As World Vegan Month continues, Real Boxing Only’s Michelle Kuehn reveals why she went vegan, and never looked back…
“I was brought up in a very ‘meat and potatoes’ type of household. Born in America in the 1980s, my earliest memory of standard meals were hot dogs with mac and cheese or fish sticks. And when we visited family, there were always huge, meat-focused feasts – lasagne, turkey dinner for the holidays and great, big beef roasts.
Like any kid of my generation, TV was central to how I learned about the world, and was told ‘Milk Does a Body Good’ with ‘Where’s the Beef?’ commercials the foundation of my nutritional knowledge. I was fortunate to be taught how to cook from a young age, but moving to the UAE in 1995 introduced me to a completely different way of eating, with traditional Arabic dishes of chicken, lamb and fish served with rice the focus of my new daily menu. Needless to say, there was not a vegan or vegetarian person anywhere near me for the early part of my life, and like most kids, I wasn’t really exposed to anything other than the ‘meat with every meal’ mentality.
I wasn’t particularly athletic growing up either. I spent a lot of time at volleyball while at the American University of Sharjah, but mainly because it was much more fun than studying. My diet at the time was cigarettes, Red Bull and Bounty chocolate bars – I was literally obsessed with those things. I followed no nutrition guidelines at all – which probably explains why my volleyball career didn’t ever go anywhere.
Aside from volleyball, there was no activity in my life – unless night clubs and excessive smoking were a sport – in which case, I was an overachiever. But from 2016, I started to have a few breakthroughs in the way in which I saw the world. I often think that when you start to shift one thing in your life, others seem to follow. In fact, one of my favourite sayings is ‘How you do one thing is how you do everything.’
I started boxing in 2016, and at the same time, I went vegetarian (I tried being a pescatarian for about a week, but I don’t like fish, so it was a pointless exercise.) Within a week of going vegetarian, I noticed that my body was leaning out a lot. I felt lighter in general – there was no post-meal slump, and my energy levels were different.
As I continued as a vegetarian, I learned more and more about the health benefits of veganism, how it impacted the world environmentally and the wholly unnecessary pain that’s inflicted on animals as part of the meat industry – we simply didn’t need to kill to thrive. This was a huge shift of mindset for me because I’d previously never given two hoots about the planet, and never cared about the origins or welfare of the chicken in my chicken nuggets. I’d never realized what a cold-hearted, ignorant human I was until I started this journey. I was the girl eating steak every week at ladies night and brunch – I didn’t care about the impact I had upon the planet because I was calloused from years of being taught that eating meat was normal – that there was a hierarchy, and that some lives didn’t matter.
The biggest and most noticeable change came from my stomach. I had struggled with IBS and a frequent upset tummy pretty much from the age of 16 – obviously, with a diet of energy drinks and chocolate bars, that should come as no surprise – but I didn’t continue eating like that. I tried everything to try and fix my digestion issues. No raw vegetables, no nuts, no soda – but at no point was it suggested to me to go vegan. Now, that seems nothing less than ridiculous. I was in pain and suffering for years and simply assumed that this was my life, and how it was going to be – until I got to 2016 and decided there must be something I could do to improve how I felt.
Any type of stomach discomfort or malfunction was gone when I went full vegan in late 2016. I eliminated all animal produce from my diet – no milk, no cheese, no yoghurt, no meat, no honey, nothing. I always believe that if you’re going to commit to leading a ‘harmless’ life – by that, I mean going vegan – you need to tread a harmless path and remember thatwithout bees, we wouldn’t even be alive. I became aware that the planet doesn’t need us, we need it – and that my footprint on it should be evaluated. Just look at what happened during the global lockdown this spring – the planet prospered. Our planet has never needed us, but we need it – and she is dying, because we are killing her.
The most common question I get asked as a vegan athlete is ‘what do you eat?’ I think it’s a bit of a strange question because there is more variety in the vegan world than the carnivore world – no offence. But since I have such a busy schedule, I’ve chosen to have a diet delivery plan that caters to all of my vegan needs. I know that not everyone wants a meal plan, and it may not work for everybody, but since my hours are intense, I rely on EatWell to keep me going, because they make amazing holistic and organic food that requires me to do nothing more than eat it when I’m hungry! If I’m not on a meal plan, I make similar meals to what is delivered and prep for the week ahead on a Saturday – I’m big on quinoa, pasta, broccoli, bananas, apples and berries, and I love making Indian, Chinese and Arabic food – all of which have so many incredible vegan dishes to enjoy. As well as all the restaurants that are now offering vegan menus as standard, grocery stores are full of vegan butter, cheese and freshly-prepped recipe boxes. Did you know that according to nutritional guidelines you should have 10 to 12 servings of fruit and vegetables a day? Not the reported 5? Now I know I’m getting that, but are you? Existing on a diet of brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables packed with nutrients and fibre offers an immediate way to boost your energy, your immune system and help your digestive system – and I can honestly say that going vegan changed my life.
Besides the health benefits and giving back to the planet, I noticed some significant changes occurring once I gave up eating meat, namely my energy and empathy levels, and my physical appearance. When I say energy, I mean my ability to work better, harder, faster and stronger – that transformation was incredible. I work seven days a week, usually for 16 hours a day. Last year, I fought twice in two months, so for about four months, I trained three times a day and had to maintain my hectic work schedule. I’m mentally sharp, my blood pressure is low, my weight loss for my fight was 6kg in two months but I still kept my strength – my muscle mass is well above average according to a recent body assessment, and to top it all off, I function on about six hours of sleep a night. This October, at the age of 39, I completed 302km by running 10km a day for 30 days straight – with no recovery or rest days. I emerged with no injuries and I cut my time down by 15 minutes from the first run. I have to say I’m pretty proud of that achievement! It proves that vegan athletes are just as powerful and capable as their meat-eating counterparts…and there are so many great documentaries to watch that tell this exact story.
Another aspect that I was surprised by is the new level of empathy I have – my views on people, animals, everything – has changed. I now have a much deeper connection with all living beings, the ability to see and feel from the other point of view. Emotional intelligence is not a gift many are blessed with, but since going vegan, I feel much more in touch with people as well as animals.
My hair, nails and skin have never looked better. My nails grow strong and white, my hair is full and glossy and after struggling with adult acne throughout my 30s, I have skin that looks younger and healthier than ever before. I don’t take any supplements or have athletic shakes or protein bars. All of my nutrition comes from my food, from mother earth herself – I’ve learned the power of nature, the power of food fuelling us and how far off the path to healthy living I had been for most of my life. Taking my diet back to basics, I know that fruit and vegetables can sustain me better than anything else, that the nutrients in my diet are more important than those found in a side of lifeless beef and that the most brilliant protein comes from plants.”
For more information, visit www.realboxingonly.com
In a world where impossible body types (read: skinny) are glorified, regardless of the cost, International No Diet Day is a celebration that deserves more recognition. Marked annually on May 6 to promote body acceptance and body shape diversity, it aims to help both men and women worldwide to appreciate their own bodies – a mission that Ghaliah Amin is all too familiar with.
She is widely hailed as Saudi Arabia’s first plus-size model, but in the process of breaking boundaries and defying stereotypes, prefers simply to be known as ‘a model from Saudi Arabia’. The Dubai-based model and TV host is also an outspoken body positivity activist – and full of surprises. For starters, she has a master’s degree in Art History and Museum Studies, a fact reflected in every inch of her eclectic apartment, where we spent an afternoon discussing filters, photo retouching, family pressure to lose weight, and the often-unseen resilience of Saudi women.
She also founded the Ana Ghaliah (I am precious) social media initiative to promote body positivity after first-hand witnessing the lack of diversity and inclusion in the fashion world. “Beauty is all about becoming the best version of you,” she says, setting out to remind all women that they’re precious, regardless of their shape or size. And because the correlation between a positive body image and improved mental health is undeniable, we’d be remiss not to celebrate this model – and role model – for her self-love message on International No Diet Day, today.
