Sinéad is joined by comedian Negin Farsad, who shares her early memories as the only Iranian-American at her school, her time working in policy, and how she now uses comedy to continue her activism.
[00:09] Sinéad Burke: Hello and welcome to As Me with Sinéad. This week’s episode is with the incredible Negin Farsad. She challenged how I view the world and gave me some new important tools on how I can do and be better, because I think one of the great parts of the show is that we’re always learning about the things that we don’t know. And as challenging as that may be, it’s what’s gonna make the world a better place, particularly right now.
[00:34] Negin Farsad: They left Iran with like nothing. With no English, with no family. They did it so that they could have a better life, so that my dad could advance, so that my brother could have a great education, so that all of these great things could happen for their kids. And they made it. They did it. There were many years, I think, where they had very little money and it was an uphill battle. And they didn’t have as much English as would have been comfortable. But they really persevered. And I have so much family that live in Iran. And if they had just made one decision in another direction, I would have been with them in Iran. I would have had a much, much different life, and a life with fewer freedoms.
[01:20] Sinéad Burke: As you might have guessed, I’m still at home in Ireland, surrounded by family and so very lucky. I’m lucky that I both like and love my family. Often those two things are not the same. But I’ve been trying to figure out new ways in which, not only to keep myself occupied because, well, there’s a lot of emails I could be answering, but maybe to use this time to figure out something new. Maybe I have an abundance of skills that I’m not yet aware of. This is unlikely. However, this week I have spent my time trying to use my hands a bit more. I’m lucky that a lot of the work that I do is mostly based around thinking and coming up with new ideas, and I only really use my hands to gesticulate wildly. But this week I’ve ordered knitting needles and some wool. I have always loved to knit. It was one of my favorite things that I got to teach in my classroom. My mother taught me and then I had some great teachers who taught me. So I’m hoping that I can knit a beautiful scarf. I’ve ordered scarlet red wool and some kind of presidential navy. So we shall see.
[02:27] Sinéad Burke: But the final thing that I did to keep myself occupied is that I made pasta for the very first time. I’m not a cook. Some of it I blame on inaccessible kitchens, but mostly it’s pure laziness. I live at home and I’m fortunate that my parents are excellent cooks and I benefit from their delicious creations. But I don’t know what got into me. I was lying in bed, couldn’t sleep late the other night, and I was scrolling through YouTube looking for divine inspiration and I found it. I found a simple BuzzFeed video talking about how you make pasta. Pasta and Italian food is my favorite. So yesterday I spent most of the day making tagliatelle from scratch. And I thought maybe I’d struggle with the rolling pin. Maybe I wouldn’t have the strength to roll it out thin enough. Maybe I’d struggle with the kneading. But I did it. It was very tasty and you need few ingredients. Now, flour and eggs are difficult to find in this current moment. So those are really the core ingredients for pasta, so if you do not have those that might be challenging. But if you do have that, I’d really recommend it. I used it as a form of mindfulness. I couldn’t have my phone in my hand. I couldn’t answer those emails that were awaiting an answer. I just had to be and think and I didn’t even play music. So those are the things that are keeping me busy.
[03:45] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week is the proliferation of the language between those who are healthy and those who are not. What does healthy mean in this moment? But we’re using language like “vulnerable” and “underlying conditions.” Hearing politicians and leaders say things like, “well, it’s a relief because the people who died, they had three underlying conditions, so it’s not a risk to the rest of us.” But don’t we all deserve to survive this pandemic? Don’t we all deserve legislation and care and to be considered within this moment? That’s what’s worrying me. Are you ready for this week’s episode? Let’s go.
[04:28] Sinéad Burke: On this week’s episode of As Me with Sinéad is somebody who, as an advocate myself, I am so admiring of. There is that notion of speaking truth to power, but often people question the ability for words and language to actually make a difference and make a change. This week’s guest is the personification of that notion, and hasn’t just changed people’s hearts and minds, but has changed legislation and the world, all the while making them think and laugh. From New York, and me from Ireland, I am so thrilled that this week’s guest on Ask Me with Sinéad is the incomparable Negin Farsad. Negin, thank you so much for being on the show.
