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Avani Parekh is a serial social entrepreneur, startup enthusiast, and sexual hacktivist. She recently launched lovedoctor.in – a confidential service for women, by women, to get information and advice about sex, sexual health, and relationships. Come talk to her (@alittlemasala) or check out Love Doctor (@lovedoctordotin) on Twitter.  

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Mailande: Avani, you’ve been through some serious changes recently. How did you get to the decision point that led you back to India, working with women and sexual health?

Avani: For the past few years, I’ve had a really strong sense of my future vision of who I am as a person. Part of that vision was always this recurring dream, almost, of me walking into a room – in East Africa, I presume, because I’ve worked there before. I have a group of people behind me and I’m stepping over this threshold of a mud wall. As I enter the village, there’s hundreds and hundreds of women there, just tons of women that are waiting. I’m getting ready to talk to them and along with me, I’m carrying a baby, my baby, on my back like a papoose.

There’s something about that image that really talks about my longing for having it all, right? If we really dig into this debate that’s been in the public space for a while now, this is my lofty extreme – a vision in which I have a family, a family that’s with me while I do the work that I think is really important, working very closely with women in some capacity. When I close my eyes, I can see this vision so clearly.  

Mailande: Wow.

Avani: I have another vision of myself in which I’m carrying a torch and walking across a bridge – much like some of the images that we saw during the protests in Turkey. I’m leading something, with thousands of people behind me. 

That image is so clear and right to me. I was in India for a year and then came back to the US to take care of a lot of personal stuff, including getting divorced. While I was back in America, it was just a temporary thing, because deep in my heart I could hear “You need to go back. Your work is in India right now.” I told my employer way ahead of time that I knew about this calling, and that I would have to leave. I just knew that I had to, or I would never be happy.

Mailande:  Wow again.

Avani: Yes. But even though it was clear, it was scary. I’m not going to lie. It was really scary, because I didn’t know how I was going to come here and survive. But then after I made that decision, a lot of stuff just fell into place. I found a free place to stay in Delhi, I sold a bunch of my stuff and had enough money for a plane ticket. Then, soon after I landed, I picked up a contract job and started looking for people to help build out the service that I wanted to start. It seemed as though once I made the decision, the universe realized that it made sense. I feel really grateful for that.

Mailande: Okay, let’s step back. Can you tell us about what you’re doing professionally right now?

Avani: I’m doing a few things. The first is an idea that I came to India to build out, which is a tool called Love Doctor. Love Doctor is a portal where (primarily) women in India can get confidential information about sex and healthy relationships. That’s so important. The last time I was here for an extended period of time, the Delhi rape case came to light, and so many things came into the public eye about the safety of women.

The incident itself was obviously horrifying. But I was heartened to see India have a really aware and conscious public discourse about violence against women, sexual assault, domestic violence, and childhood sexual abuse afterward. I felt really humbled by the feeling that the public was really waking up.

But I wasn’t seeing a lot of talk about prevention. And not “prevention” in the sense that it’s typically spoken about, like “Don’t go out in public wearing skimpy clothes” and that kind of thing. What are the conversations that need to occur earlier on in life when you’re in a safe space, or when you’re thinking about becoming intimate in a relationship? About your body, about sex? When you learn about those things ahead of time, you have more power to either avoid dangerous situations (or not create them as a perpetrator) or know what to do when you find yourself in a potentially vulnerable spot. It’s all of the conversations that need to occur openly before we really start talking about domestic violence and sexual assault. Being about to look at your body, respect it, love yourself, acknowledge healthy boundaries. Being able to talk about contraception. I ended up doing some market research and pitching this idea during a startup weekend.

Startup weekends are like 54-hour entrepreneurship competitions in which you come up with an idea and leave with a minimum viable product. If your idea gets chosen as one of the top ideas, you can actually build a team, get mentorship from experts, and present your ideas in front of judges that give you advice for moving forward. I participated in an event like this, and actually came in first, which was amazing. I got a lot of support for the idea.

Mailande: Well-deserved, by the way.

Avani: It fired me up. I kept hearing that women in India are sometimes scared to talk to each other about sex, because of the gossip factor and the fear of information spreading. And they often don’t have male allies to talk to, and going to their parents is usually out of the question.

Mailande: Right.

Avani: These are not topics they can speak about openly. Now, if you look at internet searches in India, more people in Delhi are searching for information about sex than they are about cricket! That really tells you something. I found out from a couple of sources that men routinely search the internet for information about sex, but women may not even know what to look for. And if you do a random internet search, what’s the guarantee that you’ll actually get good information? You can just look at a Yahoo! Answers page, and some of the ridiculous things that you see on there about sex and relationships that will satisfy your curiosity about what types of bad information are out there.