If your mindless scrolls on Instagram are accented with enticing flatlays of culinary delicacies, you have one woman to thank: Haiya Afroze. Not only is she the founder of Haiyatea, a tea room and artisanal tea shop, but she’s also the creator of our favourite foodie account, Pass Me The Dim Sum. Haiya’s feed is focused on wholesome, educational recipes as well as offering a glimpse into her always eventful daily life. As a proud and practising Muslim, she talks to us about what Ramadan means to her and how tea fits into the holy month.
Why do Muslims break their fast with dates, and what’s their importance during Ramadan?
Dates are easily digested, making them a quick source of energy and nutrients. Eating dates after a long day of fasting can help the body’s blood glucose levels quickly return to normal. Our Prophet (PBUH) used to break his fast with dates, so it’s a tradition followed by all Muslims. Modern science also proves how beneficial they are on an empty stomach.
In what ways can non-Muslims help observe Ramadan with their Muslim friends?
To be quite honest, Muslims try to retract from worldly activities and do more self-reflection and worship than usual in the month of Ramadan. My personal struggle with my non-Muslim friends is the peer pressure to hang out, go out, socialise – and that’s just not something I enjoy as much in Ramadan. These are golden days, and any worship done is rewarded many folds, so that’s how I want to spend most of my time in Ramadan. I would love if my friends understood that.
What is your go-to dish to cook during Ramadan, and why?
My husband and I aren’t very traditional and, because we live alone and have no relatives here, we tend to keep our iftars (the meal at dusk to break the fast) quite light and simple. They often just comprise of the regular meals we would’ve had anyway. The one thing that’s different is that we’ll always have dates and Arabic coffee – flavours and scents I now associate with Ramadan – on our table. We’ll also have a fruit salad as it’s perfect after a long day of fasting. We avoid sugary drinks and opt for water, and sometimes we’ll have dahi phulikiyaan, a dish comprising of crispy rehydrated gram flour swirls submerged in whipped yoghurt. So refreshing!
How will you incorporate your love for tea into Ramadan this year?
My love for tea doesn’t stop during Ramadan! What’s amazing to me is that on a normal day, skipping my morning matcha will give me a migraine, but God just makes it easy during a fast. After we have iftar, I’ll fire up the humidifier with a refreshing scent of choice and spend the evenings reading Quran and refilling my pot of tea several times.
Do you always go traditional for Ramadan or shake it up with other cuisines?
Ramadan really is about revisiting and embracing traditional foods, but as I am not a very traditional person and don’t always relate to the culture I’ve inherited, I always merge traditional with untraditional. For example, I was once commissioned to create an Arab-inspired dish using oats. Saudi oat soup is the most traditional dish that comes to mind when I think of oats, but I couldn’t do that – that’s too easy. So, I made a savoury granola using za’atar, cumin, and pomegranate molasses, serving it alongside Turkish tomato sauce, grilled eggplant, and whipped garlic yoghurt.
What dessert do you always cook during Ramadan, and why?
I love basbousah! It’s a semolina cake of sorts, which is drenched in sugar syrup. I bake it with orange juice for some zestiness, and line the pan with tahini for more decadence!
Can you share your favourite Ramadan recipe with us?
I wanted to incorporate my treasure chest of oats into recipes that are popular this time of year, regardless of whether or not those recipes traditionally call for oats. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where pull-apart cheesy bread is a common and standard teatime accompaniment all year round, but an especially popular item on the iftar table. Each little pillow of dough is stuffed with a cube of firm white cheese (mozzarella, halloumi, or Kiri) because there is no such thing as ‘too much cheese’ or ‘too many olives’ in the Middle Eastern vocabulary.
What is your most cherished Ramadan memory, and why?
My most cherished memory, without a doubt, are the iftars I had alone with my late grandmother at her place. She was the ‘hostess with the mostess’ and always expressed her love through food, but during the many Ramadans I spent with her when there were no guests? Those are my favourite memories. She would make two perfectly portioned bowls of fruit salad and a few pakoras for us both – pakoras are gram flour fritters and they’re my ultimate Ramadan weakness, but I avoid making them as they’re deep-fried and I could eat a plateful. We’d then go straight to dinner. Those iftars encompassed the true essence of Ramadan for me: modesty, simplicity, family, love. And no gluttony!
What’s a dish that you never thought you would try, but love?
Fermented green tea leaf salad. It’s a Burmese snack that’s sweet, savoury, spicy, and oh-so-moreish.
What tips can you share to help others through the Ramadan season?
When you’re fasting, you want to eat a horse. Don’t do it. Don’t go overboard with iftar preparations – make just as much food as you would for a regular dinner because chances are you’ll want to eat even less than you usually do. When you make too much food, though, you tend to overeat just so you don’t have to deal with leftovers. And obviously, drink lots of water between dusk and dawn. During suhoor (the morning meal before the sun rises), avoid spicy or greasy foods that will make you thirsty and try to have some yoghurt. I always find that yoghurt makes me feel less thirsty throughout the day.
Are there any other changes that you make in your life during Ramadan?
It’s not advised to change our religious inclinations during Ramadan and return to a lifestyle that is un-Islamic. However, we do try to better ourselves in whatever personal capacity we can and see ourselves lacking in, but with the intention of maintaining those ways – not just for a month. As Muslims, we are encouraged to give charity throughout the year. In fact, one of the fundamental pillars of Islam dictates that we must donate 2.5% of the savings we have had for over a year to the less fortunate in order to keep income disparity at bay. However, charity peaks during Ramadan because we believe that all good deeds are rewarded many folds during this blessed month. The spirit of generosity during Ramadan is truly palpable in the air.
For more recipes or just plain FOMO as Haiya dines across Dubai, follow her here.
Faith, First: In Conversation with Mathilde Loujayne
Meet an inspiring – and unlikely – face of Islam.
Raise your hand if your teenage years revolved around makeup, fashion, college applications, and dating. Mathilde Loujayne’s adolescence was no different, except hers also featured a nearly decade-long spiritual quest that eventually led to a life-altering decision. Today, as we continue into the holy month of Ramadan, Mathilde talks us through her journey to date. The Dubai-based author, who hails from the south of France and works in PR, converted to Islam at the age of 18.
“Trust me, I was obsessing over boys and makeup as well,” she says with a laugh. “Your teenage years are such an interesting time, there’s so much going on. But a common thread throughout my life, even when I was a kid, was a strong sense of spirituality. I was eight when I first started asking the bigger questions.” Ironically, Mathilde was born into an atheist family, making her questions that much harder to answer. “I was never taught about God. I had to find those answers myself. And when I learned about God, I was in France and asked my parents if I could get baptised. They agreed.”
Baptised at the age of 10, Mathilde reveals what prompted her decision: the death of her older brother, who was only 16 years old. “It really opened the door to wanting to understand what happened to him. Why did he die at such a young age? Where is he now? Where is his soul? I had to figure all that out as a very young child – and I was still grieving, of course. As a Christian, I was trying to find answers through my community at the time, but was unable to. That pushed me to understand other perspectives, other religions. And shortly after, my parents moved to Oman.”
Both nature and nurture come together to shape who we are, a fact illustrated by Mathilde’s move to Muscat at the age of 11. “I went to an international school, where there was so much diversity, so many different backgrounds and cultures and nationalities. My friends and I were really open about discussing our thoughts on certain topics, which prompted me to read more about other religions. But I was still thinking Christianity – maybe Orthodox or Protestant? I wasn’t really looking elsewhere.”
Mathilde pauses to warn me that what follows is a long story, but it’s a fascinating one. She discloses that her father survived cancer before she was born and was on a spiritual journey of his own. “It was something we’d never really discussed. But around that time, he told me and my mom that he had converted to Islam a few years prior. We had a Quran at home, and I would debate endlessly with him. I wouldn’t consider his point of view, I was very confrontational – a typical teenager, I guess.”
And then 9/11 happened.