[05:13] Negin Farsad: Hello! What an introduction. Thanks for having me.
[05:17] Sinéad Burke: It’s such a thrill/ But I have just spent over a minute there talking about who I think you are. But how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[05:27] Negin Farsad: Oh, gosh. I’m a comedian and a filmmaker, an actor and a writer, which is I mean, I should just add, like, I don’t know, sandwich maker or something, just like make my number of, like, tasks more ridiculous. But yeah, I do all of those things. And I’m gonna throw in also activist. Because a lot of my work sort of has an activist bent. So yeah, that’s how I spend my time. So I’m an Iranian-American Muslim lady, but who isn’t? And I’m like a lady about town. Oh, my God. Who does that make me sound like a prostitute? I’m not technically a prostitute. I am just like a lady who lives in a town and sometimes is about it. And I’m also a mom and a wife, but not a “wifey.” And I’m also a daughter. I’m super like into my parents. I think they’re great.
[06:39] Sinéad Burke: I think my parents are great. We may have to compete over this. I think my parents are just extraordinary.
[06:44] Negin Farsad: Well, you know, we were recording the morning after the Oscars were taped. And last night, a couple people said, I love you, mom, or whatever. They just shouted out their moms. And I, like, welled up every time that happened. It must have happened like five times. And I welled up every time because I love it when someone really appreciates their parents, you know what I mean? Or I love it that when people have parents that are great enough to appreciate in that way, you know? So, yeah, it makes me misty eyed.
[07:08] Sinéad Burke: What makes your parents so great?
[07:12] Negin Farsad: Oh, you know, I don’t mean to tell the cliche story, but I will, which is that they left their country with just a couple of suitcases and my brother, who was eight years old at the time — I was born in the United States — but they left Iran with like nothing. With no English, with no family. And they did it so that they could have a better life, so that my dad could advance, so that my brother could have a great education, so that all of these great things could happen for their kids. And they made it. They did it. You know, there were many years, I think, where they had very little money and it was an uphill battle. And they didn’t have as much English as would have been comfortable. But they really persevered. And I have so much family that live in Iran. And if they had just made one decision in another direction, I would have been with them in Iran. I would have had a much, much different life, and a life with fewer freedoms. So I really am just so grateful for that. I really grew up unbelievably differently from all of my cousins. And it’s something that gives me some pain, because I wish everyone could have had the same resources and chances that I did. But also, you know, makes me so grateful.
[08:31] Sinéad Burke: When did you become aware of that dual narrative, either between your experience and your cousins, or that your life could have been different? Was that something that was narrated to you at home or did you just gradually become aware of it?
[08:44] Negin Farsad: It’s funny because I think in an immigrant home, there’s no narration of any kind of feeling or emotion. I don’t want to speak for all immigrants, but let me speak for all immigrants. At home, things were just like, do your work, eat this dinner, do some more work and keep working. It was just about homework and being a good student and, you know, doing the extracurriculars. I did all of the extracurriculars. It was ridiculous. I was president of the debate team, vice president of the theater club, because I was like a very good crossover nerd. I was a fantastic student, number two in my class. Let’s not talk about why I wasn’t number one, it’s a source of pain still for me. And there was no mention from my parents of anything like you should be grateful because your other family in Iran is like this or whatever or like we’re proud of you. There was nothing like on the emotional side. There’s no very little recognition of the emotional lives that we may or may not have been leading. What I did sort of realize when I, you know, I would go there to Iran as a kid.
