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Youth-trapped, forever

Zürain Imam, 46, writes about how he managed to channel the traumas in his life to look better now, than he did at 24.

Youth-trapped, forever

“I have an exhaustive (and exhausting) personal grooming regimen that might take up to 90 minutes every morning so one could easily conclude that I am vain, self-obsessed, superficial and have too much time on my hands. As an ostensible ‘fashion person’ where personal appearance holds its own currency and sadly validity, I have – I confess – been influenced by this body-as-temple obsession. But again, not for purely shallow motivations.

I am often asked how I manage to look so much younger and ‘so good’ for my age and have been compared to a vampire, Peter Pan and presumably with a Wildean painting decaying in some attic. Apart from my regimented personal grooming and healthy lifestyle, which was about nurturing myself after a trauma I experienced at 24 rather than personal vanity, I think I look better at 46 than I did at 24 because I refuse to grow up. I believe working in the fashion industry allows one this liberty.

Focusing on my appearance is influenced by the pressures of working in the fashion industry. As a ‘fashionista’ often photographed on the red carpet, where being male does not preclude me from scrutiny, I am often complimented for my looks, periodically seen in photographs (uploaded by others I may add). The pressure to always look presentable and groomed is exhausting. Initially I saw my grooming as a way to nurture and love myself but over time it has unfortunately also veered into appeasing the expectations of others, which annoys me.

I went to a party in Defence, Lahore (where I definitely do not live) during the last PFDC Fashion Week and was 50 percent older than anyone else. When I told a gentleman that I am 46, he was shocked. How do I do it? Mainly it is a refusal to be a grown-up. Or just having missed the leading milestones. I have never been married, which has spared me the unhappiness of that, and the misery of a divorce. Or two. Or three. I don’t have children so I don’t invest energy in telling people how gifted my children are. Nor do I turn over my hard-earned cash to SAT tutors and tennis coaches. Evasion and avoidance are hallmarks of youth.

But being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness – a type of blood cancer – at 24 at the precipice of success and ‘the rest of my life’ created a deep trauma, and rather than recovering from it, as I had thought, it had ‘frozen’ inside me.  I once read an article in TIME magazine that traumas can not only freeze certain aspects of mental development but also the physical, including the aging process. In essence, for many years I believed that I was frozen both mentally and physically at age 24 with the obvious ensuing age process taking its quiet, and in my case, snail-paced toll.

When I celebrated (or winced through, albeit thankfully) my 45th birthday in January 2013, I was mystically and philosophically celebrating my 22nd birthday.  And while on my real biological 21st birthday during a brief jaunt to New York, I had drunkenly danced on a table-top at the legendary CBGB music club on Bleecker Street, last year I just exhaled, thankful to be still alive and healthy.

We often think trauma refers only to extremes, like soldiers in a combat zone. But so far as our minds and – crucially – our bodies are concerned, trauma means anything that causes us stress so overwhelming that our physical response to it is to ‘freeze’- think of a rabbit caught in headlights, and unable to move.  This ‘frozen’ material is usually stored up in childhood and then triggered in adult life by a new stress like an illness, bereavement, a car accident or financial redundancy – the kind of ‘normal’ stresses that we’ll all experience at least once in our lives.

The trauma of my illness at 24 was inextricably linked to another harrowing period in my life; a connection I am still trying to make sense of.

Like many young, artistic, androgynous and impression-able ‘pretty boys’ who grew up under the spell of beauty and were splayed prostrating at the altars of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse which may have begun at the age of   13 when I was hauled back to Pakistan after an idyllic sojourn at boarding school amidst the verdant pastures of Kent, England since I was eight. In Pakistan I estimate that at least 80 per cent of the male population has experienced some form of childhood sexual abuse in their lives.

I don’t want to engage in a diatribe about childhood sexual abuse and rage against my mother for not protecting me (we have come to peace with that) but I simply want to explain how sexual abuse creates certain types of behaviours. Firstly and foremost, it traumatizes you. It confounds your sense of self and the ability to self-actualize. If you let it, it can destroy you physically, mentally, morally and spiritually. For me, because of my obsession with fashion and beauty from a young age, I began to believe that my value only lay in what I looked like or how ‘attractive’ I was.  This may have led to the genesis of my stringent grooming and exercise regime, which at age 17 slotted me (albeit and thankfully borderline), in the one per cent of male anorexics.  To me, the need to control the superficial exterior through these regimes was a compensation for feeling ugly and damaged inside; it might be seen as a form of self-medication to calm myself each morning.

The dual traumas of childhood sexual abuse and my illness, the latter perhaps being a blessing in disguise as it made me stop and re-appraise my life and values, led to certain hyper borderline OCD behaviours, such as my extensive self-coddling grooming regime.

To compound matters I grew up with a very good-looking elder brother who was fair, had large eyes and Grecian chiseled features and a rock solid physique, while I was the proverbial ugly duckling with small eyes, tanned and pudgy. For someone obsessed with beauty, this was tragic. Perhaps I allowed the sexual abuse to transpire as I felt this was the only way I was going to be desired. And thus the destructive circuitousness ensued. Ironically, when I am now praised for my looks, while still feeling objectified I also still feel like the ugly duckling. Those feelings never leave you. Compliments still leave me dazed and confused.

So the next time you might see me on the red carpet seemingly preening, the way I look might be due to weight loss, due to stress or illness; the glow in my complexion might be due to an obsessive and oftentimes grueling marathon grooming regimen and the waves in my hair might be disguising tides of depression.

But now I want to be valued for much more than my perceived good looks and I hope that the reasons I will continue to maintain myself to groomed-perfection is because I want to nurture myself out of an evolved self-love rather than vain self-obsession, deep-rooted self-loathing or from a fear of inevitable aging.

I think because of the very rocky journey of my life, I deserve all of that.”


  • Do we know him? dose he even MATTER ?,im really sorry but what is he trying to prove or how is this article helping people.
    this post is about ” I,ME and MY”
    News flash the world,Art,Media and Fashion dose not revolve around him, we need inspirational people like the beautiful artist who is on a wheel chair and Poets and new children who are here to change the Fashion industry young designers, bloggers and even young activists. We need to see the YOUNG, we have had enough of the OLD.

    • Dear Raza, Khan
      Yes I am probably older than you and that means I have some experience.
      Twenty-somethings are very self-absorbed.
      ironically and unfortunately you did not understand the point of the article.
      I was actually asking people to look beyond the surface of fashion and see that someone who my look glamorous etc also has suffered.
      And for your information the article did help quite a few people who reached out to me and thanked me for talking about sexual abuse. Mothers, sisters and victims themselves.
      You are entitled to your opinion but you need to be more sympathetic and grow up a little

      • Thank you Zurain for sharing your personal story and intimate feelings with the world. You are brave. With speaking out, especially as a man, you are helping others, who have also suffered abuse or trauma in their life, to do the same.

        • Thank you Frank for your kind words of appreciation and encouragement. It means a lot.
          Although the struggle is ongoing, if I can help one person heal by speaking out, it is all indubitably worthwhile!

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