Updated: Aug 14
Emma Colyer is the founder and Director of Body & Soul, a UK charity established in 1996 supporting thousands of children, teenagers and families living with HIV in the UK. Since 2011 her organisation’s award-winning public awareness and education campaign Life in my Shoes has reached over 2000 young people. Life in my Shoes uses competitions, social platforms, film, music and celebrity support to engage young people in challenging prejudices and their attitudes to difference.
In the eighteen years that Body & Soul has been supporting children, young people and families living with and closely affected by HIV in the UK, I have listened to countless individuals describe how they have been wounded by words, bullied and hounded from communities, neighbourhoods and families just for being different. We are all guilty of using words lightly, and we could all admit to on occasion, failing to consider how a single word or phrase might tear into a person and cause irreparable damage. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” but I’ve learnt that some words can leave deep scars that in turn can prevent us from reaching our potential or having the courage to step up to a challenge or a dream.
Whether they are in the street or online, in the playground or in the workplace, bullies overwhelmingly target those who are different from themselves. At a young age, we feel safe when we “belong” and bullies pounce on this, calling others out for whatever reason - their sexuality, the colour of their skin, their poverty, their clothes, interests, disability or, for the hundreds of young people Body & Soul sees every week, because of their HIV status.
Perhaps it is the bullies’ fear of being bullied themselves that leads them to deflect the attention elsewhere. Perhaps it is the deflected prejudices and misconceptions that we are all prone to picking up throughout our lives that lead them to direct hate at others. Either way, with Life in my Shoes, we are trying to get to the root of those actions, to change these bullies, those who encourage them and those who stand idly by. We want to challenge them to see things differently.
Bullies are also prone to targeting those they don’t understand. Having worked in the field of HIV for nearly 20 years, I have seen unprecedented developments in treatment, leading to a transformation in the possible life expectancy and quality of life of people living with HIV. It remains however a deeply misunderstood condition.
Increasingly, the young people supported by Body & Soul tell us that the hardest part of living with HIV is the stigma that comes from prejudice and misinformation. When the young people at Body & Soul hear words like ‘dirty’, ‘scum’, ‘freak’ and ‘shameful’ every day of their lives, those words begin to break them down, destroying self-confidence, self-belief, and the ability to reach out to new people and share experiences. Tragically, they can also have a far-reaching impact on people’s practical situations, in some circumstances driving them away from their communities and support networks. The short film below, which has been written, developed and produced by young people living with HIV demonstrates this perfectly, but agonisingly
Often, the misinformation that accompanies stigmatising behaviour is benign – a product of being wrongly informed rather than malicious scare-mongering. But it can be just as damaging. For example, a colleague ran a Life in my Shoes class with a group of year 11 students last year where she was incorrectly “corrected” about the facts relating to HIV transmission by the teacher in front of the class.
Living with the challenges of stigma and lack of education are huge barriers to both young people living with HIV and other young people living with “differences” that are stigmatised by society. Eighteen years of working closely with young people has given Body & Soul a wealth of knowledge about what engages them meaningfully, what conveys a message and what will completely deflect their attention. Life in my Shoes has been developed with that experience, but also with the input of the astonishing young people affected by HIV who attend Body & Soul.
Their anxieties, the experiences and phrases that have been hurled at them like stones, have all been used to tell the story of Blessing, the star of the centrepiece of Life in my Shoes, our short film Undefeated . We know that through this film, we are talking to young people in a language that they understand, because the language has been written by their peers.
Cyber-bullying – arguably more isolating than and as harmful as playground showdowns and classroom gossip - is characterised by the power of words. Young people have been driven to suicide because a series of words have wounded them so deeply that they have taken the most drastic, desperate step. Bullies often throw wounding words at others who may not have the words to express themselves or ask for help elsewhere. With the Life in my Shoes resources we wanted to ask young people to consider what life would be like in the shoes of someone with different challenges and experiences, to challenge them to ask “how would I feel in their shoes?”
As professionals working with young people, too often in this modern world we are provoked into discussing the damaging effects of bullying. Bullying is, now more than ever, manifested through the power of words – text messages, twitter, ask.fm, tumblr, facebook, the list goes on.
Bullying words are shot out like arrows and like arrows, they cannot be returned. The capacity of a bully’s words to hurt and wear down their victims is tangible, but the absence of words also impacts negatively. Silence can be a bully’s tool too. Life in my Shoes replaces those damaging words and that desolate silence with the sound of hundreds of voices inviting us to step into their shoes.