[09:50] Negin Farsad: I mean, one of my earliest memories is going to Iran and looking out the window — we were on like, I don’t know, maybe the third or fourth floor of this apartment building of my aunt’s apartment. And they were doing self-flagellation for Ramadan, which is not a common practice. But it was a few people were doing that in a sort of parade-type situation. And I remember looking down at them and thinking about how painful that was. And I asked my mom and my aunt, like, do I have to do that? And they were like, no, no, you don’t have to do that. Nobody is doing that. Don’t worry. Like, there’s like very, very few people who do that. Those guys are doing it. And so that was my earliest memory. And that the Islamic republic like loomed large over freedoms. When I was a kid I didn’t super understand, but I remember one of my first trips as like a teenager — you know, as a kid, it was just like fun and parties and aunts and uncles and cousins and food, just so much food. And it was really fun. You know what? It’s always been fun. I think that’s something people don’t necessarily realize about Iran. Super fun country. Doesn’t look it from the outside, but it is a great time. And when I was a teenager, I was wearing, you know, some sunglasses that I thought were quite fetching.
[11:13] Negin Farsad: And we’re walking down the street and this woman stopped me. She was with the Revolutionary Guard. She was one of the sisters that kind of keep order on the streets for women. And she stopped me. She said, you have to take off your glasses. They’re too fashionable. Because Iran has its own pendulum swinging sometimes, they’re very restrictive about stuff like that. And then other times women are barely wearing the hijab and they’re just wearing tons of fashionable glasses and lipstick and they just look like everybody. But this was like during a crackdown, you know, so they didn’t want people like me walking around with fashionable glasses, which is, you know, it’s such a ridiculous standard because who’s to say what’s fashionable? Like my fashionable could be your junk. But anyway, so I remember at that time being like, oh, this is actually quite difficult. And just having, you know, as a kid, you don’t have to wear the hijab, but then once you do this feeling of like not be able to run out the door in any condition is palpable. It’s also not the biggest issue in Middle Eastern countries. I think people make too big a deal of the hijab. They’re more concerned with the economy. It’s the economy, stupid, you know. And with just other freedoms, like freedom of speech are far more, I think, important for them. Again, who am I speaking for? Literally just me and my observations. What do I know? But that’s kind of like when I started to grow up and actually feel the differences in freedoms. That’s when I realized that I had such a different life than my cousins.
[12:48] Sinéad Burke: And after those trips to Iran, like you have to come home to the U.S. and then go back to school, I imagine. Like, were you beginning to even code-switch then, or how did the experiences that you saw in Iran whether it was, you know, being asked to take off your fashionable glasses? How did that impact coming home and entering into a changed space probably?
[13:10] Negin Farsad: Well, I mean, that’s the thing with code-switching. It’s not weird for the person who’s doing it. They just kind of can easily go from one thing to the other, one reality to the other reality. I just easily went back into like, what are we wearing in the United States? What are we listening to? Like, I’m a teenager. I’m an angsty teenager. How rude am I going to be to my parents? I just wanted the normal teenage fare.
[13:37] Negin Farsad: And it’s funny, I guess. I think when you’re a kid, too, it just doesn’t it just doesn’t seem that weird. You know what’s weird is that nobody else has that experience. So maybe as a kid, you’re sort of hiding all of the layers of difference between you and your BFFs in school, because maybe it’s just easier than explaining or something. And I think as a kid, a lot of people do that. They’re just like, you know, let’s just not highlight any of these differences. And I’m wearing L.A. Gear high tops, just like everybody else. And, you know, and you sort of focus on that so that you kind of can blend in. And especially when you’re a member of like a severely under-populated ethnic minority, as I was, as I still am. It’s not like I had a posse of Iranians. It was me. And then in high school, there was one other kid and that was it, you know, so there was no like discourse around my particular form of minority. It would have been so much easier — and I talk about this in my book. It would’ve been so much easier if I was Mexican. And in fact, I longed to be Mexican because I grew up in Southern California and my high school was probably like 50 percent Mexican. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but it was a very high proportion of Mexicans. And there was a dominant discourse around that era. There were radio stations and restaurants and everybody knew the food and the names and the like. All of our street names were Spanish. So there was something very recognizable about being Mexican. And if I was just strolling in the neighborhood, people would just assume that I was Mexican because I’m sort of ethnically ambiguous that way.
