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Model & Activist Neelam Gill On Balancing Self-Care With Activism

Activism and wellness go hand in hand. Sure, there is urgency when fighting for a better world – especially when it’s a cause that you’re passionate about – but we also need time to do it. Kindness for others should always be extended to ourselves when working for the greater good. Model and activist Neelam Gill – who is currently fronting Reebok’s #WriteYourLegacy campaign – is a perfect example of how being a little more selfish with your own time and energy can help you do better for your community. It’s something she has learned the hard way both pre- and post-fame but especially in her work advocating for more inclusivity in the fashion industry and speaking up about mental health.
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“I always get asked why I decided to speak out but I can’t help it, it’s just my personality,” she tells us. “Especially when I see the positive impact it can have on others. If I can help one other person feel seen or heard, then I feel like I'm doing something greater than what my job is.” Over her career, Neelam has created a powerful platform online, using social media to talk about her struggles with body image, anxiety and depression, experiences with racial discrimination both in and out of work, and to spotlight human rights issues such as the Indian farmers’ protests. “I think that social media has played a big part in improving things, brands now have a level of accountability that probably they wouldn’t have in the past for example,” she says. “But I have definitely had moments when it has got overwhelming, especially because I don’t usually open up about anything personal online and in moments when people are feeling quite charged in general, it’s easy for them to misdirect that anger at me.”
Joining forces with Reebok, Neelam hopes to shed light on the often ignored or forgotten importance of self-care. Orbiting around their newest sneaker, The Club C Legacy, which is available exclusively on ASOS, the #WriteYourLegacy campaign brings Neelam together with other activists and creatives who are championing a more open conversation around wellness and mental health.

I definitely want to be known as a game-changer, as someone who is fearless and breaking boundaries.

A year into lockdown – meaning, for many of us, a year of being on our own, cut off from loved ones and spending more time online than ever – the conversation around self-care has never been more pertinent. “In lockdown, I’ve felt quite unmotivated with social media,” Neelam says. “When you are in isolation, I think it can be damaging to your mental health to see constant updates of what the whole world is doing. It does subconsciously give you that comparison element that I think can be unhealthy, especially at a time like this.” It’s by stepping away from social media that Neelam has found the best balance. “I’ve never really taken a proper break because it goes hand in hand with my work but now I won’t post when I'm not feeling at my best or productive because I don't feel like I can present that illusion. With social media, a lot of people see a glossy image of what it means to be a model, whereas they don't realise the other side of it. I think that's important to highlight as well.”
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When it comes to her self-care at the moment, Neelam’s career has proven a boon. “A lot of my job requires me to be alone, especially when travelling, so I had to learn to love my own company,” she reflects. “But now we’re in lockdown, it has felt more difficult to find a sense of peace, especially when I’m feeling anxious. I think it’s about doing little self-care practices every day – running a bath, reading a book, watching TV, cooking, praying. Simple things, but they really help ground me.”

Having a platform comes with responsibility but also the privilege to raise awareness on things that matter to you and things that you wish you could have had when you were a kid.

Talking about her work and activism, Neelam’s passion is undeniable. “I definitely want to be known as a game-changer, as someone who is fearless and breaking boundaries,” she says. Considering her resumé so far, we’re sure she’s already achieved this. Signed at 14 and working full-time by 18, she was the first British-Indian model to front a Burberry campaign in 2014 and the first British-Indian ambassador of L’Oréal Paris in 2017. She acknowledges that being a first can be challenging – “I always felt like it was a big pressure but I’ve always felt very honoured and privileged to represent my community” – but also describes her position as a “blessing”. “I want to be known as someone who’s made an impact as a human being, not just for what I’ve achieved. I feel like my real gratitude comes from helping others. Having a platform comes with responsibility but also the privilege to raise awareness on things that matter to you and things that you wish you could have had when you were a kid.”
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We end the conversation with a question about the legacy she wishes she could leave for younger models, and the advice she wishes she could give to her 18-year-old self. After a pause, she says she wishes she had “enjoyed the process more”. “Like social media, the [modelling] industry can be very damaging because it’s all about comparison. When you’re young, you’re still trying to figure yourself out and don’t have a good foundation of confidence. It’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve realised that true confidence needs to come from within me and I need to give myself credit for that. It's important to honour those moments because they are such achievements.” Model and activist or not, it’s vital advice as we all learn how to take time for ourselves. 
You can hear more from Neelam as well as other activists and creatives who are championing a more open conversation around wellness and mental health in Refinery29 x Reebok’s upcoming ‘Reebok Presents #WriteYourLegacy’ panel. The live Zoom panel, hosted by R29, will see Neelam joined by musician Alfie Templeman to discuss the role of wellness in creating long-lasting change. It's free to sign up and you can do so by registering on Eventbrite here. You don't want to miss this one!
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