“I was 17 at the time and, suddenly, the whole world turned against Muslims. I couldn’t understand what was going on because Omanis are so peaceful, so hospitable. I’d never met a violent person in Oman, and my dad was now Muslim. I figured that since I want to read about other religions, I might as well start with the Quran. I have one in my house, I live in a Muslim country – it just makes sense.” But while her decision to read the Quran was more about general knowledge and less about conversion, Mathilde approached it with an open mind. And an open heart.
“I was so surprised when I started. I found myself reading about the prophets that I knew in Christianity, the stories were so similar, the message was so similar. It felt so familiar, but so new at the same time. It felt like God was speaking to me directly. And the message was so loud – it brought peace to my heart as I was still grieving. It answered so many questions that I had about my brother. It eased my pain and gave me more than I was asking for. That’s when I asked my parents if I can become a Muslim. They were very supportive, so an imam came to our house and I said my shahada – the pronunciation of faith – in their presence.”
The rest, as they say, is history. “I’ve never looked back,” she remarks. Striving to keep her faith strong, Mathilde has been on a mission to understand Islam from a female perspective. As for what she’s discovered? “I encountered many misconceptions that I had to explore. I did a lot of research to understand women’s rights and why certain things are forbidden. What I’ve realised is that it’s a religion of logic, it’s all for our own benefit. Like now, for example, we’re fasting not only for spiritual reasons, but also health. I researched the wives of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to understand their journey because I wanted to approach the story of Islam through the women of Islam. Even his daughter Fatima – I learned so much about the importance of modesty through her. Being French, I had a hard time with modesty,” she admits with a giggle.
Mathilde rightfully asserts that women from the early years of Islam – both Khadijah and Aisha were pillars of the community – aren’t recognised nearly enough. “If you think about it, a lot of the lectures focus on the companions of the Prophet, but not so much on his wives. Some of them were scholars themselves, they would teach the companions. No one talks about that. It’s such a huge achievement and something we should be proud of as Muslim women. Seeing how much knowledge they had contrasted by how many girls don’t get an education in Muslim countries today? It’s not right.”
Talk of influential women steers the conversation in the direction of Halima Aden, who famously gave up a thriving modelling career, stating that it was at odds with her faith. I ask if this act of sacrifice resonates with Mathilde. It does. “I always wanted to be in the music industry. And I was. After moving to the UAE, I worked for a company that put on major concerts and music festivals with A-list artists – Kanye West and The Prodigy included. It was a lot of fun, but you can imagine what the music industry is like. There were so many times when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? These are not my values.’ Don’t get me wrong, I still love music, but I knew I had to give up my job. I resigned and ended up in the corporate world, which was a sacrifice because I loved the work. It just wasn’t compatible with my lifestyle.”
But it’s not just behind the scenes in the music industry where Mathilde feels like a bit of a misfit, unfortunately. With Islamophobia at an all-time high in France, I ask how she reconciles the fact that’s she French, female, and Muslim. “It’s a confusing time because I love my country, but I can’t stand the news.” And yes, she hears about the hijab ban daily at this point. “That ruins it for me. I wish France would embrace its diversity, but it’s going in the opposite direction. I almost don’t know what to say because I feel very sad about the situation. It hurts when your own country goes against your values – I wouldn’t be accepted if people knew who I was.”
While Islamophobia is a relatively recent phenomenon, longstanding opinions about the religion are well-documented. “Islam is the best religion, and Muslims are the worst followers.” I read aloud this famous quote by late 19th century playwright George Bernard Shaw to Mathilde, curious about her reaction. Caught off guard, she chuckles before confessing, “When you’re a new Muslim, you embrace the religion fully and think all Muslims are perfect Muslims. It’s an assumption we falsely make because we’re all human at the end of the day – no one’s perfect. But living in the Middle East, you can’t assume every Muslim is practising – everyone is on their own path. I’ve learnt to not judge.”
This is a message reinforced throughout her book, Big Little Steps. “New Muslims come with an energy of wanting to be perfect, but I tell them to take their time. You have to understand why you’re doing certain things, understand the rationale behind it.” Aimed at both converts and those born into Islam, Big Little Steps breaks down the religion’s principles in a simple and inviting way with the aim of making it more approachable and highlighting its beauty. Published by The Dreamwork Collective, it tackles preconceived notions of Muslim women in a positive manner. Even the aforementioned Halima Aden makes an appearance.
“I wanted to share everything that I’ve learnt as a woman and a new Muslim,” says Mathilde, delving into the idea behind the book. “When you embrace Islam, there’s so much to learn, and it can be very overwhelming because people from every corner come to you with advice – unsolicited advice sometimes. It comes from a good place, but yes, it’s overwhelming.” The book was born as Mathilde sought the right words to explain why she chose to embrace Islam to her mother. “I wrote Big Little Steps with non-Muslims in mind – specifically my mom – because all this time, I was trying to prove to her that I’ve become a better person. I’m not very talkative, so it came out as a book.”
As someone who struggled to find material for new Muslims, she recalls, “I wish I had something like it growing up. I had to buy a children’s book when I was learning how to pray. That’s why I wanted to make it available to others.” Big Little Steps is also strategically designed to engage readers, encouraging them to take notes as they go along. “The idea is to understand Islam through my personal experiences, with the book serving as a guide to read the Quran. It’s not about my vision. I want the reader to start their own thought process.” Referring to herself as a mere vessel to spread the word of God, Mathilde says her goal is fulfilled if she can help even one person.
Wouldn’t things be boring if we were all the same?
It’s this seemingly simple question that adds one more hat to Jessica Smith’s already impressive list of roles: author. Coming into prominence as a Paralympic swimmer, she is a mother, a motivational speaker, a body-positivity advocate, a recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia, and the Chief Operating Officer of TOUCH talent management (an inclusive talent agency and disability consultancy that aims to educate society about the importance of inclusion, both from a professional and social standpoint).
Now, she’s celebrating the launch of Jessica Goes to School, the first children’s book in the ‘Just Jessica’ series, which is rooted in themes of disability and acceptance – a far cry from the resources she grew up with as a little girl born without her left forearm. The books are the result of not only Jessica’s personal journey into parenthood, but also her drive to create characters who represent what kids see in everyday life, thereby encouraging them to understand and embrace differences. Set to complete the trilogy with the release of Jessica Goes Swimming and Jessica Joins the Band later this year, she continues to mould young minds and encourage conversations around social inclusion, taking a moment to share her life lessons with us. Listen in.
What has being a Paralympian taught you about overcoming adversity?
Being a Paralympian is being part of a group of people who have had to overcome so much in their life before being given the opportunity to represent their country. I was born missing my left arm, and then had a scalding accident as a child, which left me with prominent scarring on my neck and chest. I feel fortunate that I was born with the disability and those traumatic events happened at such a young age – I grew up not knowing any different. So even though the world wasn’t built for somebody like me, I was able to adapt and find my own way of doing things. Sport was a natural progression because it was a way for me to use my body and prove to myself and everybody else that I wasn’t going to be limited by perceptions around disability.
Because I struggled with body image issues and eating disorders at the time, I don’t have the best profile on paper when it comes to a Paralympic swimmer. However, I think I’m one of the most celebrated Paralympians, especially from Australia, because of the parallels that I’ve been able to draw from that phase of my life and apply it into all areas of my life – and that’s something only elite sportspeople are able to understand. It’s that goal-setting, that drive, that determination, and not giving up at any cost. In a world that didn’t value disability, representing my country gave me the confidence to be where I am today – as an author, as a mother, as a business person.
What has creating the character of Jessica taught you about the importance of representation?
Because it’s such a personal exploration of my own childhood, and therefore my entire life, it’s taught me a lot about what I missed out on, and therefore what’s so important for me to leave as a legacy for my own children and for all children – whether they identify as having a disability or not. I didn’t feel represented as a child, and disability was never seen in a positive light, especially when it came to storytelling. Disability was always a villian, it was always someone scary, something to be afraid of. And that really had an impact on my self-identity from as young as I can remember, questioning who I was and why I looked the way I did.
