Recently, social media has seen a surge in posts about mental well-being, self-love, body positivity and more — which is great, we love to see inclusive, positive spaces that encourage individual growth. However, I must have come across posts on ‘How to Love Yourself’ a thousand times on Instagram – posts that are directed toward LGBTQI+ individuals that often list advice like: “Practice gratitude” or “Spend time with people you vibe with” or “Journal and practice skincare” or, worst of all, “Go shopping with your girlfriends.” More than I detest the word ‘vibe,’ I am repelled by these forcefully positive, aesthetic, purposefully ditsyposts which advertise a kind of wellness routine that is not only unfeasible for many, but westernised and alien to most South Asian, LGBTQI+ persons. (A barrage of these posts will flood our timelines during Pride Month — brace yourselves.)
Chances are, like me, you too have come across something similar while doomscrolling on Instagram or Twitter. If so, welcome to the wellness industrial complex.
I’m Sorry, Kareena: Politics of Queer Self-Love
The famous Kareena Kapoor truism from Jab We Met, “Main apni favourite hoon” (I am my own favourite) is unfortunately hard to believe — I’m sorry, Kareena! but it’s just hard to love myself as a non-binary, queer person.
Self-love for queer and trans* folks is a radical act. For persons whose existence is resistance against the status quo, self-love cannot be measured by how many fruits you ate or if you did yoga today. Needless to say, the aforementioned activities are not shallow or useless — they are simply far below on the list for individuals whose lives are always at stake.
For LGBTQI+ individuals, the politics of self-care is intrinsically related to community care. At the end of the day, your caste and class location, religious affiliation among other social markers play a significant role in determining the extent of your well-being. A trans* individual cannot be expected to feel comfortable in their body if heteronormative and cisgendered expectations are reiterated as part of ‘self-love.’ This is why decolonising becomes a practice to look out for — a therapeutic intervention meant to consider your cultural, historical, societal history before offering solutions for your well-being. In the following paragraphs, I dive deep into what it truly means to decolonise therapy, care and wellness.
Social media is chock full of mental health recommendations, tips and services for absolutely free. While a lot of these resources do come in handy (for instance, when LGBTQI+ folks are looking for queer-affirmative therapists/counsellors at affordable prices), a sizable amount of the information is unverified by mental health professionals. A lot of these recommendations and reminders are informed by Western practices and formulated by American or European practitioners in mental health. A chunk of behaviours, habits, exercises which may be characterized as unhealthy or invasive by said practitioners may be completely acceptable in South Asian contexts. For example, @indiansextherapist on Instagram explains ‘boundary building’ in a comprehensive post: she says that the idea of ‘boundary building’ is foreign to Indian families, who consider it a form of extending care when a parent inquires about your work life or romantic life. This is not to say that these generational, ancestral behaviours of are necessarily healthy but the westernised idea of setting emotional boundaries may not connect well with Indian families with unique, complex histories. Therapy is contextual and decolonizing therapy would move towards viewing an individual in reference to their social, cultural, political intersections. Keeping in mind the previous example of setting boundaries, this would mean that the therapist would then have to take into consideration the individual’s cultural background while helping them adjust with circumstances.
Decolonising therapy as a practice has been explained by Dr Jennifer Mullan as “reconnecting to the humanization of therapy, to reclaiming therapy, to include systems and oppression into our therapy practices and analysis, and re-humanizing therapists (bring them down from some pedestals), as well as to center the person and their cultural and political identities back into the Work. It is snatching psychology, social work and counseling back from the wrinkled white hands of European men.” She further adds that decolonising therapy is about challenging a hostile, dominated and white-dominated system that has a history of pathologizing dissent and divergence. Similarly, in South Asian contexts, the same can be applied but to Savarna, majoritarian, heteronormative, abeleist, fatphobic, sexist systems in place.
Decolonising therapy politicises the personal and recognises that mental health is more than just healing from trauma but also bringing structural changes. For example, for queer and trans* individuals in India, decolonising therapy would mean empowering persons to recognise oppressive mechanisms in society and empowering them eventually to dismantle them.
In addition to this, most forms of self-care and wellness plans advertised on social media are more often only in English. The wellness industry, therefore, only caters to a specific English-speaking elite of the country. English is the third, sometimes fourth language for a majority of Indians. In my personal experience, being able to communicate with a mental health professional in my mother tongue has been more effective than otherwise. According to the American Psychological Association, considering the linguistic history of a client is twice as more impactful, and therapeutic work is best done when conducted in the client’s mother tongue.
Capitalism and Pathologization
Pathologizing every single behaviour has become a recent trend on social media. This is not to say that LGBTQI+ individuals do not experience trauma that calls for medical or clinical intervention — our location in society certainly imposes a set of harrowing experiences we inevitably face. However, just as medicalizing trans identities is fundamentally harmful, attaching serious diagnoses to mundane, everyday behaviours and activities is dangerous as well. While you may very well have forged some kind of emotional connection with Kal Ho Naa Ho because it’s relatable to you and that makes you want to watch it repeatedly as a trauma response, it is possible that you simply watch it because you are an unapologetic Shah Rukh Khan fan (God knows I still am). It is driven by market-based needs of such institutions to maximise profit by artificially creating value for their services; by capitalising on misinformed young individuals and their vulnerabilities, the free market and its profit motive thrive. This sort of medicalisation is unhealthy, unethical and plain misinformation. The human psyche is a complicated entity and a random Twitter thread titled “If You Used To Watch Power Rangers, You Have Anger Issues Now: Here’s Why” will never do justice to its complexities.
Wellness initiatives like online listening circles, affordable therapy on Zoom, etc may benefit some but inadvertently excludes a large number of LGBTQI+ population of the country who do not have access to internet, phones or the English language. How effective are these efforts if they are only designed to cater to specific types of peoples? How do we, as LGBTQI+ youth, make sure mental health resources become accessible beyond these boundaries? What is the way forward?
First, we must take time out and seek therapists and professionals who can take into consideration our cultural background, heritage, and family system in the process of helping us evolve into well-adjusted persons.
Second, it is crucial for us to reimagine what wellness looks like in a capitalist world. Doing away with inaccessible, medicalised and superficial methods of wellness and care advertised to us in the social media age, it is important to understand what wellness means for each and every one of us. We must realise that there is simply no one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to ensuring mental and physical well-being
Third, wellness looks different for everyone, it is contextual. However, to truly feel happy, healthy and alive, structural changes are requisite. Without anti-caste, pro-LGBTQI+ and intersectional attitudes in place, wellness cannot be manifested in the long run. That is why community care plays a very important role in the lives of marginalized communities. LGBTQI+ individuals have had a long history of assembling, mobilizing and caring for each other. LGBTQI+ specific spaces like Gaysi and Queerabad are online communities which have opened the doors for connectedness and conversation across borders and geographically situated circles, and communities like in colleges remind us that we have a ‘second family’ to rely on. It is a way to cope, a way to learn, to support, to share and to be understood. So send a letter to your friend, organise a RuPaul’s Drag Race watch-a-thon with your queer club, donate and amplify queer and trans* fundraisers — because until we make structural changes happen, all we can do is care for each other and fight systemic oppression in our unique ways.