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Australian Social Butterfly Swarnaa Rajalingam Is The Influencer Educating Thousands About Colourism, Disability Awareness And Mental Health
Swarnaa Rajalingam is an Australian social media influencer who goes famously under the Instagram account "Life of a Social Butterfly" due to her love of meeting new people, yearning to connect, hear their stories, be inspired by their experiences and build meaningful relationships.
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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Swarnaa is super passionate about topics close to her heart including colourism, disability awareness, mental health and other issues considered to be taboo especially within a South Asian household.

You have a significant following on social media - how did you go about building the community?

Thank you, I’m truly grateful and thankful for this online community. I have been online creating content, connecting with people from across the globe, finding commonality in our struggles, in our experiences and also passion. I started off on YouTube and Instagram in 2014 and it’s been quite the journey. My content started off with me sharing vlogs of my lifestyle as a Tamil living in Australia. Many people from across the ocean were curious about Australia and it was nice to give them a small peek through my videos. Instagram made me look at content differently. I find solace in writing and I found a place to share my voice on topics that were close to my heart from colourism, disability awareness, mental health and other issues considered to be taboo especially within a South Asian household. As we didn’t have much representation at the time in mainstream media or social media I was able to grow a community of people who were able to relate to what I was talking about. 

What did you decide to call your account “Life of a Social Butterfly”?

I’ve always had a love for meeting new people, yearn to connect, hear their stories, be inspired by their experiences and build meaningful relationships. This has been a core part of me from when I was younger. So this led my friends to give me the nickname ‘The Social Butterfly’ in high school and consequently I decided to use the name as a username for my social media channels! 

You’ve mentioned your brother as a major source of inspiration.  For the benefit of people not familiar with your story - can you tell us why this is?

My brother’s name is Athavan, he’s 21 years old and he’s the baby, the king of the house and apple of our eyes.  21 years ago when my mother was giving birth to him, a medical mistake had occurred causing for him to be born with Cerebral Palsy. Cerebral Palsy is due to injury of the developing brain. My brother’s is considered low functioning so he is always with 24/7 supervision. He is my major source of inspiration as there is so much of life he has been robbed of. He can’t walk without our support, he can’t talk, he can’t bathe himself or eat on his own with us. Despite his challenges including the inability to express himself and not always have his needs met, he is so full of life.  He is one of the strongest people I know. With a cheeky grin plastered across his face, he’s taught me to appreciate the little things in life. We have to accept the cards we’re dealt with and make the most of what we have. 

You specifically highlighted a challenging time in your life where you were living a secret double life where you were battling mental health issues, disliking your degree and not being able to be open with your parents.  Can you talk a bit more about this experience?

My parents never coerced me into picking a degree and I’m extremely grateful for that. I went into Psychology thinking this would be a great degree for me to understand my brother better. However, the degree was not what I anticipated.  I also experienced a great deal of anxiety and depression that I was finding very hard to manage.  I had lost a large group of close friends, I lost the motivation to get out of bed and no matter how hard I studied, my mind always felt clouded. If I was a few minutes late to class, I experienced a great deal of social anxiety that would take over my mind and body which led me to missing classes, missing deadlines and I was drowning in my problems. I didn’t know where to go, where to start and I had a bad habit of brushing my problems under the proverbial rug. Mental health is not something that’s discussed openly in Tamil households so it was really hard for me to grasp what I was going through or speak about it with my parents. I started to think I was a really bad student, avoided seeing people in social settings and was trying to just sleep my problems away. Eventually my parents found out I had left my degree and had started working in a marketing and events role. This wasn’t the ideal situation but looking back I’m glad it happened. I was able to express to my parents to an extent of what I was going through and had told them I am going to switch my degree to something I am truly passionate about.  I just wanted a chance to restart my life. I couldn’t go into detail about the depression, anxiety, loss of friends but I explained I needed a change in scenery and working in marketing made me realise this was a degree I would truly love. I didn’t seek professional therapy at the time but I did make changes in my lifestyle by changing my physical environment, prioritising me, surrounding myself around people who genuinely cared about me, uplifted me and inspired me.  

There have been more people being outspoken about the impact of colourism within various communities including the Tamil community.  You’ve spoken about this in a few interviews including favourite phrases of parents including “Stay out of the sun!", but can you describe how colourism has impacted you and how you plan to fight it?  How do you think we as consumers can make a company like “Fair and Lovely” cease to exist in the future?