[15:18] Sinéad Burke: More after the break.
[17:57] Sinéad Burke: My experience is not similar, but I am physically disabled. I’m a little person. I have dwarfism and stand at 3 foot 5 inches tall. And I think so much a part of being physically disabled, when I went to school, I was the only one in the entire school who looked like me. And that’s been the trajectory for my entire educational journey. And it was that thing of I so often forgot what it was that I looked like, and wasn’t reminded of it until somebody else pointed it out or I couldn’t reach or do something. But also that realization that people would ask me all the time, like, you know, “do you ever wish to be normal?” Or “what’s it like to be you?” And I always found it really difficult to articulate because by my own definition, I subscribed to normality and everybody else was an other in that sense. And I was just me. And even finding it difficult to have that comparison because I never had the privilege to live in a different body. This was all I could detail.
[18:57] Negin Farsad: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting. When I graduated from high school — I grew up in a desert town called Palm Springs in Southern California. And I went to undergrad, I went to Cornell in upstate New York. And I had never owned a coat before, you know? I didn’t understand weather. And I remember just these moments where, like you were saying, where you realize like, oh, like, I guess being in the desert is weird. You know, I didn’t realize how weird it was until I went away and everyone else seemed to know how to behave in snow and stuff like that, you know? So there are those moments where you’re sort of forced to reckon with what you are. And I think that being around the Mexican-American community in Palm Springs was so good for me because I was like, oh, well, there’s always gonna be a large community of minorities that kind of look like me and that I could just kind of be adjacent to them. But in upstate New York, I was like, oh, there isn’t a large community of Mexican-Americans. And honestly, it was like more white people than I have ever seen in my entire life. It was like a total culture shock.
[20:09] Sinéad Burke: Until you went to Ireland and you were like, oh, OK, they’re all here.
[20:14] Negin Farsad: I mean, we could talk about my experience in Ireland because I had a little I had an Irish boyfriend, a little romance, an Irish boyfriend for a while. He was kind in the beginning and then was ultimately trash and garbage, as is the end of so many romances. But it was one of these you know, he did have his way with words and wrote these beautiful letters. You know what I mean.
[20:44] Sinéad Burke: Are you sure they weren’t Beckett’s and he just said they were his?
[20:48] Negin Farsad: He could have. I’m not well-versed enough in the literary giants. He could have just been copying from others. But, yes, I had a little Irish romance for a while there. So I have fond memories of of Dublin.
[21:04] Sinéad Burke: Well, that fills me with joy. I wanted to ask in terms of you enter Cornell and then decided or made many decisions about what it was you were going to do, and coming back to that experience of being a minority in some frame. My background is in education and I studied elementary school teaching and was one for quite some time. And my parents were unbelievably thrilled. And then I took a path that was very different and was an advocate. I’m working within fashion and design and basically had much more challenge in terms of full-time employment. And speaking with Riz Ahmed, who’s British-Pakistani, about something similar, that when he told his parents that he wanted to be an actor, he was really nervous about their feeling on that because they had high expectations of what he would do. And really to have a permanency in terms of employment, because I think all of us who are from some sort of minority are parents want more for us than perhaps they had. So how did you choose to be a comedian?
