Getting Your Shit Together is a new monthly column on everyday mental health from Auckland mindfulness educator Kristina Cavit. Ahead of Pink Shirt Day tomorrow, Cavit talks to two teenage friends about their experience of bullying – and the techniques they’ve developed to fight back.
I was lucky enough to work with 15 year old best friends Hana and Eva* on a programme at The Kindness Institute, which I run, for youth with low self belief, but a tonne of potential.
When I first met them they were super shy and answered questions mostly with a quiet yes or no. But at the end of the first day, they decided to speak up and shared how grateful they were to be in a space where they didn’t feel judged, there wasn’t pressure to be perfect and they could be themselves. And as the programme went on, Hana and Eva proved to be incredibly insightful, brave wahine who had A LOT to say.
In that spirit, I wanted to find out how contemporary bullying affects their lives and the strategies they’ve developed to combat the destructive behaviour. I found out bullying is not just getting beaten up, laughed at by the cool kids and called hurtful names. It’s more subtle, like being ignored for being too quiet, feeling isolated from your own culture, being fat shamed and being pressured to be smart, confident and perfect.
Kristina: Can you tell me what kind of bullying you’ve witnessed or experienced?
Hana: I was actually fat shamed from the time I was just a bit over 5 years old. And these people who fat shamed me were adults. The tips they gave were like ‘You should starve her, make her exercise’ and stuff. And when they told my parents, I was there in the room with them. And some people from my culture, they go by the saying that ‘children don’t have feelings.’ They just wanted me to be pretty. And smart. So I ended up eating less and less.
I absolutely despised the people who constantly fat shamed me, telling me things like I was too big for my age or how I should be healthier, which meant doing everything I could to be skinny. Their words did get to me and I regret listening because they influenced a 10 year old to start eating less to become their definition of beautiful.
I learnt the hard way about self acceptance – it’s honestly okay to find it hard to love yourself. The way someone looks at you is their opinion and it doesn’t matter as long as you’re happy with what you’ve got.
Eva: I was once walking to school and I had gotten shoved into so many times that my shoulder was starting to hurt. It was like those around me generally couldn’t see me. I started thinking I had died at some point on my journey and I didn’t know it, that’s how invisible I felt.
And do you think it’s already hard enough as a girl to not be heard?
E: Yes, that does have something to do with it. And especially for me because I’m little. I will get overlooked, literally and figuratively. And I’m quiet as well, so it’s harder to hear me. I kind of get looked down upon because I’m not loud. So if I was loud I would be seen more and people would listen more.
So it’s important to speak up. How do you that?
E: When I got to my new school I thought, ‘I can’t let myself not be seen and pushed around so much anymore,’ so I had to become louder and I had to learn to stand up straighter, just so I could be seen more. I found it easier to project my voice and have strength in what I believed in. And I feel like if you really believe what you’re saying is true, people do want to listen to you.
I think I did the right thing by talking to my mum. Every time that sort of thing happened, I would tell my mum – I always had her to talk to, or my cousin.
And if you want to help others who are being bullied you need to try to get them to open up. If they don’t want to talk, you can always find someone they know and tell them about it.
H: Yeah you have to speak up for them. Cause sometimes the person might not even know they’re being bullied. And you have to make them realise that what the people are doing isn’t okay.
And if people don’t have family to talk to, what kind of help is available?
E: These days there are a lot of people you can call and go online. There are also school counsellors. That’s really important. But often there’s at least one person in your life you can talk to, even if you don’t think that there is.
I also realised that my old school was one culture and it wasn’t right, I don’t think. When you’re at a school with so many different ethnicities, you have a wider reach to find people that accept you. And it’s easier to learn more about other people and the way they are, instead of just learning about one type of person.
That’s such a cool point you bring up to get to know other cultures. Hana how has it affected you getting to know people from so many different cultures?
H: It’s really helped me I guess. I wasn’t really friends with people who were my culture because they were always yelling at each other and being loud. And being friends with other people, they were also loud, but in a different way. They were more like – friendly and joking. And being with other cultures I was able to find people who were more like me, that I could connect with.
That’s so cool. And what could people have done differently when you felt you were being bullied?
H: I always felt like I had to dress up to be the more girly type, showing-skin type. And I didn’t really like it. So people could’ve asked me what I wanted, but they never accepted it, because I dress more like a boy than a girl. So they were like, “Oh you’re a girl, you should dress this certain way.” People should’ve supported me for who I was.
That’s amazing. Lots of other young people and adults face bullying and don’t have the confidence that you have to speak up. What could they do?
E: I would say not to reinvent yourself, but do become stronger in your opinions and become stronger in yourself, which will make you stand up. And I feel like writing is a good thing. Especially if you feel like you don’t have anyone to talk to, you can just write it down first and then you feel lighter.
I’d also say, they don’t need to believe what someone else says. So they’d have to think about what the bully was saying and ask themselves, ‘Do I really believe that?’
H: I think that it’s definitely okay to have other people speak out for you in tough situations like being bullied. I think it’s okay to shake or stutter when you speak. When I would speak out, I used to tune into what I was saying and imagine other people weren’t there, I imagined myself in a comfortable space where I was alone and could speak my mind.
Although it’s not easy, I have turned my emotions around from being red, shaky and scared to “Okay I’m doing this for myself and all these people do not matter.”
By the end of the programme, Hana and Eva were teaching yoga and meditation to the other rangatahi and ended up inspiring the hell out of everyone who worked with them. Soon they’ll be sharing these tools at a community event and encouraging others to speak up and connect with how they feel.
And I agree with their suggestions about finding a trusted counsellor, teacher or friend to talk to, whatever the situation – no one deserves to be bullied. No matter if you’re a 15 year old being pushed around for being too shy, or a 35 year old with a corporate job feeling bullied for not fitting in, you are not alone. We all need a little help sometimes. And as Hana wisely put it; “People isolate themselves thinking they’re all alone. But really, there’s lots of people going through it. And they could get help from someone they barely know because these people, these strangers, are really thoughtful too.”
Our awesome sponsors The Mental Health Foundation are again heading up Pink Shirt Day on Friday 26 May. It’s a day to speak up and celebrate the rad things that make each of us unique and wonderful. It’s a day to stand together and take action to make our schools, workplaces and communities safer, more welcoming and inclusive for everyone. And it’s a day to make a commitment to create change and stop bullying in New Zealand. It’s a big goal but we think New Zealand is up to the challenge. Find out more about the origins of Pink Shirt Day and get involved at pinkshirtday.org.nz
A note from the Mental Health Foundation: Being bullied can make you feel completely alone. It’s a scary and upsetting experience and no one deserves to be treated that way. If you’re being bullied, reach out to someone you trust and have a chat about what you’re going through. It might help to write it down first. If the first person you tell doesn’t take you seriously, take a deep breath and try someone else. You’re important, your feelings are important and you deserve help and support.
If you want to talk to someone anonymously and confidentially, the following helplines offer free, confidential counselling and advice 24/7.
Phone 0800 37 66 33 Free Text 234 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone 0800 543 354
Provides confidential telephone support for sexuality or gender identity issues.
0800 688 5463 (OUTLINE)
For more information and help:
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
This column is brought to you by the Mental Health Foundation. The MHF is working to create an Aotearoa where we all feel good most of the time, whether or not you have experience of mental illness. It promotes the Five Ways to Wellbeing – give, be active, take notice, keep learning and connect – because these five amazingly simple strategies really will make a difference to how you live and feel every day.