As a result, the process of writing the stories of this Jessica character – who of course is essentially me – has not only helped me touch into that vulnerability I experienced, but also what I wish I had and how I can try to change that for future generations, so it’s been very complex. It’s funny, when I came up with the idea of wanting to write a children’s book, my husband was like, “Oh, you’ll do that in a weekend. It’ll be easy.” It’s been three years now of being able to understand how to tell complex ideas and thoughts in a way that ignites fun and enthusiasm from children. And so it has been a journey – and it continues to be a journey.
What has life in Dubai taught you about the power of diversity?
Dubai is such a wonderful melting pot of cultures and ideas and thoughts and processes, and it’s been so interesting for me. I’ve only been here for three years, and I feel very welcomed – not just from a female perspective, but a female with a disability trying to create more dialogue around such topics. However, there is still the pressure I feel driving down Al Wasl or Jumeirah Beach Road that comes from this constant bombardment of the unattainable, so I’m trying to have these really important conversations about difference – whether that’s through beauty or aesthetics or disability.
I feel there’s so much focus on beauty and plastic surgery and Botox and all those things, which I sometimes find myself contemplating as I move closer towards 40. And when I’m confronted with having to make those decisions, I wonder if it goes against what I’m trying to say in the narrative around being empowered to be who you are. But, yes, I do find Dubai to be such a huge contrast in many conversations that happen around diversity and inclusion. It’s fascinating, and I still have so much to learn.
What has being a woman taught you about the dangers of unrealistic beauty standards?
Oh, I think the pressure that women face is incredibly unfair, and I don’t even know where it has come from because it’s such a small percentage of females who fit within those beauty standards anyway. Nevertheless, we’ve all become so obsessed with trying to fit within those societal moulds, and the impact it’s having on our mental health is catastrophic. We see it at every stage of a female’s life because it doesn’t matter what we’ve gone through – pregnancy, illness, disability – there’s this expectation that we will just bounce back and regain our pre-whatever body. And while I don’t understand why that has become part of the narrative, I still see so many women who are judgmental of other women. That is where we do ourselves a huge injustice.
Personally, my negative body image issues stemmed from the fact that I didn’t fit anywhere in society, so I convinced myself that losing a little bit of weight would maybe make people see past my obvious imperfections. I think that’s something so many women can relate to, no matter who they are or where they come from, because we’ve somehow become so disconnected from what we’re trying to achieve as feminists. It’s a societal issue. Certainly as a mother, I’ve faced the expectation to bounce back, and I don’t even know what that is because we’re always evolving, so why should we be reverting? We need to change that narrative. We need to sit with our thoughts and feelings because it’s going to make it so much easier to process those negative body image feelings when they do come – because they will come. I’m nearly 38, and this has been an issue my entire life. I don’t want it to be an issue for my daughter, so how do we stop that? It’s through us.
What has being a mother taught you about intergenerational ethics?
This is something I touch on whenever I’m giving a talk because we’ve recently marked International Women’s Day, for example, and a lot of what’s discussed is around how people are fatigued of the conversation because we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. And certainly, the pandemic has pushed that movement back even further when it comes to equality and advancing women. I think what’s important is that we stay motivated with the hope that every little bit does help and will create change for the future. We may not see it. Well, we won’t see it, but I have to hold onto that little bit of hope that my daughter is seeing what I’m saying and how I’m acting, and will in turn be a good role model for her children and future generations.
We need to make sure that the goal, even though it might seem out of reach at the moment, it’s still worth the fight. And the fight is knowing that we have a moral and ethical obligation for future generations, never giving up and continuing to empower one another in order to create a better future. My own mother and grandmother were trailblazers within their own circle, so when you see it, you know you can be it. That was the case for me, and I want that to be the case for my children.
What has being an entrepreneur who champions disability inclusion taught you about social acceptance?
We still have a long way to go, but people are very eager to be part of the conversation. And that’s what it’s about. It’s about not calling people out. It’s about encouraging everyone – society, the corporate world, every single person – to be part of the conversation. It’s about how Touch, as an organisation, can help bring awareness to the topics of disability and difference in a way that makes people feel that they want to be involved and contribute. Our mission is to be industry leaders when it comes to inclusion and diversity, so we represent amazing talent ranging from podcasters to athletes, Michelin-starred chefs, and Emirati musicians – and some happen to have a disability. If we were to only represent people of determination, then that would be exclusion as well.
The amount of talent that we represent just goes to show that this region is moving a lot faster than what people think when it comes to wanting to see inclusion at every stage, so Touch can hopefully be that pathway for corporate bodies to be able to see that inclusion needs to be from education through to employment through to every personal right. We want organisations to look within their own teams and ask, ‘Who’s not in the room, and why?’ We want to make sure that there’s a seat at the table for everybody, and that doesn’t just include those with a disability – though that is a strong driving force, of course. And when it comes to the economic side of things, between 8 to 13 trillion dollars per annum is being missed out because companies don’t have a disability strategy. They’re starting to realise that this isn’t just a feel-good thing. It’s the same as the fight for females; inclusion doesn’t exist if you don’t have a disability at the table.
Mother, artist, photographer, designer, self-taught coder, and one of the first female Emirati web designers – Fatma Hilal is something of a trailblazer. A student of business administration back in the 90s, she longed to be a designer despite being dedicated to her college course – a career that, at the time, was one only the rare few got a chance to pursue.
But after a stint in the corporate world, the opportunity of studying for a brand-new graphic design degree at university prompted Fatma to take a leap of faith – one that proved not only brave, but also visionary. Graduating with honours, she opened her own photography studio, proving to herself and others that was she great at what she did and could make money off her talent, too.
Following the birth of her first child, Fatma decided she needed to make another mark in the photography world and capitalise on her love for a recently discovered new app that everyone was talking about: Instagram. Focusing on flatlays – something that was only seen on the pages of glossy magazines at the time – she kicked off her journey to being crowned Flatlay Queen. Today, she shares her trips and tricks through her popular masterclasses, which are available in both Arabic and English. The Gaggler caught up with Fatma to find out everything there is to know about the art of the flatlay, followed by some top tips that no Instagram addict should miss!
How do you juggle both your creativity and masterclass teaching with being a busy mum?
Being a mum, especially in these times, I have to really find the time to be creative. Between virtual schooling and looking after the kids, every spare moment – be it 10 minutes or an hour – I really utilise this time to organise and plan shoots before executing them.
Why did you start your flatlay masterclass?
Since starting my Instagram, I would constantly get questions from my followers on how I created certain images, where I got my ideas from, and my use of flowers. I started by doing little interactive classes with friends and some followers in cafés that I loved shooting in (and had the right amount of natural light). From here, I was contacted by some big international and local brands and began to do workshops with them, too. I started to do masterclass videos, and also offer one-on-one video chats after participants have completed the course.
Do you find waking up early during Ramadan helps or hinders your creative process?
Ramadan is very special – it’s a time I fast and can see family. During fasting, my mind feels very clear. I design more, I find myself more creative, which you can see in my content during Ramadan.
What are some tricks you can share with readers to help improve their flatlay photography?
I prefer to use an iPhone – I think they are best to capture the light and softness that I prefer for all my images.
The theme you see throughout my entire Instagram feed is a white backdrop. I recommend white, grey, or neutral colours to create a high-end/luxe visual.
You should always take advantage of natural light – my favourite time of the day to shoot is 7am or between 4pm and 5pm. Put your flatlay next to a large window to utilise as much natural light as you can.
If you are shooting flowers and need to re-shoot or include them in another shoot, keep them in the fridge so they hold their shape – they will last much longer.
Watch the Video: How to Take Amazing Photos with Apps and an iPhone
You don’t have to go out and buy a backdrop when you start – use what you have at home first. A clean white sheet or white board is perfect to use as a backdrop.