Colourism is an issue that has plagued my life for as long as I can remember.  From a young age, I was told that I was the odd one out in the family, put in the back of the line in photos/productions/musicals as well as given back-handed compliments to sometimes overt insults really impacted my self-esteem growing up.  As a young, impressionable child I grew up thinking that since I was dark, I was automatically considered unattractive.  I felt like I didn’t deserve opportunities, that people wouldn’t like me or want to be, which all came with being dark.  I became obsessed with the complexion of my skin by the age of 12. I would spend hours researching videos and any content that would help lighten my skin. I constantly pondered questions like “What foods should I ingest?”, “What homemade face masks should I make?” and “What colours should I avoid wearing?”.   I used to be a carefree, athletic child who loved the outdoors.  I gave that up to stay out of the sun.  The criticism with my skin never escaped me as when I attended family gatherings, the first question that would be asked of me or my mother would be around how I got so dark.  “Karuthiteengal” to be exact. However, building this platform online and finding out that I haven’t been alone in my journey really facilitated my growth in the face of colourism. I started to share my journey and realise how wrong this was. How beauty and confidence, having self-validation and self-love has nothing to do with the colour of your skin. It’s about what’s within and it’s time we started educating those who believe otherwise. The first step to fighting colourism is continually pushing for awareness.   This includes sharing content online, running campaigns, sparking conversations in social settings, creating resources and showing support to other advocates doing the work in the space of colourism. I am currently working with a team on a Colourism documentary and written publication which will be exploring the experiences of those from different parts of South East Asia, Africa and Indigenous communities who have also experienced the wrath of colourism. At some point in our lives, many of us may find ourselves in positions of power. By raising awareness and challenging people to check their bias, we are pushing people to think twice about the decisions and choices they make when giving people opportunities. 

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Are we discriminating against the colour of one’s skin? Are we perpetuating colourism? Are we going out of our way to give opportunities to those who have been marginalised by their own community?  Are we intercepting conversations where colourism blatantly occurs in Tamil households? 

As consumers, we should be mindful of what businesses we are supporting. Do these businesses do their part to eradicate colourism or perpetuate colourism? There are various petitions we can sign to lobby against these businesses to exist or to reconsider the products they’re manufacturing.  We weld power as a consumer by not purchasing products we don’t support and one thing I’ve learned is that money is a language that businesses understand.  

Is being a social media influencer that you currently do full-time?  If not - do you have plans to make this a full-time endeavour in the future?  If not - why?

I currently work full time in the Social Media and Digital Marketing space within the Med tech industry. I have a passion for this space and I’m glad I’m able to use my skills in an industry that focuses on bringing forth advanced technology for patients. It’s a very intriguing sector and during this pandemic I have been able to work on various projects such as the roll out of ventilators, supporting health care workers with ventilator support and various other initiatives. In the future I would absolutely love to hone all my energy and time into my own passion projects but at the moment I really do enjoy splitting my time between my full time job and working on my own social media work. 

I personally view social media in a positive light.  I see it as a tool that can be used for good or bad (similar to a car).  Do you agree or disagree with this statement?

Social media for me has opened me to a whole new realm. Having been a content creator since 2014, I’ve been lucky enough to grasp the idea that social media is not a true and accurate reflection of real life, so I don’t get caught up in it. I’ve used it as a tool to meet and build so many meaningful relationships. Some of my closest friends are people that I have met virtually through social media. I have also had the opportunity to meet so many people that who share my thinking but also many who with opposing viewpoints that have challenged my way of thinking, broadened my mind and expanded my perspective. I have been able to work on so many great initiatives and projects with people across the globe thanks to social media. I have been on receiving end of hate and negativity through social media with people with faceless accounts, who feel like they have power as they can abuse people without any fear of consequences. This at times has negatively impacted me but I’ve come to grow thick skin and remind myself of what my purpose is on social media. 

What is it that I want to achieve? By staying true to my purpose I’m able to maintain my focus on what social media means to me. A place to connect. A place to share. A place to build. A place to create. 

What’s one goal that, if you were to accomplish it over the next three months, would feel like a big win for you?

One goal that I would absolutely love to accomplish over the next three months is to streamline the process of creating episodes on my podcast. Being a one-woman team, I am struggling with producing episodes consistently. I would love to figure out a routine where I am allocating amount of time in my schedule to film, edit, schedule and promote. In the next three months if I can get another three episodes up that would be fantastic! 

How have your family and friends supported you through your journey?  Did you have any doubters?

