Blogger, former celebrity stylist, Marie Claire contributor and mental health awareness advocate Roxie Nafousi, appears to live a gilded life through the frames of social media. But her younger days were blighted by racial bullying, disordered eating, depression and low self-esteem. When at 23 everything unravelled, she struggled to keep herself on an even keel. Here she explains how she found her way back to happiness–hint, it involves cutting down the scroll time.
I was born in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, but moved to England when I was six months old and spent my childhood in Oxford. My parents are both Iraqi and I’m the youngest of four—my brother is the eldest and I’ve got two sisters in between. We are incredibly close but for me it was being bullied as a child that really sowed the seeds of my depression. Even at primary school I realised I was very different from the other kids. Our family didn’t have lunch, we were Muslim and didn’t celebrate Christmas. I was always so conscious of avoiding the sun so I wouldn’t get browner, because I felt like my dark skin, hair and eyes was already so embarrassingly different. The bullying started when I was around five—but really it happened for as long as I can remember. When the Iraq war broke out things got really, really bad. Girls were evil. Once they locked me in a phone box and just stood outside chanting, ‘Saddam, Saddam.’ When mum came to pick me up from school, no-one could find me.
“When the Iraq war broke out things got really, really bad. Girls were evil.”
Finally my parents moved me and we settled on a mixed school and it was at that point I decided I wanted to change my name from Rawan to Roxie. I just didn’t want the first impression to be that I was Arabic and thought if I changed my name, people might not make that kind of association. In terms of Middle Eastern parents mine were incredibly liberal and they never pushed us, so they didn’t stand in my way.
I was emotionless throughout my school days. No matter how bad things got, I never, ever cried—I was totally out of touch with my feelings. My dad had taught me to stay neutral whenever there was a moment of conflict and I’d often just shut myself down. Looking back it wasn’t that I remember being desperately sad all the time—it’s more that I felt disassociated.
Heartbreak & Career Uncertainty
After school, I fell head over heels in love with someone. And that’s really when things started to unravel and some of the unhappiness and self-esteem issues that had been bubbling under the surface took hold. It just felt like I had no purpose, I had no idea who I was and my life at 21 felt like a whirlwind.
When I went through a breakup two years later, things just fell apart. I started drinking a lot and would be out four, five, six nights a week. I gained two stone in weight and spent my days sobbing. I’d only just started my career and my whole life just imploded around me.
I’d studied psychology at Goldsmith’s—I’ve never really had any hobbies or passions, but people and their relationships have always been my main interest. After finishing my degree, I started working as an account manager for Diageo. I was doing management for Ciroc vodka and just got involved with everything—PR, business strategy, events. But after about 18 months I wanted to do my own thing—something which specifically supported women.
I started a styling company to help women build confidence in the way that they dressed. At the beginning it was just working with my friends and it all built from there. I also set up a blog on the side and when that took off it ended up taking over most of my time. But I loved the experience I got from styling—the very best thing about it was being in a profession that made women feel good about themselves. Seeing their faces light up when they tried on that perfect dress was something which just always lifted my spirits.
Social Media Masochism
Even though things have gone well with the blog, I don’t think I’ll ever have the confidence to be a successful ‘blogger’. I don’t feel I will ever be able to stand in front of a camera and feel comfortable—ever. Having someone shine a spotlight on everything you hate about yourself is like a form of torture for me. I’m basically the worst person to be doing what I do for my living, it’s like my heart just wants to be at home in my pyjamas, eating fish and chips, but my career means that I have to try and feel pretty, confident and do things that make me feel really uneasy and anxious. There’s a huge tension in that. I obviously know I could have chosen a different route professionally, but in some ways I also crave the validation. Now I’m coming to terms with how to deal with the discomfort and my way of coping with it is by being honest and with that honesty trying to help other women who feel the same—which is a lot of us, as I’m learning.
“I’ll find that I put up a picture on Instagram looking like I’m really confident, but a day or the week or even an hour before that I might have been crying my eyes out thinking, “Oh my God I’m so fat; I’m so disgusting; I want to rip my skin off. I hate myself…”
Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with social media. On one hand I love it for creative self-expression, inspiration and motivation, but on the other hand the whole premise is beyond weird. I’ll find that I put up a picture on Instagram looking like I’m really confident, but a day or the week or even an hour before that I might have been crying my eyes out thinking, “Oh my God I’m so fat; I’m so disgusting; I want to rip my skin off. I hate myself…” But then you post a picture and maybe it gets likes and comments and then you feel good for a moment. But it’s a vicious cycle because then someone else is obviously going to look at your image and think, “Oh, she feels great about herself, she loves herself. Why don’t I love myself?” We all want to feel good about ourselves and feel proud of what we are. And I think sometimes, when you look at your feed and see what you have achieved as a whole it can really boost your self-esteem—even if you’re having a bad day. Sometimes we all need to look at the highlight reel.
