Self-Care, Body Diversity, and Religion: A Conversation with Writer Fariha Róisín

Photo credit George Grant

During my first conversation with Montreal-based Bengali writer Fariha, I am immediately at home. The gentle shifts in the intensity of her eyes as our conversation ebbs and flows signifies that she is present, and in a time when no one has the time, she is listening, she is here for you. With bylines in Hazlitt, Teen Vogue, Vice’s Broadly and Buzzfeed, to name a few, Róisín has broached sensitive and difficult themes – Islam and Islamophobia, abortion, the Queer identity, and mental illness – with a kind of tenderness that is unique unto her. Róisín does not write merely of what she knows; she writes what she knows of her lived experiences, making her writing as warm and charismatic as the person she embodies.

Below Róisín discusses self-care, body diversity, religion and rainbow pantsuits.

Q&A

LF: What is your current state of mind?

FR: Honestly, I feel a bit overwhelmed. There are many layers to this weariness.

Since the Muslim Ban (and also the recent updates of the ban that were just released), I’ve been feeling very dislocated, very frustrated by the state of the world. It’s shocking to me that there is so much hate, and that continues to upset me. It’s hard to navigate things when you feel so many identities of yours are under constant attack, and I’m saying that in both micro and macro terms — some of us aren’t even safe, or protected, in our own communities.

Also, there’s so much infighting (i.e. in the writing world) and that makes me sad. I was talking to my friend Lubna today and we were talking about “A Seat At The Table” as a concept (not the brilliant Solange album) and I feel like I’m constantly trying to make space for people like me to exist in realms of writing, only to be confronted by other people’s fears of the scarcity: like there can only ever be one writer of color that writes about x/y/z. We’ve been conditioned to fight each other (and not white supremacy) that sometimes we forget! It makes me feel isolated. It makes me feel really sad!

LF: A few years ago, you started a column on self-care with Sara Black McCulloch for The Hairpin. In it you explore the realities, extremities and purest definitions of “self-care” from a holistic angle. What prompted this exploration?

FR: At the time, I think both Sara and I felt like we wanted a better relationship to ourselves, as individuals, and self care was a way to instigate that.

I can only talk for myself, but for me, I felt exhausted by always prioritizing others (still a problem that I’m unlearning) and I wanted to start focusing on myself. I think self-care is such a basic way to remind yourself, “I have a body, maybe I should care for it.” Sometimes, also, self-care gets conflated as being this thing that only rich people have access to, and I think we wanted to contend that and talk to femmes about the basics: how to shift your lens, and have a positive relationship with yourself, especially when you don’t have a foundation or experience for doing that. I think it’s really revolutionary to talk to all kinds of women about the ways in which they navigate self-hate, juxtaposed against self-care. That transparency still doesn’t really exist.

Photo credit Rebecca Storm

LF: In one of your columns, you comment, “It’s Ramadan right now which is this incredible time for self-care.” How has your Muslim identity shaped your understanding of self-care?

FR: Well, caring for yourself brings you closer to God. I really believe that. I also mean that in whatever way “God” is to you. Caring for yourself brings you closer to the divine. In Islam, I think there are beautiful rituals, i.e. like the act of ablution before you pray, or even prayer as a praxis of meditation, that are acts of kindness to yourself. It’s about self purification, and I think that’s a part of a self-care process. Wanting to be better lends itself to reaching a spiritual height.

LF: How do you disconnect and recharge in this era of sensory overload?

FR: I literally disconnect. I don’t have a phone – even though that might have to change for functionality’s sake sometime soon. I need that literal space and distance from the internet or connectivity, otherwise it’s too overwhelming. I’ve recently started going for walks, too. I like taking myself out of the comfort of a TV or computer screen, as it’s so easy to slip into a lull and watch three episodes of something on Netflix. Recently, I’ve tried to enact a no phone (for my partner) or iPad in the bedroom rule. I hate that idea that the first thing you do after you wake is check your devices. It means the first thoughts you have during the day are influenced by things that are completely external, and not intuitive.

LF: Being a sexual and religiously spiritual queer Muslim woman of color in a Western landscape contains multitudes. How do you reconcile with and balance your identities?

FR: It’s constantly being negotiated. But — more and more, and especially as I get older — it’s been about not giving a shit about what others think about me (which is easier said than done, trust) and embracing that, despite all my flaws, I really like who I am.

Photo credit Rebecca Storm

LF: You have a beautiful name, but non-Western names are often prone to being stretched and reduced to no meaning, and in Brown culture, names are essential and symbolic. Do you feel a sense of connectedness to your name?