Avoid bright colours – you need a studio light and professional camera to really make them pop.
Once you have completed your flatlay, walk away for five minutes and come back – you may see something out of place or decide to move a prop to create the perfect picture.
Take photos from different angles, not just above – sometimes you will capture the perfect click from an angle you haven’t tried before.
ALWAYS flip your phone upside down, so the camera is at the bottom – this can capture some stunning images.
Always place the main object you are capturing (a cup of coffee or pair of shoes, for example) in the middle of the flatlay. Use the grid option in images to place the main object in the middle of the picture.
What are your personal favourite flatlays?
I have a few – all for different reasons! On this shoot, I got to work with one of my favorite shoe brands, Manolo Blahnik. I also utilised different photography elements, included a model, and played around with different props and colours.
We had a shoot with Bvlgari at Bvlgari Resort Dubai, and this was where I got a chance to meet the ladies I had been getting to know via Instagram for the first time. It was like a dream to meet everyone in real life!
In a world where women are still fighting for equality – both in the world and in the workplace – female entrepreneurs deserve recognition. As for the female entrepreneurs leading companies that are driven by a purpose bigger than the bottom line? Well, the word ‘heroine’ comes to mind. Whether they’re using comedy to defy stereotypes, helping those coping with grief, empowering underprivileged women through employment, or inspiring the next generation to help the planet, these women across the UAE are giving back in their own unique way. And that’s why we’re celebrating them on International Women’s Day, today.
Designer Sahar Wahbeh is the entrepreneur behind Dumyé, a company creating ethically crafted dolls that are made by underprivileged women and can be personalised to suit the recipient. ‘Karmic Goodness’ drives this beloved brand as, for every Dumyé doll sold, vulnerable children are supported through play, food, and education. In fact, each doll comes with a ‘Giving Card’ that invites the owner to discover exactly how their doll has given back to a child in need.
The LightHouse Arabia
Founded by Dr. Saliha Afridi, The LightHouse Arabia has offered hope, help, and solace to countless people struggling with loss, trauma, infertility, eating disorders, depression, chronic stress, addiction, and more. Most admirable are its efforts to make mental wellness more accessible through the likes of affordable check-ups that evaluate one’s emotional well-being and free grief counselling offered to individuals and families. Turn to its calendar of events, and you’ll also see support groups that cater to varying ages and concerns – all of them free of charge.
Mariam Khafagy co-founded Upfill, the region’s first waterless personal care, and cosmetics brand, in August 2021 in order to steer us towards natural beauty products that are both water-mindful and devoid of plastic. Soon after, the brand partnered up with Azraq and RECAPP to further its efforts towards a healthier planet. Not only is Upfill reintroducing coral reefs in Dibba to support local marine life, but it has also arranged for its recyclable tin packaging to be collected free of charge directly from consumers.
Al Ghadeer UAE Crafts
Created by Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan to empower underprivileged women through culturally inspired products, Al Ghadeer UAE Crafts trains and employs over 200 craftswomen of different nationalities and ages. Besides producing items that feature Al Sadu, a traditional weaving technique inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding because of its significance, the art of Telli (metal-thread embroidery) and Khoos (palm-leaf weaving) is also preserved.
With laughter being the best medicine, comedian and Dubomedy co-founder Mina Liccione’s spot on this list is a given – but she does so much more than use comedy to unify Dubai’s over 200 nationalities. Dubomedy’s Clowns Who Care initiative sees Mina and fellow comedians bring love and laughter to hospitals, charity organisations, and centres for those with special needs. Elsewhere, the New York native’s television specials like Araby by Nature and short films like The Shocking Truth About Muslimshave helped defuse negative stereotypes about Muslims amidst audiences abroad.
One Good Thing
Proving that gifts can simultaneously be stylish, high-quality, and socially conscious, One Good Thing is anchored in giving back. The company was co-founded by Bridgett Lau and Micheal Cooke, a married couple that set out to make a difference after Bridgett’s cancer diagnosis back in 2015 had her questioning her legacy. Today, One Good Thing stocks products sourced from far and wide, but the common denominator is a positive impact – be it planting a tree, removing harmful plastic from the oceans, or offering employment to a survivor of human trafficking.
Save Our World
Author Colette Barr and illustrator Leona Collins are at the helm of Save Our World, which raises awareness of environmental issues through funny and engaging children’s stories created to inspire change and action for a more sustainable planet. The Eco-heroes series of books features five fictional friends who want to help save the planet through recycling, energy and water conservation, reducing food waste, and minimising plastic, thereby encouraging readers to make positive choices from a young age.
Sweet Dreams: This Sleepwear Brand Is Not Like the Others
Meet entrepreneur Natasha Inman.
As yet another challenging year draws to a close, we’re continuing our series on female entrepreneurs, recognising the female entrepreneurs who turned an obstacle into an opportunity. Case in point? Natasha Inman, who moved from the UK to Dubai in February 2020, just as the pandemic struck.
Like countless women around the globe, she spent a lot of her time during lockdown in her pyjamas and was therefore inspired to create something that looked sophisticated and elegant, but was super comfortable to wear – et voilà! Luxury sleepwear and loungewear brand State of REM was awakened. Today, Natasha is all about focusing her business on the things most important to her: living a healthy lifestyle, raising awareness around mental well-being, and treating oneself to things that elicit joy.
State of REM
What was your ‘lightbulb moment’?
I don’t really recall having a lightbulb moment. I remember thinking I wanted to try to create something better than what was in the market already in terms of sleepwear, as well as make a brand based around community, self-care, and wellness. I don’t have any experience in textiles or fashion design, but I’ve always been very interested in business and entrepreneurship. I’ve also always wanted to create something bigger than myself, so I saw this as a challenge. Now, my vision is to be the number one place globally for sleepwear, loungewear, and gifts, all of which are sleep-related. I want to use my brand to raise awareness of mental health and the support that is out there for people.
What makes your business unique?
I like to think of State of REM as a community, not just a brand. We create luxury sleepwear and loungewear investment pieces. We source the best materials and ensure every item we produce passes the most stringent of quality checks. I want my customers to be blown away with the quality and service and, so far, I’ve had a lot of happy customers.
Above all, I want to support a positive change in the world, and for me to use my brand to raise awareness of mental health and financially contribute to mental health support is an amazing feeling. State of REM is a platform where people can get self-care tips and quotes, discover ideas on living a healthy life, and even engage if they’re struggling with their mental health. And I don’t think there are many brands in the region that are doing this right now. As the brand grows, this emphasis will only get stronger.
What has been your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?
Seeing some well-known regional influencers buy my product felt great – people I’ve been following for a while and whose style I’ve admired are now wanting to wear my pyjamas. Also, being able to donate AED 2,500 to Al Jalila Foundation after only 12 weeks was a proud moment. Building your own business is about making money, but being part of a positive change in the world is so satisfying.
Which other entrepreneurs do you admire?
I admire anyone who puts themselves out of their comfort zone and executes. It’s easy for a lot of people to have an idea, but to take it right through to execution and have that resilience and patience to keep going takes a lot of character. I tend to follow Reece Wabara (founder of Manière De Voir), George Heaton (founder of Represent Clo), Grace Beverley (founder of Tala & Shreddy), Rokeya Khanum (founder of Khanum’s), Conna Walker (founder of House of CB), Nicola Elliott (founder of NEOM). I admire them because most have founded something from nothing, creating a community and core cult following through just being a great brand. They live and breathe their businesses, like I do. They inspire me and I learn a lot from these people.
Are you a part of any mentor or support groups?
Not officially, but I’ve managed to grow my network considerably since starting State of REM, with lots of entrepreneurs and I connecting via social media. We share ideas, successes, and failures. I prefer to learn from podcasts and books. I think it’s amazing how I can listen to an inspiring entrepreneur on Spotify for an hour whilst he offloads 20 years of experience onto me.
Who is your biggest female business icon, and why?
