We talk to three regional leaders in content creation who have redefined the sphere of influence.
It was a Friday, I think, and I was doing my typical thing, where I had grand plans of doing an intense hot yoga class but was instead procrastinating by scrolling through my Instagram feed.
I hadn’t yet put on my workout clothes, and I was getting perilously close to missing the class when I hit on a video that someone I followed had shared, featuring a woman named Fit Sister.
She was clad in all-black, including a hijab, and despite it still being hot outside, was brawling her way through a tremendously challenging outdoor workout on a playground. I immediately shared her video, followed her account, and put my phone down, making it to class just in time.
It then transpired that the woman behind @FitSister is Sylvie Eberena, a single mum who is homeschooling her four children. She is now firmly one of my sources of social media fitness inspiration. Eberena, who has 11,500 followers on her Instagram account and thousands more on @PaleOh and @HealthyMiddleEast, is the very definition of a ‘modern muse’.
The original muses from ancient Greek mythology were all women, who apparently numbered somewhere between three and nine. What is not in dispute is that their function was to inspire others creatively in a variety of areas, mostly in the arts, often in writing and, indirectly, through the dissemination of the works they helped create, in lifestyle.
Although the discourse was weightier then, in a way they are not so different from the bloggers and Instagram stars of today. At the macro level there are the likes of Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé and Huda Beauty, not to mention the scores of wellness and spiritual accounts, who set trends with a single post. However, the kind of influence and inspiration that can be found closer to home, from people with thousands rather than millions of followers, can be just as meaningful – if not more so.
So I asked Eberena and others about what inspires them, and how they feel about the responsibility of serving as sources of inspiration for others.
When Eberena started out blogging atFitSister.fr, she simply wanted to help other people live a healthy life. It wasn’t until she began to publish workout videos, and became one of a precious few early hijabi athletes on the Internet, that she got both positive and negative attention.
“Progressively, I had more support from Muslims and non-Muslims telling me they appreciated my work, and I realised I had an opportunity to share a message,” she says. “Telling the non-Muslims that we are all the same, that we all want to be healthy and look good, that our everyday lives are quite similar, that we are simply humans. But also showing people, including hijabi women, that they can do whatever they put their mind to without being ashamed or limited by people’s negativity. So, I decided to invite people in my homeschooling-single-hijabi-mum life, for them to discover how it’s really like, beyond the stereotypes, and share some practical tips.”
Dubai-based makeup artist and modest style blogger Zareen Shah (she blogs at ZareenShah.com and has more than 2,500 followers on Instagram @ZareenShahco), set out originally to educate others, meet like-minded people and help build up a community.
“I remember the struggles I had when I first started wearing the hijab,” she says. “There was so much stereotype around it, particularly if you were non-Arab, non-Emirati. I started writing about it because I knew, I wasn’t the only one facing these struggles. In fact, I remember when I had launched my first modesty blog over eight years ago, how overwhelmed I was by the emails of support I received from women all over, telling me how refreshing it was for them to not feel like they were alone.”
Anum Bashir, a Dubai-based, Qatar-bred art and fashion consultant and blogger (Desertmannequin.com) who has 47,000 Instagram followers (@DesertMannequin), thinks about her followers all the time, about how to get them to think about brands, fashion, styling and storytelling in a different way.
“Personally speaking, I have always found the narrative to be extremely important. The context within which we present ourselves is key to fostering a loyal following,” she says. “I always ask myself, ‘How can I put forth content that’s not only distinct, but will hopefully resonate with others?’ Once you are able to achieve that, it’ll be what makes your platform compelling, I believe. Just look at Man Repeller, or Huda Beauty, or Diet Prada – all unique voices with a distinct purpose. That’s what charges me.”
As Shah points out, there are obviously downsides to being a member of this group. Not everyone who’s in it is genuine, as is evidenced by “influencers” who clearly buy their followers and are in it for the free items and the glory, something Shah says is “a shame”.
“I love what social media has done in terms of content and visual inspiration, but it’s also brought with it a false sense of importance,” she says. “We’ve succumbed to becoming part of a system that goes off the ‘numbers’. PR companies, brands, even your Average Joe, bases a person’s value on the number of followers you have.”
Eberena is typically thoughtful when asked about any possible downsides to the platform, and the role of those who possess it.
“Showing sneak peeks of my life to motivate people doesn’t mean I feel I am better than them, on the contrary,” she says. “I have always been a perfectionist and I have never felt fully satisfied with what I accomplished or the life I lived. And that’s when being considered as an example on social media can be tough. People often make compliments; some women tell me they wish they were like me or they feel they do nothing in comparison. I used to feel confused, like if I was between two worlds.
“I sometimes even wondered if I was really in a position to advise people, knowing that I had so many things to improve. There is a huge gap between people’s perception and mine and I had to take a step back a few times and reflect on whether or not I wanted to go on.”
Bashir doesn’t seem to grapple with the same issues, and when asked, she can’t really separate how much of what she does on social media is for her own enjoyment, for work, or purely to inspire followers.
“I actually think it’s a mix of it all,” she says. “At the end of the day, on a fundamental level, this is my business, which I take incredibly seriously, but I absolutely love what I do, and the content I generate is obviously for the audience I’m hoping to influence and engage with at the end of the day. I can’t really break it down because from my vantage point they are all so closely tied together.”
One thing is for sure: these modern-day muses work hard, much, much harder than any of their mythical precursors ever did.
Shah, who launched her YouTube channel six months ago, was reduced to tears because it took her a week to learn how to edit her first video. She also underestimated her ability to translate giving masterclasses and seminars to 50 people to sitting alone and addressing a video camera. Feeling the weight of responsibility to her followers, she spends about half her time brainstorming what she can post to social media that’s “new or needed”.
“When you’re in charge of your brand and how you want to market yourself, if you’re truly passionate about it, then it’s only natural to invest in getting better,” she says. “If I’m not building content, I’m reading, watching a video, or taking an online course on how to better my blog and social media. It’s hard to put an estimate on how much time I spend on this, because to me self-education is something that needs to be continual and consistent. Knowing that I am strengthening and getting better at my craft only benefits me in the long run. To me, self-education is something that’s needed for the soul and I consider it my time out.”
Bashir’s original goal was that her social media role would evolve, and the next thing she hopes to tackle is consulting on “an official scale”. “I have said from day one that Desert Mannequin should and will evolve,” she says. “At its very core it is a platform that chronicles personal style, emerging design talent, and stories of interesting people within the industry, but as I grow older, I want my business to mature too.”
Eberena uses social media to advertise the fitness programs and e-books she also sells – “let’s be honest, I’m really bad at it”, she says, explaining she is uncomfortable with that level of self-promotion – and believes that being genuine and helping others is what makes someone a real “inspiration”. “Whether it is knowledge, science, experience good or bad, we all have something to bring, in our own way, and I would feel guilty if I had to stop sharing,” she says. “But you must think about why you do things and make sure you don’t expect too much in return.”
Words: Ann Marie McQueen