Men with power don’t impress me. Men who Empower do.

As someone who often speaks about gender issues, I’m reminded of a workshop I conducted a day before Independence Day two years ago. The topic was Domestic Violence and I was addressing young women from low-income backgrounds. During the Q&A part I was asked

“Where are the men? We believe you when you are telling us about our rights, but why is there never a man here telling us the same thing?” 

This year, a few days before Independence Day I had the pleasure of meeting a very senior security advisor to the Indian Government who asked us to support his plan for conducting self-defence camps for women across India. A noble cause. But all this got me thinking.

Mahavir Senior Model School, Delhi on August 14th for a Domestic Violence Workshop a few years ago

 

The problem isn’t just about the physical & sexual abuse women face but the attitude towards women in general. How do we change that? My answer is to involve the men in the process. We can have self-defence camps for women & domestic violence & sexual abuse awareness campaigns but these issues get neatly boxed away as “women’s issues” and thus largely only involve women.  Yes, as women we need to be aware of our rights and feel empowered to speak up but how about we work on the root cause of the problem? Men need to learn how to respect women from a very young age.

Why is it that we have thousands of IIT entrance exam coaching institutes, even in the most remote cities but we have 0 camps where we’re teaching men what it means to respect a woman? We have civics class teaching students about patriotic duty, but what about our duty to respect one another as equals, as fellow humans?

We don’t teach kids that staring, commenting, whistling, singing perverse song lyrics & doing anything to make the other person uncomfortable (even when there’s no physical interaction involved) is WRONG. It’s not just hitting, or raping or touching but treating someone in a way that makes them feel less than a human being. It’s disgusting.

We don’t have to wait until a crime occurs; let’s try to change the thought that leads to the crime. A bit ambitious? Maybe. But until we involve men in the solution, I don’t think we’re going to get very far.

I know I’m a few days late, but Happy Independence Day & Happy Rakshabandhan – I”m hopeful for a day when I feel free enough that I won’t need the protection.

Disclaimer: Invariably someone will comment that not “all men are bad” or things are “changing.” I am well aware of this and if you’re one of the great ones, kudos. But I can only write about my reality. As a woman, living in the nation’s capital in a safe sheltered neighbourhood with a lot of privilege and access that most women in India don’t have (for example living in a gated house with a guard), I still feel uncomfortable when I go out on a daily basis. And this is not just around “certain people” or “certain areas” but also around very educated individuals in supposedly safe areas. If you’ve never been stared at in a way that makes you want to crawl in a hole and hide, please feel free not to comment about the reality that women face in India. Or do. We can have a conversation 🙂

Face your fears head-on

My first interaction with a client was when I was 9 years old. My parents had retail clothing stores in Canada and would make me help out after school. The first time I handled the shop alone was when I was 11 years old. At that time I complained a lot (imagine every summer vacation & school holiday spent working!) but I am so grateful for that experience today.

I was an extremely shy person growing up, to the point where I was scared to speak to people. I still remember that the mere experience of dialling a number and speaking to someone over the phone would have me in sweats. My family shook that fear out of me by making me interact with people. It helped me build my confidence & helped me understand the importance of excellent customer service at a very young age. More importantly, I would later realise, it would help me throughout life whenever I would doubt myself. My Dad would say:

“You are a smart, confident girl Sonal. Never be afraid of anyone when you walk into a room – whether he’s a CEO or the Prime Minister of the country”

I would remember this every time a customer walked into a store and I had to interact with him or her. It’s been quite a few years since then and I still haven’t met a PM but have engaged with my fair share of CEOs & celebrities and guess what? Dad was right. It’s no big deal. I see so many people my age who are afraid to initiate conversations with others just because of their so-called status. It’s important to remember that everyone has their own insecurities & we all have at least one thing in common: we’re all human!

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I’m not saying child labour (that’s what I would call it begrudgingly when my parents asked me to help) is the solution for building a well-rounded person, but one of the greatest gifts my parents gave me was making me face my fears early on & engage in an activity that helped me communicate better & relate with people. There are lots of other ways to do this. You could take a drama class that forces you to perform & build up your confidence or volunteer with strangers to develop your interpersonal skills. For me it was working because my parents needed help & we couldn’t afford extracurriculars.

Now, I look forward to public speaking and enjoy interacting with people whom I’ve never met. Of course, I still get nervous but I always remember my dad’s words. At the end of the day, your looks & bank balance isn’t (always) within your control but your intelligence & ability to overcome your weaknesses is.

As a Badass Boss Lady should you care what others think?

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You’ve worked hard to become a successful Boss Lady – congratulations! Suddenly you’re asking, what do people in the company think of me?  You start wondering if they actually like you in a way that you never did before. Does this really matter? Feedback does because you can control the outcome by working on your weak points but what they think ultimately doesn’t.

A personal story illustrates this point best.