I have lots of favourites, but I’d say Jo Malone. I’ve read her book and listened to lots of her podcasts. She’s a true inspiration – so many setbacks, yet an amazing amount of resilience. Whenever I think times are tough, I remember people like her have been through a lot more and it really drags me through. Not to mention, she created a globally recognised brand and has now started another.
What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?
“Never give up” is what keeps me going. There are so many examples of brands in every industry that initially struggled and are now aspirational. Victoria Beckham didn’t make a profit for 11 years, Amina Muaddi is the most desired shoe company at the moment, yet she had a couple of failed businesses before that. Conna Walker had a failed jewellery brand, but is now every woman’s #girlbossgoals. There are so many examples, but the common denominator is that they never gave up and kept on going. An overnight success isn’t a feasible thing; everything takes time and effort.
Salama Mohamed on Skincare, Social Media, and More
In honour of the UAE’s National Day, of course.
Let’s get one thing straight: Salama Mohamed is not “suffering” with vitiligo – she’s blessed with it. But more on that in a minute. The Emirati influencer and entrepreneur came into our lives by way of the hilarious YouTube videos that star her and her husband, Khalid Al Ameri. Salama, however, is her own woman, venturing into the world of skincare with her brand Peacefull. Not only do the products cater to both men and women with sensitive skin, but they’re also designed with the region’s drastic swings of temperature in mind. Here, she gets candid with The Gaggler.
On what it means to be an Emirati woman in 2021:
“I’m feeling super lucky. I feel like we’re so lucky to be in the UAE, all of us – whether Emirati or not. What a great time to be alive and living in the UAE, it’s such a blessing. We have plans at Peacefull for National Day in place, a few tricks up our sleeves, so we’re excited.”
On the backstory of becoming a role model for so many:
“It was actually very challenging growing up in an environment where skin tone was a bit of a taboo to discuss. And skin-wise, I never had figures who I could look up to, so that was my mission in life – to become my own role model in that way, if it makes sense? I never had any growing up, so I wanted to be one for my kids and my community. It was very challenging, but doable.”
On how the representation of vitiligo has evolved in mainstream media:
“I’m against using the word ‘suffering’ – and I love Winnie Harlow for what she’s doing on a global scale. My son was once working around a mall with Khalid, and he saw a big poster of her in a campaign. He instantly said, ‘She looks like mama! She’s beautiful like mama.’ And I thought that was amazing. It just made my heart so warm when Khalid told me about the incident, so I’m thankful for her speaking up against being described as a ‘vitiligo sufferer’. And like her, I’m not suffering. Vitiligo has given me superpowers, so I’m absolutely not suffering whatsoever. I’m blessed with it.”
On bringing SoKo’s finest to the region:
“We’re bringing South Korean active ingredients through products that are tailor-made for this region. Peacefull products are tested in a heat chamber set to 50ºC for three months to make sure that the formula sits right during the summer – and the whole year for that matter. We have cica in the Endless Purifying Toner, which is a wound healer and therefore heals the skin after traumatic cystic acne. And then there’s mugwort in the Mugwort Clay Mask Cleanser, which is an amazing antioxidant ingredient that helps to preserve moisture within the skin. It’s gentle enough to be used by people with psoriasis, people with eczema, people with rosacea, and people with vitiligo. That’s what we’re doing with Peacefull – yes, we bring these innovative active ingredients in from Korea, but they’re inclusive and suited to everyone.”
On launching beauty products for people with sensitive skin:
“I love makeup, so maybe one day, but our concern at the moment and what we’re trying to build is a lifestyle. We’re trying to pass on skincare for the next generation. We’re trying our best to be part of everyone’s skincare routines because we want to take care of the actual foundation of the skin before we mask it with makeup. That’s the problem we want to fix first and then, maybe in the future, we’ll branch out into makeup.”
On the last time she felt truly at peace:
“I’d like to think I’m peaceful every single day because I’m a fairly chilled out person, but it goes up and down. Like anyone else, it depends on the day – it depends on whether you’ve had your cup of tea, whether it was made right that morning, whether you’ve gone to the gym and if you had a leg day – it depends how peaceful you are after that.”
On how frequently she needs a time-out from social media:
“Every single day, day in and day out. I consider myself a private person, but I’ve managed to find that sweet spot between being on social media and maintaining a private life. Everything that I do is scripted, so I only put out what I want to put out there – and keep the rest of my life private. So for example, if I post a video or a skit with Khalid or an image of myself with the boys today, I’ll spend an hour after that responding to people and engaging with them. And then I’ll take the rest of the day off. I’ll share that particular moment, but then have the rest of my day for myself and my family.”
On laughing uncontrollably with Khalid:
“We laugh every single day because we never take each other seriously – never, ever, ever. Unless, of course, there’s something that revolves around the kids or their schooling. But when it comes to us? We just never take each other seriously, and I’d say it’s a really lucky combination of two best friends cracking up at each other.”
On struggling with self-acceptance:
“I don’t remember the day and date, but I remember the year – it was between 2015 and 2016, but it’s been smooth sailing after that. It was rough around those couple of years because I had just moved back from the States, my son Abdullah was diagnosed with autism. It was challenging for the whole family and me as a mother, but I’m thankful for those years because they made me a lot tougher.”
As Women’s Entrepreneurship Day approaches on November 19, we’re continuing our series on female entrepreneurs today. After all, Dubai boasts a group of sensational female self-starters whose experiences and professional insights bring with them countless nuggets of wisdom. Case in point? Marcela Sancho, who is all about bringing guilt-free treats to the city.
After popping out for ice cream with her partner one afternoon in 2018, she was shocked by the lack of healthy options on offer for those looking for something that wasn’t packed with sugar, preservatives, or calories. Tapping into her partner’s extensive experience in the region’s frozen treats business, Marcela set about creating a refreshing and healthy alternative to what was available, co-founding House of Pops in the process. Not only is it the only Dubai-based ice cream brand with zero plastic packaging, but its vegan all-natural fruit pops also contain no preservatives, colourings, E-numbers, nor refined sugar.
House of Pops
What was your ‘lightbulb’ moment?
One day, I was with my partner, out for ice cream and shocked that we couldn’t really see anything that was healthy on offer. Everything was high in sugar, high in fat, and packed with empty calories. Health and wellness had become a global trend, and more UAE consumers were moving into this category at the time, so that was our opportunity to take up the challenge and fill the gap in the market.
What was your vision when you first launched your business?
We wanted to be the number one choice when people thought of healthier ice cream, and create the healthiest form of ice cream that we possibly could. We wanted to be the first to bring the change – a disruption into this category – and believed we could have a strong share in the ice cream business, especially since my partner had extensive experience in the industry. Our mission was to provide consumers with an option to delight themselves guilt-free and, so, House of Pops was born. We launched our products at a farmers’ market and sold 100 pops that day. That was a great day.
Has the pandemic affected your business negatively or positively?
It had a positive effect. When people were locked at home, they were looking for something to indulge in to make themselves happy, and House of Pops was the perfect solution as a healthy treat. We already had a very strong e-commerce structure in place, so we were able to cope with the demand. We experienced a channel growth of 10 times its size before COVID-19.
What drives you every day?
The passion to achieve sustainable growth for the business, tackle new opportunities of development from the product range, and expand the brand internationally. The business has been working for three years – we’ve successfully opened seven shops and want to expand our franchise model. It’s been sold to other countries in the GCC, and this is where our focus is at the moment.
Do you have a favourite business mentor?
Jim Rhon and his practical approach. He preaches accountability. This is very powerful, as he made me realise that I can change and drive change in my life and in my business. I stopped pointing out why things went wrong, justifying it with external factors, and started to ask myself what I could’ve done differently or better. This is how I learned. He also explains why it’s important to not only have clear priorities, but also allocate energy and a share of mind to them to get results. When time is limited as an entrepreneur, this becomes very helpful.
Which books/podcasts/blogs do you follow, and why?