But ultimately I do feel that we are living in an age where it’s so easy to compare ourselves to others and find ourselves wanting. We are all striving so hard to attain perfection and it’s impossible to go on to social media for more than a minute and not feel envious of something. It might be a job that someone’s got, a piece of clothing they’re wearing; God, even a restaurant that you can’t get a reservation for. But the key is to be really honest with yourself about these emotions and stop trying to pretend you don’t feel that way. People are so scared to admit there are envious. There’s this stigma, ‘Oh! You’re obviously jealous!’ But we need to just stop and ask ourselves actually, why do we feel that way? We are innately made to compare our achievements to others around us and there actually isn’t any shame in that. The problem starts when you let those feeling get on top of you because they can make you feel negative emotions towards others and even act vindictively towards them.
“Sometimes we all need the highlight reel. But it’s important to remember that behind every perfect image are 1000 imperfect images too.”
When you see the vile comments that people leave online, you know it can only stem from something they haven’t yet dealt with inside themselves. It’s just so easy to think someone else’s life is perfect. But no-one’s life is perfect. What I try campaign for is an open culture where we all try to be happy for each other while acknowledging that we’re not always perfect and that our emotions can be twisted when we feel alone and inadequate. We forget we live in a big city where we’re always surrounded by someone, but there are so many people that don’t have friends or even family nearby, that are sat at home on their computers or on Instagram feeling so lonely.
Another problem with social media is that it has made us want to look like other people—but those people don’t even look like that! What we’re lusting over is so Photoshopped and edited and even though we know that to an extent, it can still distort your frame of reference. I can remember when I was younger and looking at people’s skin in magazines, and genuinely thinking that their actual skin was entirely pore-free. And it was like, “Oh my God, I have acne, I can’t believe that skin should look like that.” You know, you have no idea that things are edited when you’re that young.
The Route to Self-Acceptance
Aside from my blog, my main professional focus now is to help other women cope with mental health issues through wellness. I lost myself so badly and up until mid-July last year I was really in such a terrible place. For me, the one thing that got me through was exercise and taking care of myself again. I’d say I’m now quite the fitness fanatic and I do love exercise. But when I talk about exercise and healthy eating, I want people to understand that it’s not just about looking good or being skinny. There are so many studies to show the link between mental health and exercise, so it’s so much more than skin-deep.
We are all so comfortable about going to the doctor for physical ailments, but when it comes to having a healthy mind—which is more important than anything—it’s a different story. I often compare mental health to a game of Tetris when you have to try and clear the blocks before they all build up and it’s game over. You have to sit and breathe and deal with things as they come. Stress, anxiety, sadness and huge bursts of cortisol can all build into something completely unmanageable.
Images taken from @RoxieNafousi
With self-esteem it can be cumulative. When you’re younger it can be one small thing, like not impressing your parents or not having enough friends. But it can grow to be about your weight, your grades, your work and not being successful enough. Brick by brick it can build a wall of self-loathing and despair. Then there’s that classic, “God, she’s my age and look how well she’s doing!”
What I’ve learnt is the only way to break down that wall is to stop looking at everyone else’s journey and start focusing on the things that make you feel genuinely happy—and guess what? None of them are on Instagram. For me it’s being with my family, having a nice meal with friends, laughing and socialising with people that I love and exercising. Those are things that make me happy, so I do more of them. It’s as simple as that.
“Living in the moment and not endlessly scrolling social media is one way to make sure you are focused on your own path. Life starts when you put your phone away.”
It’s really hard to wean yourself off social media comparison, because your mind becomes wired to your phone’s reward system. You know the alert tone that beeps when you get a message? That triggers your hypothalamus in the same way that having a drink or cigarette does, lighting up and releasing serotonin and dopamine, so you basically become addicted to the feel-good hormones. It’s like you need the next hit, so you become fixated with your phone looking for the next reward.
When it comes to dealing with my longer standing issues, there’s a really fine line between sitting with your emotions and letting yourself overindulge and get lost in them. I’ve always found it’s a lot easier to be unhappy and it takes a lot more effort to work towards happiness. Being happy means you have to shun all the shit that comes up in life—which is an everyday occurrence. Something that upsets you, something that disappoints you, something that didn’t go well. To be able to grab life and say, ‘despite everything, I’m going to make the decision to be happy and be positive,’—that takes a hell of a lot more work.
Nowadays I’m not ashamed when someone calls me Rawan in public. I still love Roxie, so I don’t think I’ll ever change it back, but I’ve definitely accepted that Rawan is part of who I am. It’s what my nieces call me now and I love that. It’s why I decided to call my blog Rawan.com—to celebrate being true to myself and spread the word to everyone that they shouldn’t be ashamed of who they really are.
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Images shot at Flemmings Mayfair Hotel, call 0207 499 0000 for reservations. Additional transcription by Titi Finlay