A few years ago, I had almost closed my first major contract as a freelance consultant with a global fashion brand. I was so close to getting the deal I could literally taste it! But there was one hiccup. The CEO wanted to wait for a key member of the team to get back from her travels to ensure she was alright with the project. She would be gone for a month. During that time, I met with the team I would be working with. They started talking about this key member. They described her as incompetent, unworthy & a show-off.  Her importance was simply because she was the “boss’ favourite.” Moreover, they presented her as insecure. She wouldn’t take well to an outsider and she wouldn’t approve the deal. The more I met them, the more they spoke of her as an obstacle to this project. I began to get nervous. Who is she? Why is she so important? What if she cancels the project? Or worse, what if we don’t get along? After many sleepless & anxiety-ridden nights, the day came when I had to meet her.

I don’t remember my outfit but still remember the prejudice I wore walking into that meeting. I had already decided she was someone I probably wouldn’t like and someone I have to “deal with.” She asked a lot of questions, & wanted to understand my methodology. She said she would get back to me. She came back to me after only 10 minutes. “There’s a problem”, she said. Oh great, I thought. It’s all over! My mind boarded negativity express & I started imagining what other clients I could target since this deal had clearly gone sour. “Your role is too limited.” She wanted me to work with her as a partner & carry through the entire year (rather than 3 months)! I was dumbfounded. This is the person I was scared to meet?

Over the course of the next year, working with her was probably one of the best professional experiences I’ve had in India. You know what? Everything they said about her couldn’t be further from the truth. She not once treated me as an outsider; conversely, she helped me navigate the path of the organisation telling me the unofficial do’s & don’ts & how we could best get the job done. We had so much in common in terms of working style – so much so that those same people who were bad-mouthing her started saying the exact same about me (I found out later). We both laugh about it now. That’s right, though we’ve both moved on to other roles, to this day, we stay in touch.

Moral of the story?

#1: When it comes to what people think of you – that is something you will never be able to control. Let your work do the talking. Take feedback seriously and work on becoming better every-day.

#2: Do not let others do your thinking for you! Form your opinions about colleagues, leaders & others in the workplace based on facts and your own interactions. Otherwise, you might miss out on something truly special. Had I let what “they think” cloud my mind for too long, not only would I have missed an amazing professional opportunity but would’ve also missed out on a dear friend.

When washing your hair is a win

After 3 days of being nearly bed-ridden & moping around the house I finally decided I had enough. It wasn’t because the muscle spasms in my back disappeared or the pain suddenly became bearable. It was because I remembered who I am, what else I have dealt with and how this was just one of those difficult moments I needed to overcome.

Sounds great? A lot easier said than done.

Admittedly, I did sulk a bit. I even cried.

3 weeks ago, I climbed a volcano and look at me now. I can’t even lift my arms above my head long enough to wash my hair. The pity party in my head was arriving and this scene was getting all too familiar. Memories of better days, comparison to current state, the spiralling into the dreaded “why me?” & finally climaxing to a predictable “life-sucks” mode. Ever notice how easy it is to delve into the vicious cycle of self-doubt & negativity?

Finally, I realized something. That constant positive upwards sloping line you see in economics text books isn’t really how life is – not in terms one’s achievements or personal fitness journey. Journeys have ups and downs. You can’t measure your achievements against a constant metric. One day you climb a mountain or you do an extra set at the gym on leg day. But on others, getting out of bed or getting the strength to wash your hair despite excruciating pain, is a victory. It’s not about how high the peak or fat the bonus. What defines you is how well you overcome the obstacles along the way. Life is about moments and how you survive them, or excel at them. How many bumps do you overcome and come back up fighting?

I share this revelation for 2 reasons:

  • Struggle behind that smile: A lot of people out there seem to think my life is just peachy without any problems, struggles or real issues that need to be overcome. To be honest, I’ve stopped caring how I am being perceived by people who don’t know me (and working on not caring about those who do know me but whom I don’t care much about 🙂  ). However, it is not okay to judge people simply because they seem like they are “put together.” Don’t punish someone because they are happy and smiling. You don’t know the struggle behind that smile. They might just be survivors.
  • Own your journey: To tell people who are experiencing an ongoing injury or condition that it’s okay to have off days. We love imagining our journey whether it’s fitness, or success according to a straight line where each day we’re supposed to get better & better until one day at the end of the line, at the “top” we reach perfection. That’s not the way it works and thinking like that is dangerous. Yes, have goals but break it down to putting in your best every day, given the existing challenges, circumstances, & issues, you currently face. No one else knows your journey like you do.

Some days, it might just be enough that you were able to wash your hair & put a smile on your face. And that’s okay, because you’ll live to climb another mountain.

 

 

Overcoming Temptation during the Holidays

I was apprehensive about my vacation period this year as it meant a 3.5 week break in my routine. I knew the chances of getting regular gym access and following a structured diet was pretty slim. I also had (haunting) memories of my last long vacation to Canada where I ended up gaining several kgs, getting completely off-track and experiencing serious back and shoulder pain due to lack of exercise & cold weather.

The trip was similar to the one I took 2 years ago. It was the same place, for the same amount of time during the winter season. I faced the same challenges as before: limited gym access, yummy Canadian pastries (pancakes, donuts, apple pie) & most importantly a Punjabi mother I hadn’t seen in ages whose sole mission was to “bring back the charm on my starved-face”. I am screwed, I thought.