I usually like to listen to interviews. You can learn a lot from other people’s experience, irrespective of the field they are in. From sportsmen like MMA fighter Conor McGregor to Michelle Obama, it gives me the motivation and sense of community that I need. I can relate to a lot of the struggles that they speak about, and how they overcame them to reach the place where they are today.
What’s one piece of advice that you would give to a budding entrepreneur?
Set your concept and give it a try. Have your goals straight. Speak to people in the field. Understand challenges that you might face so that you don’t repeat them again. Read a lot about your idea and your concept. Be like a sponge.
What are five things one must consider before launching a business?
Make sure that the insights make sense.
Make sure that the business is scalable – it should be a business, not a hobby.
Understand the financials on bringing the idea to life. Do you have them or do you need external investment?
Have the right skills to develop the idea. If you don’t have them, get the right team (outsourced or in-house).
Find something unique in your proposition. This will make you build a successful company. We are at a time where a lot of services and products are being offered, so ask yourself, ‘Why people would choose my product?
NEXT UP: What makes sleepwear and loungewear queen Natasha Inman’s business brain tick?
Three survivors, three truly inspiring success stories.
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month draws to a close today, it’s important to take a moment to acknowledge the human side of this disease. At The Gaggler, we’ve shared an at-home health check recommended by a leading gynecologist and spoken to a variety of experts about what causes cancer and what you can do to prevent it – but we’ve saved the best for last. Here, we speak with three breast cancer survivors who have gone on to inspire those around them in their own unique ways. Here are their stories.
Anisha Oberoi, Entrepreneur
For clean beauty junkies across the region, the name Anisha Oberoi needs no introduction. For others, here’s a brief one. The Indian entrepreneur founded Secret Skin in February 2020 with a commitment to carrying brands that are ethically sourced, responsibly curated, and cruelty-free – Rahua and Grown Alchemist included. As for what prompted the birth of this sustainable beauty platform? Anisha fought breast cancer back in 2010 and experienced firsthand just how challenging it can be to find clean beauty brands, especially as the combination of chemotherapy and heavy medication shattered her self-esteem. “I had to relook at everything, including what I considered were standards of my beauty – my hair, my lashes, my brows, everything fell, so I had to look in the mirror and accept who I was. I had to look at that girl in the mirror and say, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ That’s something I wish I knew back then.”
While the rollercoaster of emotions between diagnosis and recovery can’t be easy to articulate, Anisha does so beautifully. “I said my life cannot be all about this, so I looked out with childlike wonder, like a kid at a windowpane. I asked, ‘What else is the world going to bring me?’ And I wish I knew back then that it was going to be incredible because I wouldn’t have been so scared.” She says that while stubbornness, the will to stay alive, and her dream to pursue an MBA at INSEAD collectively kept her going, the reactions to her resilience brought with them moments of impostor syndrome. “At one point, you feel impotent and ugly, with steroids fattening you up. And you’re having issues with your digestive system and your drainage, and you’re unable to imagine anything different. It defeats your spirit.” Anisha recalls needing her doctor’s permission to join friends headed to a wedding in Jaipur by bus after her third round of chemotherapy and, in case you’re wondering, she was the last one on the dance floor.
“My head was shorn, I was wearing a sari, and I was living life. But I couldn’t always be that shiny beacon of light because there would be times that I’d feel defeated and my pillow case would be covered in night sweats and I wouldn’t be able to eat because anything could trigger an infection. I remember feeling useless and incomplete. I felt my life had been cut short.” Today, as Anisha is 11 years into remission and celebrating the first anniversary of Secret Skin, she has a few observations when it comes to the region’s interest in all things clean beauty. “Other parts of the world, like the UK and the US, are a lot more evolved because their journey with clean beauty started a lot longer ago, which is a bit ironic because no one spends more on personal care and beauty than this region. What’s more, about 67% of people who shop are millennials and they’re living online, so I’m a bit surprised that the movement arrived late. I’m also glad because it makes us the first mover.”
Anisha says finding toxin-free products when she moved to Dubai two and half years ago came with challenges – exorbitant shipping charges and customs duties included. “With everything coming back to global footprint, I felt there was a huge opportunity here. The customer today is becoming smarter with regard to what goes into their products, and the pandemic has only accelerated the emphasis on clean living. More people are engaging in skincare rituals rather than makeup, so it was the right time for us to launch Secret Skin.” The ambitious entrepreneur admits that she struggles to slow down, describing this past one year as equal parts rewarding and terrifying. “I force myself to take breaks. It’s really important for my mental health because that aspect has suffered since I’m a new entrepreneur. I’m a personality type that always needs to keep the action going, and this was very prevalent when I was sick – well-meaning relatives kept telling me that I should take a step back, relax, and not pursue the ambitious career that I’ve always envisioned.”
But Anisha did exactly the opposite almost immediately post-recovery – she headed to a prestigious business school, moved countries, and accepted a job as one of the founding members of Amazon Fashion India. “It gave me wings. It was the biggest job I’d ever had, it anchored my resume, and it taught me everything I know that has enabled me to run Secret Skin the way we do.” Considering Anisha is both a survivor and savvy businesswoman, I can’t help but gauge her opinion of pinkwashing, a marketing tactic that admittedly irks me to no end. While I respect the role played by private entities in fundraising efforts, do we really need candles, cupcakes, and yoghurt containers in varying shades of Barbie pink? Anisha concurs.
“To be honest, I do know that come October, everybody will want to slap a pink ribbon everywhere. I think the intention is right, but you can’t do anything with good intentions unless you actually put something in motion. It’s great that you see it everywhere, but it’s so overused that it loses its credibility if not done right. And it’s not just a matter of it being done right – it’s also a matter of what else you are doing to carry it forward, how many lives you are touching, and how many changes you have created.” Because she’s passionate about promoting women’s health and supporting young people who are battling cancer, Secret Skin has partnered with Friends of Cancer Patients to sponsor free mammograms with the help of Pink Caravan Medical Mobile Clinic, a medical facility that travels across the UAE. “I was very young when it happened to me, so I’m very bullish about making an effort and creating a support community. We plan to continue this much further and not just use it as a PR ploy because we turned one, because I’m a survivor, because it’s October.”
Maruf Azimov, Model
Anisha’s words are a powerful reminder that breast cancer affects the lives of both men and women worldwide all year round – not just in October. Yes, it is rare, but men can get breast cancer, contrary to popular belief. And while it is most common in older men, it can occur at any age – just ask Maruf. The model, brand ambassador, and winner of the Mr. Dubai 2019 title was only 24 when he was diagnosed. Today, he’s vocal not only about erasing the stigma around a man battling ‘a woman’s disease’, but also the importance of regular health check-ups. “There are people who can’t even grasp the concept of male breast cancer,” he says. “Yes, there were times I felt shy or ashamed, but it is on the rise – not just breast cancer, but cancer in general. That’s why my message is to just go for a check-up if something feels different in your body, whether you’re a man or a woman. Don’t waste time feeling ashamed in front of anyone because you deserve to be healthy. Check-ups are easy and affordable. The alternative isn’t.”
Maruf is quick to admit that men are a lot less likely to seek professional help for things like depression and anxiety. He says that while his doctor did recommend speaking to a therapist, he chose to carry the burden all alone for four years. His reason? Family. “I was the only one in my family who was working at the time, and I just couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone – not my wife, not my parents. Besides, they’ve already given me everything and I didn’t want to see them suffer,” he explains. With Maruf deciding to tackle the illness on his own, a friend recommended that he move from his hometown of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Dubai. “What’s worse is that an issue with my heart put my lump removal surgery on hold. Of course, I felt scared, but I worked on being happy for the sake of my family,” he says. With the encouragement of his doctor, Maruf channelled all his efforts towards his mindset, focusing on his health by way of staying positive. “I would repeat the words, ‘You are not sick’ to myself. I started enjoying my life – this is crucial if you want to improve your mental health.”