[22:00] Negin Farsad: Well, I went to graduate school and got a dual master’s degree in African-American studies and another one in public policy, because you need both of those to be a comedian. And I was serious. I was serious about going into politics and public policy. And I was a policy advisor for the city of New York. And I interned for the likes of Hillary Clinton and Charlie Rangel, who was also a giant in Congress. And I was very serious about going into that line of work. And I did, in fact, go into that line of work. But I was doing comedy the entire time on the side. And I just thought it was gonna be a passing hobby that I would like eventually let it go, because who in their right mind chooses to be a comedian? It’s such a narcissistic job as well. Like it’s not only unbelievably competitive and just fraught with rejection. It’s just so much. It’s so narcissistic, it’s so much about talking about yourself publicly, and sharing your opinions publicly, as if your opinions are so fantastic, you know? And I was just like, oh, I can’t do that. That’s ridiculous. I want to be a public servant. And ultimately, like my friend staged a sort of intervention when I was in grad school finishing up the second of my two degrees. And I was at Columbia, was in two serious programs, you know, and they were just like, snap out of it. You don’t want to do this, you want to be a comedian! It was like, oh, my God, no! And it was really like one of those scenes where I broke down crying because the truth was I did want to be a comedian.
[23:39] Negin Farsad: And the hobby that was supposed to just be a cute, you know, five hours a week thing had suddenly bloomed into like 40 hours a week of me obsessing over our gigs and writing new shows and writing stand-up and all that stuff. And I couldn’t deny it. So I think the funny thing was in the early days and even now, my parents will tell people like, oh, “Negin is a comedian, but she has a degree from Cornell and from Columbia. And she was a policy advisor.” They still hang on to the stuff I did like ten years ago. And, you know, it’s so funny to me. I think it’s because immigrants didn’t come to this country to give birth to comedians, you know. The dream is they come to this country, they give birth to a narrow band of professional babies. You’re either a doctor baby, you’re a lawyer baby or you’re an engineer baby. You know what I mean? And that’s really it. And lawyer is even like the slacker of the three.
[24:51] Sinéad Burke: That’s like you didn’t put in enough effort, but OK, it’s acceptable.
[24:55] Negin Farsad: Yeah. And I think that I had gone into something that was basically acceptable to them like that I would work in government and all of that. Because I was always very into — I was the one forcing my parents to do Thanksgiving Day volunteerism, we would drop off meals and stuff like that. And I forced them to do a bunch of things they hadn’t. They were like, “we’re immigrants. Can we just. We’re so tired.” And I was like, no, now we’re going to volunteer. So I was annoying and very civic-minded as a kid. And so I think it wasn’t a surprise to them. I think they were very happy about that. But, you know, having to come out as I was a comedian, they were just worried about the finances. Like I was just gonna be destitute for the rest of my life. And it wasn’t until I started doing things that their friends would see either on TV or film or radio that they would be like, oh, we saw your daughter doing this. We saw your daughter’s last movie or whatever. And that’s when they started to be like, oh, she’s got a legitimate career.
[26:03] Sinéad Burke: This is a job, not a hobby.
[26:05] Negin Farsad: Exactly. So much so that like our friends have seen her in things. And so it’s OK. People are always like, “were your parents disappointed?” And I’m like, yeah, I think they were disappointed because I heard my mom say to her friend once on the phone, “I am so disappointed that Negin’s a comedian.” You know, it wasn’t it was not hidden from me. But I think in another sense, and the reason why they weren’t like on an active campaign to dissuade me was because, you know, my mom had grown up singing and she sang for these groups that would sing in like different government capacities for the Shah and stuff. Like little student groups. And my dad, his original dream was to be an artist, and he had won a scholarship to go to an Italian art school from Iran. He was like one of three kids in Iran who got that. And then his father was like, “I’m sorry. That’s not something we recognize. So you’ll have to figure out a different thing you want to do.” And he figured, I guess surgery is a little bit like being an artist, you know. So I’ll be able to work with my hands. And so he became a surgeon and they both had these unrealized artistic dreams. And my dad said to me once years later, I mean, this was years ago when I remember I really didn’t have any money.
