You’ve probably seen pictures of another adventurous brown woman already on this blog. Her name is Sheena Pradhan and she’s an incredibly passionate and inspiring friend of mine. While we don’t agree on everything or talk every day, there is one important similarity between us. We both like to do shit, not just talk shit. I cannot emphasize enough how important of a quality in a friend that is to me. Sheena and I ran cross country together in high school. Years later, when I was planning on biking cross-country starting in NJ, Sheena reached out to me. Despite not having spoken in almost 3 years, we ended up biking together for a month! We have since traveled together in India, shared marathon running stories, gone skiing together, and most importantly, we continue to support each other in our unique endeavors. Sheena has a lot going on these days, and as one of my few close brown friends, her projects continually excite and inspire me. Here’s a little Q & A between Sheena and I, in which we discuss a few of her projects, why she does them, and what them mean to her.
What are you doing these days?
My day job is working for a big healthcare not for profit agency called Community Healthcare Network (CHN) that services primarily low-income communities in New York City. CHN is one of the few organizations where outpatient dietitians are counseling different types of patients, as opposed to counseling for a specific demographic or medical condition—so it is great experience.
In my free time, I run a nutrition consulting company. My niche is wellness nutrition – meaning I am trying to reach people who are likely already interested in nutrition, fitness and doing something to better or maintain their health. Because my of my interest in pageantry and modeling, I have also been marketing to other young women involved in these industries.
The rest of my free-time is dedicated to writing—for Brown Girl Magazine, for myself and for my nutrition blog—and preparing for the Miss New York USA 2015 pageant (taking place in January 2015). Writing is my release and has always taken up a significant portion of my time. I am excited to finally have an audience with my writing with my new writing job for Brown Girl Magazine. Preparing for a pageant requires pageant coaching, walk coaching, speech coaching, fundraising, wearing high heels and browsing clothing stores for prospective outfits for the pageant. It sounds like a lot of work because it is a lot of work. It is very time consuming, but extremely rewarding. To me pageantry is an exercise in marketing and it is helping me in every other aspect of my life, especially in starting and running my own business. It is hard for anyone to question why I compete after telling them that.
Where do you see yourself going with pageantry?
I am more focused on my nutrition business and writing career than anything else right now. Although I dedicate a lot of time to preparing for the pageant, I love it for how rewarding it is for me personally rather than what I might get out of it. Winning the Miss New York USA pageant could mean many things for me. It could help me gain publicity for my nutrition and writing careers as well as open up opportunities for me in the modeling industry. If I do not win the Miss New York USA pageant, I will be happy with my personal growth through this year of preparation.
I have grown so much in the last two months that I have been preparing that I know the next ten months to follow will likely be tremendous. Given that the Miss New Jersey USA pageant last year was one of the most empowering experiences of my life, I cannot imagine anything less for the Miss New York USA pageant in 2015.
I have always been involved in some kind of competitive sport and right now pageantry is the focus of my competitive spirit. I am familiar with the feeling of losing and it is not something that impedes the rest of my life—in the past it motivated me to go bigger the next time around.
How has pageantry influenced the way you see and present yourself?
Pageantry has changed me in helping me bring out and present my best self. Prior to competing in and preparing for pageants, I hid behind something like humility, modesty or shame for who I really am. I do not think it is uncommon for individuals to feel the latter feelings that are what help people to conform to society’s standards.
Pageantry has taught me that there is nothing wrong with being head strong, confident, sure of myself and maybe a little pompous at times. As long as I am following my heart, putting myself first and still being a decent person—especially to the people I care about, I can be proud of myself.
I was an awkward and nerdy kid growing up. When I finally began to feel comfortable in my own skin and proud of my petite figure in my later teen years, I began wanting to take advantage of being skinny by modeling.
How do you identify, ethnically/racially or otherwise? Does identity relate to modeling and fashion for you, and how?
I am South Asian American, specifically Indian American—I identify with both. I am very proud of where my family comes from, but identify more closely with being “brown” or South Asian than being Indian. This is mostly because my parents did not hold my brother or me to strong Indian traditions growing up. However, I have grown to appreciate the culture deeply as I have gotten older.
I like to talk about how much opportunity there is for me in modeling and fashion as a brown girl—because the industry has long been dominated by white faces in America and is only now opening up to diversity. That being said, my interest in modeling and pageantry is completely independent from my race/ethnicity and how I identify with my ethnic background.
Most of the images of women we see commonly represented uphold traditional views of what women “should” look like, from a straight white man’s perspective. Does modeling require that you fit this narrow image? What ways do you, or do you not fit into the mold? And how does that privilege or prevent your entry into the industry?
I view (1) the modeling industry’s standards and (2) the “straight white man’s” standards of female beauty as two different things. In the modeling and pageantry worlds there is a lot of pressure to be unhealthily slim. From my experiences, this is not how men usually view female beauty. I personally think all people look better with some muscle tone—an actual indicator of health. Health and beauty are equivalent things to me.
I am not fully immersed in the modeling and pageantry worlds, but I do feel pressure to stay thin. I have a naturally thin body, so it is not tough for me. But I am an athlete – a triathlete. I have muscle tone. I do not wish to conform to standards of being slimmer than is natural for me. I plan to continue training for and competing in triathlons regardless of this standard.
The above question also refers to being light skinned as a form of white privilege in the modeling industry. This does not affect me. I am not a full-time model – I do not know if I would experience discrimination if I was. My ethnicity has never stopped me from doing anything that I was passionate about. The color of my skin certainly has not stopped me from competing in pageants or in the modeling endeavors that I have been involved in.
I am a big fan of Steve Jobs and live by the Teddy Roosevelt quote, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in that grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
I seek out words of inspiration—books and random quotes online—both when I need it and for leisure reading. I always have a few people in my life that inspire me. Thanks to social media I can follow such people from afar.
Some of the projects that you are investing your time in have little to do with subjects that you have formally studied. What ways are you learning to do these things, such as compete in a pageant, model, or start your own business?
I have learned much more in real life than I learned in school. I learn from my experiences, meeting new people and simply by doing. With writing—practice makes me better. With business and pageantry—I learn through trial and error, from conversations, networking, forging new relationships and relevant reading.
What kinds of reactions have you gotten from family and friends when you tell them about your latest plans and ambitions?
People close to me seem proud of me. Some people are impressed. I try not to pay attention to what people think because I have noticed that others’ opinions often hold me back.
My mother still doesn’t approve of my competing in pageants. My dad pretends to be supportive, but I don’t know what he actually thinks. Overall I know that they are proud that I am forging my own path.
What do you hope will happen in the next 6 months? Personally, professionally, creatively?
I want to be able to generate income by working for myself. In the next 6 months, I want to build clientele for Nutritious Balance so that I am actually profiting. For pageantry, I would like to perfect my speaking voice, my runway walk. I plan to compete in one to two triathlons. Creatively – I would like to just continue writing. Between my nutrition blog and Brown Girl Magazine, I am excited to have an excuse to hide away from the world to work on my craft.
I am extremely happy with where my life is right now, so if I just continue on the same path, I think it will lead somewhere good.
Want more? You can find Sheena talking nutrition, pageants, and life through her online writing: Nutritious Balance Blog, Sheena’s Pageant Blog, and Brown Girl Magazine. If you’re in NYC, you can also check out her new private practice nutrition company, Nutritious Balance.