The one thing that had changed though was my mindset. I wasn’t tempted to cheat. This was a new feeling and amazing realization for me. I knew how hard I had worked to reach this point and this wasn’t allowing me to go off-track. Is cheating really worth sabotaging all the progress I’ve made? The answer was no. I still indulged here and there, but forced myself to compensate with my next meal to ensure I maintained my caloric intake.

 

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The end result was I actually lost a couple of kgs (some of it might be muscle mass) but at least I didn’t gain fat. More importantly, the temptation to consume those apple pies, cheesecakes, & pancakes was gone.

This leads to the next point – a lot of people constantly ask me

“can you create a diet chart?”
“help me workout”
“how can I quit smoking?”
“how do I get motivated?”

But they’re asking the wrong question. It isn’t the how but why.

Ask yourself why you want to change. If it’s for the wrong reason (“my bf/gf wants me to”, or “to fit into a dress at a party” i.e. short-term goals) it won’t work or last.
I can’t help you. No one can.

It has to come from within. Only then will you be able to surmount the obstacles: the temptation to cheat, the firm resolve when a family member tries to pressure you or the difficult silence to maintain when someone says you look “too skinny” or “have lost your charm.”

Once you believe this is something you HAVE to do, not want to do – all these “obstacles” will disappear from your vision and become background noise. Your singular purpose will be to achieve your goal – no matter what.

Is it selfish? maybe
Is it extreme? yes
Does any of that matter? No
You do it for yourself and no one else.
Once you’ve answered the why we can focus on the how.

A little bit stronger

One day
The gym was filled with men
Big & brawny bodybuilders
Flexing their muscles between every set
In front of the mirror
In I walked & It started
The looks
Impatient sighs
Whispered chuckles,

“what’s she doing lifting?”
“why isn’t she doing cardio?”

I was in their space
I was using their weights
& I didn’t even ask for help ;)

They may be bigger
But they’re not stronger

We always have to
Push back
Work harder &

Prove 
Prove
We belong
Be it the boardroom or bench press
It is ours, too
Not a privilege but a right

Don’t let it unnerve you
Let them hover
Let them stare
Let them laugh

Work harder
Ignore, smile &
Keep your head up high

Let it fuel your fire
Lift heavier

They will try to knock you down
They may succeed
But you can’t let them win
By getting back up every-time
& coming back a little stronger

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The Ugly Truth about Body-Shamers

“You will be judged by those whose only accomplishment is judging”

The journey to getting fit isn’t just about physical endurance & consistency. On the path to greatness you will face a lot of opposition. Fitness is no different. Forget about injury, overcoming the temptation to cheat or increasing your muscle mass. The greatest and most irritating obstacle you’ll face is people’s reactions, judgements and non-stop criticism.

Examples:

“omg if you do more, you’ll disappear”

“please don’t lose any more weight”

“in my opinion you look better with a bit of weight, your face is more cute”

“bas hadiyan hai, mass kahan hai?”

“kamzor ho gay hai”

“thoda kha le, kuch nahin hoga”

& my favourite one:

“your back hurts ‘coz you gym too much”

How many times have I heard this & much more from some of my “well-wishers?” This is not just from annoying relatives by the way, but actual friends who are of a similar age (which really surprised me!). I get comments like this daily, if not every other day. I’m sure lots of you can relate.

At one point of time, I actually felt that maybe I had gone too far, maybe something was wrong and perhaps I wasn’t actually looking good. But then I asked myself one important question:

“How do you feel Sonal?”

The answer was crystal clear: Pretty fricking’ amazing!

How does it feel to wear clothes I never could before like bodycon dresses, shorts, figure-hugging gowns and not have to be conscious about flab sticking out?

Answer: Pretty fricking amazing!

How does it feel to be able to do 3 sets of chest-press where at one point I could barely lift my arm to change my clothes (due to back & cervical pain):

Answer: Out of this world.

The people who are judging you have no right (or even expertise!) to judge you in the first place. In fact, if you notice these same people will judge you and then ask you for tips on diets & working out. Does that seem like logical behaviour? They don’t like the way you look allegedly but they want to become like you? In essence, they are jealous and are projecting their insecurity in the form of offensive behaviour towards YOUR body. Not done.

I used to ignore these comments fake a smile and move on, but no more. The last time someone (who was clearly unfit) said this to me I finally broke the silence and asked him why he felt the need to comment on my body when I’m perfectly happy the way I am.

Do I go around saying “you’re unfit?” “you have a large belly”, “You should really watch your weight?” No. Because it’s called Body-Shaming – and that’s exactly what you’re doing to me! He actually apologized and said he was secretly jealous. This is not about “putting people in their place” it’s about standing up for yourself & what you believe in.

Don’t let other people’s judgments deter you for even a second or create self-doubt.

Keep grinding, focusing on yourself and your opinion is the only one that counts. It’s not just about aesthetics but how you FEEL. For me, there is no high in the world that can replace the feeling I get after exercising. Fitness is my drug & passion. If anyone tries to get in between me & it – well good luck to them 🙂

Let those comments be the fuel to your fire & help you lift an extra few reps at your next session!

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