[27:29 Negin Farsad:] I just was barely paying the rent and all that. And I said, hey, if you guys want me to come home for Christmas — or as we call it, Muslim Christmas — you’ll have to like pay for my plane ticket. I can’t afford it. And he was like, yeah, we’ll totally buy your plane ticket. And I said, listen, I’m really sorry. I’m embarrassed that I can’t pay for my plane ticket. And he said, you know, don’t be embarrassed. You’re like a scientist who’s working on the cure for something. Maybe they’ll spend decades testing something and they won’t see the results of their work. But it builds on to something else. And then maybe even after their death, it’ll be the basis for the cure to some major disease or whatever. That’s how he described my — And I was like, oh, thanks. I mean, hopefully I don’t have to wait ‘till I’m dead to be able to afford a plane ticket. But he really he was just like, this is your you know, this is your calling. And keep at it. He had that opportunity be like, hey, you can always fall back on your degrees and go back into real work, you know? But he didn’t take that bait. And I realized like at that moment that I really was kind of fulfilling unrealized artistic dreams for both of them.
[28:45] Sinéad Burke: How did your working government make you a better comedian?
[28:49] Negin Farsad: I don’t know if it made me a better comedian. I think it has really spoken to my belief that government can be a solution. And having just been in a New York City government agency, and having witnessed as an intern or just a visitor to other government agencies and government institutions, these places are not filled with people that are trying to hoodwink the American people. They’re actually filled with optimists who believe they can do something. And I get very defensive when people talk about, “they’re just trying to get to their pensions so they can live off the government.” I’m like listen, if people were in government for money, they would have been hedge fund managers, not in government. You know, you have to have some measure of believing in public service to kind of put yourself through that. The low pay and the thanklessness of having those jobs.
[29:54] Sinéad Burke: The public criticism and the embarrassment of actually not even getting elected if you run.
[29:58] Negin Farsad: Exactly. All of that stuff. I worked in campaign finance and people just fundamentally didn’t even understand campaign finance nor did they wouldn’t learn. And it’s so the campaign finance program, New York City is such a beacon for the entire country. It’s a really fabulous program that makes it possible for poorer candidates to be able to run for office. And that’s what we should want. We should want that as a nation. And it’s possible here in New York City, it’s possible because of the campaign finance program that we’ve set up. And it’s so important. And it’s led to very, very diverse results. You know, my councilwoman is Latina and I imagine that her being able to run, having grown up in the district that she did must have something to do with campaign finance. So I really believe in it. But it’s a thankless task. It’s like the detail of policy that’s so boring to people, but so fundamental to this democracy functioning properly. I think it just makes me a better citizen that I had that experience.
[30:59] Negin Farsad: In terms of comedy, I mean, it continues to make me really concerned about the state of politics and really concerned about the policies we’re enacting. And I think it helps me — I did a video once for a moveon.org where we were trying to test the logical limits of the Muslim ban. And we said, OK, so if you want to ban Muslims, we have to know who the Muslims are. So I went out onto the streets of New York and I did a faith test, faith-based test, where I ask people like, are you Muslim? And if they said no, I would say, prove it. And they would have to eat from a cold pile of bacon in order to prove that they were not Muslim. But if they didn’t eat from the bacon, then I made them sign a Muslim registry, of course, which I by the way, I have it at home, if anybody needs a list of Muslims.
[31:48] Sinéad Burke: You should do the same for disabled people. Just ask them can they get into historic protected buildings? And if they can’t, they have to sign a list.
[31:55] Negin Farsad: Right. Exactly. And you know, of course, like some vegans and Jews were like, we’re not going to eat the bacon, but we’re also not Muslim. And I was like, sorry, according to the test, you’re Muslim. Maybe it’s helped me think about, like, what is the logical limit of these policies? And is there some comedy that can be mined out of examining that? And that’s kind of maybe what my time in government has helped me figure out.
[32:23] Sinéad Burke: You are an incredible person in so many ways. But when you wake up in the morning, what’s the monologue that’s in your head?
[32:30] Negin Farsad: You know, I’m a red-blooded American woman who learned from a very early age to be extraordinarily critical of myself.