FR: Fariha means “Joy” in Arabic. Róisín means “Little Rose.” When I was a kid, I used to change my names to Felicity, or Annabel. Anything “white,” and easy. I would lie because it was simpler to extend a hand and say: I’m just like you as opposed to: I’m different. It’s just so frustrating that I didn’t have that language to explain my lies, and my parents, too, didn’t know how to deal with my desire to be white. It’s tough for immigrant parents to understand the complexity of identity when it becomes enmeshed with a foreign perspective. Although my parents have lived in the West for decades, their references aren’t imprinted by the same ones as mine. They also came out of a Civil War, that was all about liberation of culture and language, so they’re not really invested in another cultural identity, or the bifurcation of identities. Their experience of themselves has been shaped by war, their understanding of who they are rooted in that context.

LF: How many layers are there to Fariha?

FR: Too many!

LF: The last time we spoke, you asked me about my moon sign, which I didn’t know at the time (my moon is in Gemini). What piqued your interest in Astrology?

FR: My sister bought me my first Astro Chart at 18. I was just about to move to NY and it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever received (for my 17th birthday she sent me to a two-day boss seminar called, Success and You, haha!) And as I was being read this chart, by an astrologer who is now a family friend, and it blew me away. I couldn’t believe that this woman was reading me all my complexities, and nuances. My Capricorn Sun in all its sternness, contrasted against the putty-heart of my Cancer Moon. It makes so much sense that I’m brash, but deeply coy. That I’m wise, and yet so self conscious at times. Also, around that time I felt very disillusioned by Law (which is what I was studying at the time) and I thought I wanted to get into writing… Lo and hold — in three different parts of my chart it told me to be a writer. The rest, as the say, is history!

Photo credit Rebecca Storm

LF: What is your most treasured possession?

FR: My happiness, for too long I’ve compromised it.

LF: You have thirty tattoos; which of them are dearest to you?

FR: I like most of them, ha! There are a few that are tacky on the design element of things, but I love this formation of a prayer hands and mother on the back of my left bicep. I also deeeeeeeeply love the alien and spaceship on the farthest two fingers on my right hand.

LF: Your personal aesthetic is a beautiful balance of East and West, old and new. What has influenced your sense of style?

FR: I really love Sarah Linh-Tran’s style. I like how she was such a mystery before Lemaire blew up, and how you would see her wearing all denim combos (like a chic Canadian tuxedo) on a sidewalk and think: who is she?

I love Bianca Jagger, who has been a seminal style icon to me. Her wedding dress continues to be revolutionary. I think my friend Marjon Carlos has incredible style, also my friends Claire Fuller and George Grant. I love wardrobes that are many different things, bold and bright, but simultaneously chic and monochrome. Maryam Nassir Zadeh has been my favorite designer for years, before the infamous mules. I think she really is iconic, she’s deeply prescient in her design and understanding how something will land. I also love Faris as a jeweler, she’s my favorite. Michelle Elie also represents lot of that for me. She’s bold, and in fashion I admire that the most. If I could have pant-suits in all colors, like that rainbow Hillary meme, I’d be a very content woman.

LF: As a young girl, I remember flipping through the now-defunct YM magazine and wishing my body weren’t so brown, like an insult or a dirty word. In your interview with Vogue, you talked about body dysmorphia and how growing up “skinny white women” were the ultimate signifiers of beauty to you. If you could go back in time, what would you say to your teenage self?

FR: I’d tell myself to detail all the things that are great about me, because to be your own champion is the greatest lesson to learn. To never forget that beauty is nuanced. And to learn how to like, even love, myself—fast!—because it’s never going to change, and by God I should accept it.

Photo credit Rebecca Storm

LF: On the subject of representation, what is your opinion on how the fashion and beauty industries are approaching beauty and body diversity?

FR: I mean, it’s capitalistic, as of course it’s taking advantage of a discourse that is already there. Ultimately, fashion labels/brands don’t care, they just want the semblance of pushing an envelope, of creating change. Also there’s too much at stake for them to not take this opportunity, to shift the lens; too many people would backlash. I mean, we understand—finally, hopefully—that cultural appropriation is alive and well and it’s important to ensure that black and brown models are also allowed to showcase other types of beauty, but the fashion industry so specifically lauds able bodied/skinny folks, that I think if they really wanted to be subversive they should actually hire more “real models” with a variation of body types. Racial diversity is great, and very important, but I really think it’d be equally powerful to have femmes with all kinds of bodies to have a platform. Thinness, we forget, is a marker of deep beauty privilege.

LF: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

FR: I think stability. But, I’m still defining it. I’m only 27!

In my mind, I could say “A home in the Catskills!” or “Having a successful writing career so I could open a restaurant with my friend Sophie!” But, those things, in a way, are deeply superficial. What I’m looking for is a shift in my consciousness. So, one day, I want to really feel abundant. And accept my path—completely, resolutely.

L’Agent Goodies…