Naturally, there were good days and bad days. He says that in the absence of conventional approaches like therapy, spirituality got him through his darkest moments, reinforcing the countless studies concluding that spirituality and mental health are interconnected. “I still remember those early days, when I first moved to Dubai. I didn’t have a lot of money, so I was working as a salesman during the day, and a security guard at night. I’d go to chemotherapy and check-ups between the two. It wasn’t easy. I’d survive on bread, tea, and instant soup. But the best doctor is God. I would sit at home, saying prayer after prayer, sharing all my problems with God. ‘I want to buy my father a car so he can work as a taxi driver and I want to help my two sisters get married, so please don’t take my life right now,’ I’d beg. And you know what? I managed to do it all and I’m here. I’m alive. So much good has happened because I believed,” he says, visibly emotional.
Today, a mere glance at his Instagram account speaks volumes of how far he has risen from his humble beginnings. In an industry fixated on physical perfection, Maruf has had to work much harder than his peers as a result of the fatigue, exhaustion, and weight loss that comes with battling cancer, but does so to set an example for his children. “My doctor thought I was crazy for going to the gym during chemotherapy, but I wanted to show my kids that their father is strong. I get that from my father. He has always been the strongest male presence in my life.” With over 264,000 followers on Instagram, Maruf is not immune to the occasional internet troll, but says that he posts photos of his physique to inspire others. “I’m not just flaunting my body. I’m encouraging others to fight harder, to fight for their lives. If I can do it after all that medication and all those treatments, anyone can.”
In retrospect, Maruf says he wouldn’t do anything differently when it comes to protecting his family members from his pain. “This disease is not like the others – it’s not like a broken foot. A small lump in the chest isn’t visible, so it’s not something your family will initially understand. My advice? Talk to yourself first. Tell yourself that you can do it, and everything will be okay. It’s the smiles of your family members that will get you through any hardship. You can tell them once you’ve started treatment and need their support, but why upset them from the very beginning? In fact, I didn’t even feel any pain until much later. I was told at my very first check-up that I had reached stage 2,” he recalls.
Selfless, family-oriented, and utterly devoted to his wife and three children, Maruf has a message for the caregivers of a male breast cancer patient – and it’s one that is echoed by others. “Don’t treat your loved one like a sick person,” he suggests. “Show them the same love and care as you would under normal circumstances.” He reveals that it was a long four-year period until he was allowed to undergo surgery in Uzbekistan and, this time around, he confided in his wife. Maruf was actually debating how to tell his mother about the severity of his condition, considering he didn’t receive his results for nearly a month. “All I kept thinking was, ‘How can I tell my mom if there’s no change? How do I tell a mother that her son may die?’ I felt I had to mentally prepare her for the worst.” That’s when his doctor called to give him the all-clear: “My boy, you are a winner.”
Tina Chagoury, Nutrition Consultant
The phrase ‘timing is everything’ comes to mind with speaking with Tina Chagoury. At a time when the world went into lockdown – i.e. panic mode – the multihyphenate was starting to celebrate a new lease on life. A nutrition consultant, a health behaviour educator, and a regular presence in local media, Tina was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2019, when she was on holiday in her native country of Lebanon. It goes without saying that the rest of the year brought with it countless challenges. Not only did she have to relocate herself and her two children to Beirut because of her treatment, but the October 2019 revolution also made getting to chemotherapy that much harder. “The roads were closed, there were ongoing riots, everything was a mess. The journey to the hospital usually takes 30 minutes, but we would leave two hours in advance,” she describes. Schools across Beirut also closed as a result of the revolution, forcing Tina to arrange remote learning – months before it became the ‘new normal’ for parents worldwide.
Fear and anxiety aside, Tina recalls feeling a deep sense of missing out. “In the deepest corners of my mind, there was a recurring thought: I’m missing out on my career. My field is rooted in ongoing learning, so if you’re off for a couple of months, you have to go back and do the training, apply for more CMEs, update your license. But then I’d remind myself to be patient. I’d tell myself everything will go back to the way it was.” As 2020 began, she gradually began planning for the year ahead – returning to a routine in Dubai and enrolling the kids in school again. And then coronavirus happened. As someone who was travelling back and forth between Beirut and Dubai, Tina was repeatedly advised to wear a mask as her immunity was still low post-chemotherapy, but she resisted. “On paper, my immunity looked fine. And with a bald head, no eyelashes, and no eyebrows, the last thing I wanted was one more thing that will make me stand out in a crowd.”
A complete lockdown was announced as Tina had two last rounds of radiotherapy left and distinctly remembers the surreal sight of an empty Sheikh Zayed Road. The unprecedented situation, she says, brought it with a sense of relief. “It felt like the stars were lining up because I wasn’t the only one missing out on life – no one was doing anything. I was happy because not only did I get to spend more time with the kids at home without the distractions of extracurricular activities, but it also gave me a chance to recharge. I was still recovering and very physically weak. Everyone around me was panicking, but I realised that it was a blessing for me. I actually felt very peaceful at the time. We were worried about the situation, of course, but I took that time to heal, to regain a bit of my health before returning to work in July.” Today, Tina is an adjunct instructor at Abu Dhabi University and sees clients at multiple clinics across Dubai. Considering she’s a licensed clinical dietician with over 20 years of experience, I can’t help but ask what has changed in terms of her approach to health and nutrition now that she’s in remission.
Interestingly, a period of retrospection has brought with it one big revelation. Besides changing her stance on supplements, she says it’s her approach to fitness that has shifted drastically. “Because of how I was taught, I believed that supplements were only needed in the case of a deficiency, but research made me realise their importance for optimal health. I still eat the way I used to, but I now know that I was overexerting my body,” she says. Tina reveals that she used to be an avid devotee of bikram yoga, practising it several times a week. “It was an addiction, but I noticed something during the last few months before my diagnosis: I was feeling more tired than usual during my sessions. Hot yoga is very hardcore and, even though I’d been practising yoga for 10 years at that point, I would leave midway through my sessions because of exhaustion. I was also doing HIIT three times a week. We all know how important exercise is, but what I’ve learnt is that over-exercising is incredibly inflammatory for women.” Her advice? Everything in moderation – exercise included.
Mental health, meanwhile, is high on Tina’s list of priorities, her sentiments towards faith echoing those of Maruf. “Everyone has a different approach to self-care, especially when post-traumatic stress strikes. I’m a very spiritual person and prayer has played a big role in my life, both during and after treatment. Also, your perspective changes when you come close to the idea of death. I end up depressed if I let myself think about the possibility of recurrence, and snap myself out of it by thinking, ‘I am alive and I am well. I am here today.’ That alone is a huge gift.” Tina looks back on the days in Beirut, when simply watching Netflix with her husband was all she wanted. “It might sound cliché, but when something like this happens, you live for those little things.” Tina admits that sporadic anxiety is inevitable and, at such moments, her self-talk is about not wasting the ‘now’ by making assumptions. “I wasted so much time worrying about the silliest things before my diagnosis,” she explains, encouraging everyone to have a plan and pursue what they’ve always wanted. “You don’t know what tomorrow holds, so follow your intuition and balance will set on its own.”
Another nugget of wisdom? Tina’s advice to the caregivers out there. “You should know that just your presence is valuable, it’s all she needs. You don’t need to go over and above, especially since you don’t want to make her feel any less capable.” She says caregivers often forget something important: “Yes, she might be physically and psychologically weaker, but mentally, she is still the same. She can handle her home, she can make family decisions. And unless she’s unwell because of the treatment, don’t make her feel like her life is on hold. There’s nothing more frustrating to a mother than to be told, ‘We’ll take care of your children, you just take care of yourself.’ Taking care of my children is a part of taking care of myself,” she asserts. Instead, Tina recommends simply being there, cracking jokes, baking a cake for the kids, or gifting something she’d like. “I met other women during treatment who felt the same way. ‘Come on, lock me into my room and run my life,’ we’d laugh. I may not have eyelashes or eyebrows, but I’m still the same person. We knew that it comes from a good place, though.”