[32:38] Sinéad Burke: The advertising worked.
[32:42] I don’t know how prominent it is to be so self-critical in Ireland, but in the United States, we girls learned from a very early age to just hate ourselves in so many different ways. And on so many different fronts. When you’re young, you’re like, I’m not pretty enough, I’m not skinny enough, I’m not this enough, that enough, I’m not smart enough. Like I was just battling against everything that the monster in my head was telling me that I wasn’t. And, you know, I was such an accolades whore, like, I just wanted to win things and achieve things and be the number one at things and get into the best schools and get into the best programs. And it was just like to prove to myself that I wasn’t garbage. And so that is, I think, the voice in my head that I still wake up with every morning, but I’m trying every day to improve, to dull that voice, to recognize that voice isn’t real, that the voice isn’t real.
[33:41] Sinéad Burke: So what do you want to replace that with? What’s the monologue that you want in your head?
[33:48] Negin Farsad: I heard this interview with this mogul skier who won gold medals for the United States, where she talked about how when she wanted to go into — one of the things she had to do was a lot of flips and she hated flips. So she wrote little Post-it notes for herself around the house, like, “I love flips!” to get her to reframe the narrative. And that’s really stuck with me. So I think, like, sometimes I just say to myself, you’re smart, you’re funny, you’re a really good writer. Like, I just say those things to myself, which sounds so embarrassing to say them out loud. But just I’m trying to reframe the narrative because the narrative has been for so long — and I think so many Americans can relate to this. The narrative is like, you suck at this, you suck at that. You’re terrible at this. You’re the worst. And so I’m just trying. And I’m a work in progress. Like I haven’t gotten there yet, but I would love to get to that Zen point where I just, like, believe that I’m good and recognize when I’m not great, but I don’t just give it to myself. That I’m kinder to myself and just like a nicer person, like the way I would be to a friend.
[35:07] Sinéad Burke: Well, that’s it. We often don’t say the things for our enemies that we say to ourselves.
[35:11] Negin Farsad: No, exactly. And that’s a crazy standard. You know, like the standard should be however good you would be to your neighbor is how good you are to yourself. And for decades, I have not done that.
[35:28] Sinéad Burke: But it’s just been useful for the world in terms of how society and the world has been built. It’s been useful for us to think less of ourselves.
[35:37] Negin Farsad: Especially for women. I think it’s kept women earning less than the male dollar. Like it’s kept women from getting the promotion and then sort of shutting up about it, you know, because we’ve just been like, well, I am total garbage. So I didn’t deserve that promotion anyway. Like the amount of self-talk in this direction that we’ve done to justify the wrong actions. The first job I ever got, I was a consultant at a fancy firm. It was like one of those jobs you get recruited. It’s like super everybody wants this job. It’s funny because it’s like the first few years out of college that I had this job, you know, and then I started going to grad school at the same time. So I was working during the day and going to grad school at night, and it was like more money than I made for the first seven years of doing comedy. It was in these early years, but I found out after a year of being there that they started me out at just randomly $5,000 less than all of my male counterparts. I looked at all of the guys and I was like, is it my schooling? It can’t have been. What? And I tried so hard to come up with rational reasons why they would start me out at $5,000 less. And the reason was that as a woman. There’s no other rational excuse that I could figure out. I had operated for so long thinking like, if I work hard enough, I’ll just get the right results. And I did work really, really, really, really hard and I didn’t get the same results.
[37:13] Sinéad Burke: Sometimes it’s just stacked against us. And I think the work that we all have to do now, individually and collectively, is to articulate that that’s not OK and to redesign it.
[38:27] Sinéad Burke: What is it like to live in your body? How do you meander through the world in your body? How does it feel to physically right now in the studio that you’re in being present in your body, but what’s it like to live in it?
