp what I was going through or speak about it with my parents. I started to think I was a really bad student, avoided seeing people in social settings and was trying to just sleep my problems away. Eventually my parents found out I had left my degree and had started working in a marketing and events role. This wasn’t the ideal situation but looking back I’m glad it happened. I was able to express to my parents to an extent of what I was going through and had told them I am going to switch my degree to something I am truly passionate about. I just wanted a chance to restart my life. I couldn’t go into detail about the depression, anxiety, loss of friends but I explained I needed a change in scenery and working in marketing made me realise this was a degree I would truly love. I didn’t seek professional therapy at the time but I did make changes in my lifestyle by changing my physical environment, prioritising me, surrounding myself around people who genuinely cared about me, uplifted me and inspired me.
There have been more people being outspoken about the impact of colourism within various communities including the Tamil community. You’ve spoken about this in a few interviews including favourite phrases of parents including “Stay out of the sun!”, but can you describe how colourism has impacted you and how you plan to fight it? How do you think we as consumers can make a company like “Fair and Lovely” cease to exist in the future?
Colourism is an issue that has plagued my life for as long as I can remember. From a young age, I was told that I was the odd one out in the family, put in the back of the line in photos/productions/musicals as well as given back-handed compliments to sometimes overt insults really impacted my self-esteem growing up. As a young, impressionable child I grew up thinking that since I was dark, I was automatically considered unattractive. I felt like I didn’t deserve opportunities, that people wouldn’t like me or want to be, which all came with being dark. I became obsessed with the complexion of my skin by the age of 12. I would spend hours researching videos and any content that would help lighten my skin. I constantly pondered questions like “What foods should I ingest?”, “What homemade face masks should I make?” and “What colours should I avoid wearing?”. I used to be a carefree, athletic child who loved the outdoors. I gave that up to stay out of the sun. The criticism with my skin never escaped me as when I attended family gatherings, the first question that would be asked of me or my mother would be around how I got so dark. “Karuthiteengal” to be exact. However, building this platform online and finding out that I haven’t been alone in my journey really facilitated my growth in the face of colourism. I started to share my journey and realise how wrong this was. How beauty and confidence, having self-validation and self-love has nothing to do with the colour of your skin. It’s about what’s within and it’s time we started educating those who believe otherwise. The first step to fighting colourism is continually pushing for awareness. This includes sharing content online, running campaigns, sparking conversations in social settings, creating resources and showing support to other advocates doing the work in the space of colourism. I am currently working with a team on a Colourism documentary and written publication which will be exploring the experiences of those from different parts of South East Asia, Africa and Indigenous communities who have also experienced the wrath of colourism. At some point in our lives, many of us may find ourselves in positions of power. By raising awareness and challenging people to check their bias, we are pushing people to think twice about the decisions and choices they make when giving people opportunities.