That was the journey with Love Doctor. It’s a passion because I spent eight years working in the domestic violence and sexual assault arena in the US, but I also worked with South Asian women for some of that time. It feels close to my heart and so when all those stuff blew up, I was like, “This is it, this is my calling. This is what I’m supposed to do.”

So I’m here in Delhi working on it. Our soft launch kicked off a couple of weeks ago, which has been really exciting. At the same time, I’ve continued working with startups; after my experience at the startup weekend back in the States, I had the opportunity to start organizing and facilitating. It really energized me to work in this intersection between ideas and making things happen. In those 54-hour events, you see people find their power, just like I did. When I got here, I was offered an opportunity to help launch a global office for UP Global (the parent organization of Startup Weekend) in India. Basically, we’re spreading across India in order to give this empowering opportunity to more and more people, particularly women. And, with these different passions, I can represent myself in a multifaceted way, which feels awesome. It’s an amazing way to answer “What do you do?” These different things offer a much fuller representation of who I am.

Mailande: Beautifully said. We’ve been talking about your professional transition back to Delhi so far. How has the move made you think about your health and body image amidst all of these changes? 

Avani: Living in India can be really hard for anyone who is slightly or significantly overweight, or even just a little chubby or not particularly fit. It’s changed a lot over time. If you see paintings of Indian goddesses from a long time ago, you’ll realize that they really valued a voluptuous woman’s body. It’s glorious for them: pendulous breasts and hips that swing and thighs with fat on them and the rounded belly and all of that stuff. Now, India has become globalized in a way that makes it pay attention to a more European (or homogenized) standard of beauty where everyone’s super skinny, really tall, and fair skinned. But as far as reality is concerned, all the people here are brown, and they are short, and they’re round.

Mailande: Yep.

Avani: It’s not easy for most people to attain that type of “ideal” body image. In my family, women are built. They’re either hourglass- or pear-shaped. And I’m kind of built like a linebacker – like, I’m Serena Williams in disguise. I’m a strong-ass woman who’s got meat on her; I’m round, I’m broad-shouldered. My entire body type is misunderstood here.  When I was in the US, I was working on building muscle; when I got here, I let all of that slip.

What happens with me is that I put my body last, and I know that about myself. When I’m in a transition period, or when I need to think about putting food on the table, I have historically not been the woman that always maintains a workout schedule or a healthy eating thing. Those things tend to go first. When I got here, and all of these wonderful things were going on, I was trying to get my bearings. Part of that process was not giving the time to my body that it needed to feel healthy.

Mailande: Right.

Avani: Here, people will say things like “Madam-ji, you’ve gotten fat. Madam-ji,  you’re not as strong. Your body’s not tight.” These types of things are okay in the public discourse in India – it’s quite common, even though it’s appalling to me. After being in the US where that’s completely inappropriate, it’s jarring to have someone essentially say “Yo, in the last three months that you’ve been in India, you’ve gotten fat, chick.” And then they come up with super-helpful suggestions: why don’t you go running, try going to the gym, don’t eat potatoes, stop eating whatever.

Mailande: Yeah. Eek.

Avani: And still, some of it comes out of love, okay? So it’s not got any of this malicious intent. It comes from a place of care, which can be really hard for us to understand. After hearing those things a week or two ago, I was like, Crap. These people are right, and I’ve lost that place of pride where I feel strong. I want to feel strong again.  

This idea of transition extends to everything for me right now. My strongest move has been to get out of my head and say “Yeah, your life is changing, but your foundation and stability is your body, and your body needs to be well.” At the same time, I’ve had to figure out the ways in which I can hack wellness here, knowing that so many things are out of my control, including the food that I get every day. Including accessibility to fruits and vegetables, or even something like water.

Mailande: How are you thinking about hacking those things?

Avani: I’ve had to look at some of the default settings here. First off, I kick off the day here with a big-ass cup of tea with a lot of freaking sugar in the morning. That’s the norm, but I’ve had to let go of it and be more cognizant of my sugar consumption. And in the US, I wasn’t having as much dairy, which really worked well for me. Here, though, the default veggie option is an Indian cheese called paneer, which is cottage cheese. So it’s easy to get lazy. And I try to buy things like fruit for the next several days at a time, and keep healthy snacks like nuts around. 

