The Role of Self-Expression in Inspiring Youths

Sep 18, 2019   |   Coen Sim

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By the book, the definition of self-expression is the “expression or assertion of one’s own personality through behaviour, conversation or art”.

To psychologists, self-expression is the act of “expressing one’s thoughts and feelings, through words, choices or actions”. (Kim & Ko, 2007)

But then again, is there really a correct definition of self-expression? The concept and the forms they take vary for all of us, so really, self-expression can be anything you do with a desire to just be yourself.

Two young girls decided to take expressing themselves to the world to the next level. They found meaning in connecting with others, in inspiring others through themselves. Cosmetic or skin-deep as their methods may seem, there is just so much more beneath the surface.


Dressing to Connect, Styling to Inspire

Shareefa sports a black chiffon Hijab atop a pinstripe tee, trouser jeans, boots and a special pair of earrings: a tiny vase of dried baby’s breath flowers.  PHOTO: Muhd Shafeeq

For Ms Shareefa Aminah, 18, personal style means more than dressing to impress, styling herself with the seasons or following the latest fashion buzz. It means, from her bespoke accessories to her mismatched socks, dressing in connection to the things that give her meaning and make her who she is; it means dressing to inspire others to embrace themselves.

Shareefa believes in letting her heart guide her to express herself through her personal style, rather than conforming to what most people would consider stylish. Her dresser at home is piled with accessories she made by hand, and her wardrobe contains many articles of upcycled clothing. “It’s an outlet for me to express myself… It makes me feel more connected to the things I wear. It gives me a stronger sense of self, because most times, when you make something, no one else can have the exact same thing, and that’s nice, that I have an article of clothing or an accessory that is uniquely mine.” she explained.

Shareefa takes particular pride in a pair of earrings she made by herself: on each side hangs a tiny vase of dried baby’s breath flowers. “It’s one of my favourites, because it took a lot of effort to do, and it means a lot to me. It’s basically a tiny vase of dried flowers, specifically baby’s breath. The flowers are from a small bouquet a loved one gave me, which makes the earrings all the more special, and adds a touch of sentimentality to this little accessory. I think these earrings look really special and I love that they stand out in my outfit in a sense.”

She also enjoys experimenting with blended styles of streetwear and traditional or cultural clothing that feature unique patchwork and other vividly outstanding textures. “It lets me pay homage to my ethnic roots and my love for the arts! Whilst I can keep it fresh and modern as a whole. Keep it exciting, you know?” she mused. Shareefa is an Indian Muslim, something that she takes pride in, particularly in her dress sense.

One of her unique outfits consists of a multi-coloured kurti, a loose-fitting, traditional Indian collarless shirt paired with skinny jeans and sneakers. “It’s got lovely embroidery and it’s cut has a very traditional vibe! It was a gift from my grandma, and it means a lot to me. It’s versatility means I can pair it with modern streetwear and it’ll still fit the look, adding a touch of culture / tradition to my outfit,” she added.

“At the end of the day, I’d just like for people to look at me and be inspired to dress in a way that makes them happy. Some people embrace their religious / ethnic identity and make that a big part of their own style, while others choose to focus more on their own personal identity as a human being. Some mix both! What I’m trying to say is, just do what makes you happy, and I think you’ll feel good in whatever it is you wear. You don’t have to conform, neither do you have to stand out from the crowd wildly. Just do you and just be you.” affirmed Shareefa.


Skin-deep, but Not Shallow

Suki’s self-made arrow tattoo, inked near an area that she used to self-harm on, helps reminds her that she is a survivor.  PHOTO: Coen Sim

Worlds apart, finding herself in a vastly different form of self-expression, is Suki. At the tender age of 14, she developed an eating disorder. Aged 16, she struggled with depression and anxiety and even began to self-harm. Today, aged 18, she has found the strength to move on with her life and is no longer self-harming. The young survivor found respite in the most unexpected of places: a tattoo.

“After I developed an eating disorder, I had less energy in school and had great difficulty studying and concentrating in classes. My grades took a hit and I had little motivation to work on them. When my O’levels came around, I kept wondering if I could even make it and get good grades. Attending classes was all I could do with such little will and energy.” recalled Suki.

She sank into depression and anxiety and things only got worse when she began to self-harm to try and relieve her suffering. One of the areas she would self-harm at was the edge of her left hand. That was when she discovered what she would later learn played a huge part in her route to recovery.

“I constantly wondered if I was going to self-harm throughout the rest of my life. At that point, I came across an article about stick and poke tattoos and was intrigued by it, so I thought to try it,” explained Suki.

Instead of going to a tattoo shop, Suki decided to attempt inking the tattoo alone. “It felt like there was more meaning when I did it myself,” she said.

The finished result was a simple and unassuming arrow, pointing towards the edge of her hand. “There’s no exact meaning as to why I chose an arrow, but the reason I did it at that area was because I used to self-harm at that spot. So, I just gave myself a tattoo at that spot, below my pinky”.

Interestingly enough, when Suki inked herself the new tattoo, she did not do it with the intention of stopping herself from self-harming; neither did she have any compelling reason to choose that specific area on her hand. “I didn’t put the tattoo there to stop myself from self-harming, it just felt right. However, after the tattoo, I just naturally ended up stopping. It was as if… I’m not sure how to put it into words but it was as if I was forgiving myself for what I always did,” she admitted.

Miraculously, sometime after Suki marked herself with the arrow, she finally ceased punishing herself like she had before. “Every time I look at the tattoo, it serves as a reminder that I managed to survive a bad time, and I’ll be able to last through many more,” she remarked. Suki’s tattoo had unexpectedly helped her find her strength.

“This will always be my way of forgiving myself. But I understand that there are other people who are suffering from the same issues I did,” acknowledged Suki. “They might see my tattoo, and my scars, and if some people see it as a symbol, and if it helps them get through their own difficulties, I’ll be happy to affect their lives for the better.”


A Closer Look at The Threads that Bind Us Together

Shareefa and Suki may have different, idiosyncratic ways of expressing themselves borne from different visions and experiences but at its core, both girls found meaning in expressing themselves and sought to inspire others around them for the better.

A practice that similarly enables young individuals to inspire and improve the lives of those around them – while being able to express themselves and their stories – is volunteerism: voluntary, purposeful service to others to change their lives for the better, be it through inspiring them, giving them the help they need, or even just by being there for them.

At the end of the day, the expression of oneself is meaningful enough – but doing good with it, inspiring and impacting the lives of others, is a different thing altogether, something even greater. As once said by leader and philanthropist Nelson Mandela, “As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”