Be true to yourself

It can take great courage to accept who you are 

Society forces many of us into shapes that don’t suit us – and it can take huge effort, and bravery, to be the person you really want to be. Life is challenging enough, not least with a global pandemic and its social and economic fallout to contend with.

It may be a chaotic time, but it’s also one that has prompted huge reflection on how we’d like society to operate – and how we can best celebrate the multiplicity of diverse voices that make up this world of ours.

‘The notion that there are neat boxes that people can fit into is being challenged and starting to fall apart,’ says Tag Warner, CEO of Gay Times, which is based in TOG’s Whitechapel building. ‘It doesn’t make for an interesting world, and it creates unhelpful expectations for who you should be. If you can find ways to lean into your individuality, you can start to break out of those boxes.’

Tag Warner, CEO of Gay Times

When Warner was hired in January last year, his being 24 years old at the time sent shockwaves through the industry. However, the naysayers were soon proven wrong. Warner and his team have worked hard to make Gay Times even more relevant than ever before, and the title is now reaching the largest audience since its launch in 1984. 

‘I think legacy publishing often sees its role as “setting the agenda”,’ says Warner. ‘We don’t try to do that. Instead, we have a dialogue with our audience so we can hear what they want to read and learn about. We’re also constantly working to understand what our place is within an increasingly intersectional society.’

And, in turn, this approach is supporting Gay Times’s audience to accept who they are, whatever that might be. ‘We are advocating people embrace multifaceted identities and we’re increasingly engaging with people who don’t identify as LGBTQ+ at all, or don’t fit neatly into the G, B or L, which is great to see,’ Warner continues.

‘Creating change is all about you – it’s about your own ability to accept or understand yourself, so you can also understand others. Awareness and understanding of yourself is vital to understanding anyone who doesn’t necessarily sound, or look, or think quite like you.’ 

Keeley Dann, life and relationship coach

For life and relationship coach Keeley Dann, celebrating diversity and individuality is more crucial than ever. Dann’s own story is a case study in the power of the individual to overcome prejudice. ‘I grew up in a racist area and I was bullied because of my race as an adolescent,’ she says. ‘From a young age, it felt like there was something wrong with me due to the colour of my skin.’ Dann also coped with an abusive relationship and persistent self-confidence issues. 

Dann began work with a therapist to understand the impact of the bullying on her sense of self. It was a profound experience that inspired her to retrain as a life coach and counsellor specialising in self-love and relationships. She'd previously worked as a professional dancer – a demanding career that left her feeling lost. ‘This new awareness helped me to create huge changes in my own life, and I became passionate in helping other women to work on their relationships,’ she says. 

‘I’ve learned that the most important thing in any person’s life is to be able to reach a place of alignment and authenticity. We need to stop changing who we really are to try to fit in. We all need to be comfortable enough within ourselves to challenge societal norms when they don’t help us to be who we are.’

Daniel Gray, CEO of War Paint for Men

This sentiment is echoed by Daniel Gray – based in TOG’s Melcombe Place – who founded cosmetic brand War Paint for Men in 2017. Gray has suffered with body dysmorphia since childhood, and uses make-up to help him feel more comfortable with his appearance.

‘It helps me manage the things that worry me,' he explains. 'For centuries, men have been expected to get on with it, and to not care about how they look. Finally, more men are embracing clothes and grooming, and looking after themselves. This change isn’t purely Gen Z or millennial, either – 30 per cent of our customers are over 50 years old, so this is about comfort and confidence.’

For Gray, an awareness of mental health issues is essential in supporting those who struggle to find their place in the world. ‘I think the majority of people suffer from some kind of mental health problem and the more these things are talked about, the easier it is for people to deal with negative thoughts,' he says. 'We shouldn’t underestimate how physical tools can help too; men have worn power suits for years, so why not make-up, if it makes you feel more like you?’

With or without make-up, learning to love yourself can be an arduous journey. For Dann, it’s essential to understand how we’ve been conditioned by the people in our lives, and, more broadly, by society. ‘It’s about peeling back social labels and reconnecting with your own thoughts and beliefs,’ she suggests. ‘You have to ask yourself: “Is this what I really think and feel? Or have these ideas been acquired over time because someone or something has told me what I need to believe?”’

And it’s an ongoing journey. ‘Learning to love yourself is a constant process,’ she says. ‘We all have to do the inner work to live fulfilled lives and to relate to others. But it’s reassuring to know that no human being is perfect, everyone is unique, and that you are not alone.’

Aleks Cvetkovic contributes to the Financial Times, Robb Report and The Telegraph. He also hosts men's style podcast HandCut Radio