Mailande: What about your mindset throughout all of this? How do you think about physical change?

Avani: Mostly, I’ve just been telling myself, “You know what? It’s okay. Your body is in transition, too. It took you three or four months to get this way, and it’s going take you three or four months to get to get to a place where you feel really proud again. And that’s fine, because everyone around you is in a place of transition, too.” I literally have to tell myself that every day.

Mailande: That’s a really helpful thing to tell yourself. I wonder, too: is there any connection between this thinking about transition in your body and career, and thinking about change in your emotional life as well?

Avani: Oh yeah. I mean I’m coming out of a ten-year relationship. I’ve just started a new relationship where I feel comfortable loving again, and part of the emotional change is recalibrating this understanding of my own beauty for India, right? For me, there are just certain places in the world where I automatically feel beautiful. Kenya is one of them; they love round Indian mamas. My weight doesn’t matter there. They love me.

Here and in the US, they use different markers of beauty. It gets to the point – and this makes me feel shallow – that I can even find myself limiting my activity because I know I’m going to look funny after I’ve been out all day. Isn’t that crazy? I’m listening to myself saying this, and thinking about how asinine I sound. But here, I can’t just find a mirror, clean myself up, reapply makeup. I can’t just pop into a coffee shop wherever; I’m lucky if I can find a place to pee!

Mailande: Yeah, I get that.  I think I mean a lot of women struggle with that to various degrees, because we experience so much pressure to appear acceptable to whoever happens to walk by when we’re out in public. I can imagine how there would be an extra amount of pressure for you, given where you are and the kind of things that you’ve run into since your arrival. I try to test myself sometimes, going to parties with no makeup or going to the grocery store after a run or whatever, in order to practice not looking perfect, but it’s never easy. 

And it’s not asinine to feel that pressure and react to it. I appreciate you sharing that with me; it’s obviously different in Delhi than it is here, but I think there are common threads that run through a lot of female experience in that realm for sure.

Avani: Yes. I’m in the first real serious relationship that I’ve had since I was married. It literally feels like I’m like a … I don’t know, like a baby deer. You know that scene in Bambi, where Bambi tries to get up and find his mother? Yeah, I feel like that, even though some of this is old hat. I’m a fall chicken, you know? Not a winter chicken, but a fall chicken. It seems like I should be used to this, but there’s still so much nervousness about appearing a certain way for the person that I love. I know that he accepts me as I am, and he’s told me on so many occasions (like when I wake up in the morning and my hair looks like a lioness mane) that I’m beautiful. I get so much validation from that, but it also spur a conversation in my mind: I wish I didn’t care. I don’t want to care, because without it, where’s my power? How do I feel fabulous? What are the reasons that I feel beautiful, with or without someone acknowledging it?

It’s just like a little bit of tight rope walking, in the sense that new love creates sometimes an incredible amount of pressure to be that perfect person for your partner. To be that best version of yourself. And when you know that you are in transition but you’re also falling in love at the same time, it’s …

Mailande: Several transitions at the same time.

Avani: Yeah. It’s awesome. It’s awesome and funny and crazy and you’re wobbly Bambi. You’re finding your footing even though you don’t necessarily know where you’re going to end up next.

Mailande: I love it. So what do you do when you feel wobbly or unsure? 

Avani: I do want to share one thing that’s really worked for me. There’s a TED talk on adopting certain body poses in order to instill confidence in yourself. So whenever I feel wobbly legs like a wobbly Bambi, even if I can’t physically do it, I imagine myself in the Superman pose. Head up, legs strong, fists at my sides. It just changes everything. A big part of learning to accept myself in transition is learning how to hack your own energy, and that’s been an incredible energy hack for me.

 

Mailande Moran is a musician, writer, and media consultant based in Durham, NC. She is a 2013 graduate of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, where she served as a Fellow for the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship's Impact Investing Initiative and the Center on Leadership and Ethics. In the summer of 2012, she worked with Enterprise Community Loan Fund to analyze and communicate the impact of green affordable housing and transit-oriented development in Colorado. While pursuing her MBA, she consulted with the healthcare NGO Healing Fields in India, the microfinance start-up Seeds in Kenya, and the for-profit maternity hospital LifeSpring in India. Prior to Fuqua, she focused on social entrepreneurship and philanthropy in strategy roles at Echoing Green and the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. Mailande graduated from Duke University in 2006 with an A.B. in Art History. She is passionate about creating a safer, more equitable world. You can hear her music on Facebook (mailandemusic) and follow her other adventures on Twitter (@mailande). read more about