When I initially started, my family was a little confused. I don’t blame them as it’s not something they were exposed to and I wasn’t able to fully articulate exactly what my plans were. Over time, I started to get them involved in my content, I started to share the impact my content was having on others and they became more supportive. Now my family members are my biggest supporters. They’re always brainstorming ideas and asking me when my next YouTube video is going up. I definitely had many naysayers when I first started. I think I was one of the first Tamil Australians to start creating and pushing out content on social media. It was very different so many people in the community didn’t have many pleasant things to say. Many people doubted my page, my work and of course various rumours circulated. It didn’t faze me as I turned a blind eye and ear to it. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of friends who were extremely supportive. They would give me ideas, help me film and always celebrated my wins. 

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

I want to be remembered as the girl who never gave up. The one who loved unconditionally, fought fearlessly and gave it my all in anything I set my mind to. I want to be remembered as the one who believed in each and every one of them. I want to be remembered as someone who wore her heart on her sleeve and went above and beyond to pushing people to living their best lives. 

Who is one person that isn’t Tamil that you admire and why?

I absolutely admire the work of Malala. She is one of my biggest inspirations. I have a huge passion for working with underprivileged woman.   I love how even at the ripe age of 11 years old she courageously stood up to the Taliban to advocate for right to education, freedom from terror and female emancipation. The work Malala has done through the Malala Fund and her advocacy work she has pushed in the space of education for young girls is truly inspiring. I believe that if we educate every girl in the world we can transforms communities, countries and the entire world.

What is a failure you’ve experienced in the last 5-10 years that you’ve learned the most from?

I try not to look at things that have not worked out in my life a failure but more of a learning experience. I invest a lot of time and energy into my relationships being the people person I am. I have come to learn that not everyone around you will have your best interests at heart. It’s important to be self aware, not always wear your heart on your sleeve and understand that life is ever-changing. With that, so are people. Be open minded to change and don’t take things personally. Keep your circle small.  

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What do you think you would tell 16-year Swarnaa looking back?

16 year old Swarnaa was in grade 11, freaking out about what subjects she was going to chose to study and be tested on to get into University. She was insecure, lacked confidence in her appearance and didn’t think for herself. Looking back I would tell her to keep her chin up. Spend more quality time getting to know herself and ask questions.

What is she good at? What brings her joy? What interests her? What does she love about herself? Use that knowledge to make confident decisions in her life. Know that no matter what she decides it will all eventually be okay. 

How would you describe your dream life?  

In my ideal world I would be working for myself. It never feels like work because I’m doing something I love. I have flexible working hours, an incredible team to support with my initiatives and I have more time to spend with my family, my loved ones, connecting with people and exploring the world. I’m making a good income that allows me to support my family and job that lets me be present with my loved ones. 

What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?

My favourite book has to be - “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. This book has been an absolute game changer and shares some useful insights into how to network and build opportunities for yourself. A podcast I listened to recently was called “Sacrifice vs Compromise” by Bobo and Flex. It’s a cross continental podcast with Bobo from NYC and Flex from Australia.   I love how they have two very different personalities and the way they dissect different societal issues. 

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

For the first time in a very long time, I have started to take my physical health seriously and changed my eating habits. I have spent the time to really get to know my body while eating clean, taking supplements and listening to my body. This has really improved my mental clarity, strengthened my will power, given me more energy and made me feel happier while being confident with myself and my choices. 

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

If I was given $1 billion, I would focus on allocating the money appropriately to end poverty, child trafficking, create a better system to make education as well as the internet more easily accessible for everyone. By working to end poverty we are giving back robbed opportunities and choices to lead a healthy and sustainable life. It’s a huge trickle effect and can really help transform our community and the world we live in. 

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How would you describe the impact that the Tamil community in Australia has had on your personally?

I love that the Tamil community in Australia is very open minded. I have had the opportunity to grow up in a community that is passionate about the culture, the traditions, the language and to be involved in so many Tamil community based events. We have a lot of room for growth and to really be a driver of change, innovation and initiatives.  

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

My favourite Tamil food has got to be a good Kothu Rotti. Becoming a pescatarian means saying good bye to mutton rolls and many other delicacies but a good egg, seafood or veggie Kothu Rothi really comes through. My favourite dessert has to be our Sri Lankan buttercake, most specifically my mum’s.  Although I have to say I have mastered baking it myself and my mum has come to admit she loves mine better. 

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

This is a tough one but Ratchasan was a great one. I love a good psychological thriller that keeps you guessing until the end. 

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

Tamil culture is an amalgamation of many things. I believe a big part of my identity is rooted in Tamil culture and has played a huge role in shaping me. Growing up listening to the stories my grandparents and parents shared with us, to learning to speak/read/write Tamil, to being enriched in the traditions, arts and way of life has been truly transformational for me. 

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Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host | TamilCulture
Canada
Socialist-minded guy trying to make a difference. Co-founder of TamilCulture.com, my...
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