• Christine Anu has found strength in adversity, when it comes to self-confidence. (Pedro Virgil)Source: Pedro Virgil
COMMENT | They used to say that ‘sticks and stones may break by bones but words will never hurt me’, but the link between language and self-esteem is clear. Words can affect a person’s identity for better or worse. In Christine Anu’s case, they made her stronger.
Christine Anu

4 May 2016 - 3:58 PM  UPDATED 4 May 2016 - 4:09 PM

I always knew I wanted to be a performer from the age of five. It just made me feel so good to entertain people. A lot of my ‘will to succeed’ was driven by an inner faith in myself. However as I got older, my self esteem got battered around quite a bit by people’s cruel words. I’m glad I was naturally blessed with some sense of quiet inner strength, because otherwise I don’t know how I would have coped.

Growing up on the Torres Strait island of Mabuiag, there was quite a lot of verbal abuse flying about. I was a skinny kid and one of my earliest memories was of my cousins taunting me by chanting “bony maroney” whenever I was around. It made me feel so singled out, like I wasn’t worthy of playing with them. Even today I still get self-conscious about how I look.

As I started developing a passion for singing, one relative’s chronic, nasty words were especially hurtful. He would regularly taunt me with, “You can’t sing” or “you sound awful when you sing” and “you look awful when you sing”. He made fun of my teeth which made me feel paranoid about my mouth and the sounds it was producing.

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I just tried to act as though the words didn’t affect me, but they did. They pierced through me. So much of our traditional Indigenous culture is about language and verbal story telling. So what someone says to you has a very powerful impact.

By the time I was a teenager and had moved to Cairns, I was used to the racial taunts as well. Regularly hearing uncensored, awful jokes about Aboriginal people was like the soundtrack to my life. The word ‘A**’ was often tossed about in an oppressive way. Whilst I often felt demeaned by it, I also got somewhat desensitized to it as well.

Once my sister and I went to a party with one of our teachers. Afterwards she asked me what we thought of all the racial innuendos apparently directed our way. But we didn’t even notice them. One positive champion in my corner was my mum. She wasn’t very talkative, but she was always full of praise for me. She’d tell me to just ignore negativity or walk away. Her way of teaching was more non-verbal. Her actions, not her words, were her strength.

Another beacon of positivity was my primary school principal. He often told me to believe in myself. He even told me to visualise myself at the Olympics one day. Who would have thought that 20 years later, I’d be performing at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Opening Ceremony! I’m so grateful that I at least had a couple of people in my life on my side. Their words and the memories they created help lift me up during the dark moments.

By the time I had my first taste of success with My Island Home when I was 25, I felt more confident. The negative words had made me strong.

As I’d gotten older, each time I heard something negative said to me I’d think, “I’ll bloody show you then!” I had learnt to say to myself, “I am not receiving these words from my perpetrator anymore.”

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Being in the entertainment industry, I started to get a lot of flattery and attention. However getting a ‘big head’ was never going to happen. Getting a big head was already drummed out of me before I got the opportunity!

Now two decades later at the age of 46 I am able to say to myself, “You know what, I’m alright. I’m doing okay, stop beating yourself up. Chill sister!”

Saying kind words to myself is still a work in progress. It’s good progress though because I’ve now got a teenage daughter, so I know how important it is to give good messages to her.

But there’s still that little voice inside of me that pops up now and then whispering, “Be careful honey, this all might be gone tomorrow. Maybe people are just being nice to brown-nose you.”

Words really do have a powerful effect on who you are. They can trigger off so many emotions. There are certain things that should never be said to someone and boundaries that should never be crossed. However it’s not only the words we say to each other that are important, it’s also the way we speak to ourselves. It’s all about self-validation – I should know.

Christine Anu is a five-time ARIA Award winning musician, actor, mother and Torres Strait Islander woman.