[38:45] Negin Farsad: You know, I think sometimes my body serves me very well. You know, the first thing that I think immediately, of course, when you ask me that question, which is like, oh, let me get some clarification, because I don’t want to just go down this road again. But a first thing I thought was just like, oh, like I’ve always battled with my weight. And I always thought I was like as a child, I was too chubby. And that as an adolescent I thought I was too chubby. That, as you know, I’m not unhealthy, like. Right. So then what’s the problem? But I think, again, this is something that’s really predominant among women, among young girls, is that you criticize your body for whatever thing you’re comparing it against. And I didn’t look like the magazines, just like my ethnic face didn’t look like the magazines. You know, it didn’t look like television. And I think I was always like, if I could just look a little more like Jennifer Aniston then everything would be easy.
[39:48] Sinéad Burke: And it’s terrifying how many of us there are. I recently watched the Taylor Swift documentary. Stay with me. And so there’s a few scenes in it that are really thought-provoking in hearing her articulate this exact struggle. She talks about how she didn’t know that it wasn’t normal that she would get to the end of a performance and feel so faint that she was going to collapse and be unconscious because she wasn’t eating. And this idea that she just spent so much of her teens and early 20s battling with what she looked like and what the world expected of her, and this idea that there was this ideal that she needed to have an ass, but if she had an ass, that meant she was eating enough to actually also have a protruding stomach. And if she had that, that wasn’t good enough. And, you know, this is somebody who has the most amount of wealth and privilege. And yet even she in that echelon of success and privilege, is articulating the internal battles that she has with her physical body that, you know, what are the challenges for those of us who don’t even have the gift of seeing somebody who looks like us within that public forum? How do we manage that monologue within ourselves? I’m never going to be tall enough to be a high fashion model. I’m never going to have the body makeup to look like somebody like that. And yet that’s what my mind expects of me, even though I know it’s impossible.
[41:03] Negin Farsad: Right. If Taylor Swift does it, and she’s got absolutely everything going for her, where does that leave the rest of us? And what’s interesting about the current time, I think, is that we are seeing this body positivity movement. But at the same time, we’re seeing it like it’s body positivity that’s performative and requires a lot of social media valuing. And then we’re sort of back to square one. Right? Where like you are like, OK, cool. I’m the weight that I am and I’m posting photos of myself and then I’m continually refreshing to make sure that everybody likes it and is OK with it and is fine with me. It’s body positivity without any of the relief. I think what we all want is just relief and we’re still not getting it because we’ve created this mechanism of social media where you still have to get some kind of reward.
[42:10] Sinéad Burke: When I was 16 years old, and Instagram didn’t really exist when I was 16, thankfully, but when I was 16 years old, I would have done anything to scroll through a timeline and see someone who looked like me celebrating and being joyous about who they were online, even if it was performative. How do you provide for that kid who is lonely in the otherness of them? But how do you also like, again, redesign the system so that it’s not just redefining the cycles of oppression in many ways?
[42:40] Negin Farsad: Right, right, right. And I think with the way that social media is designed is that it’s giving you data points for your psyche. And I think that’s maybe one of the biggest problems. Like it’s OK for people to be like, this is what I look like, and this is what I had for breakfast and here’s some photos.
[43:00] Sinéad Burke: But not like here’s 5,000 people who liked it or at 10.
[43:01] Negin Farsad: Exactly. There should be no difference between 5,000 and 10. Your breakfast is still that breakfast. Nothing will change about your life if it’s 5,000 or 10. If we’re talk about redesigning, that’s something I would just immediately get rid of. We’ve gamified this thing to the point of personal psychic poison and it’s really upsetting. And then the other thing is, OK, so great. Now you can scroll through Instagram and maybe see more people that look like you. Fantastic. But we’re still praising people like the Kardashians — and they’re a common target. And I don’t mean to be so boring with this common target. But just as an example of people who spend lots and lots and lots of money on body perfection. They’re not like showing themselves for like “look at the natural beauty.” They’re like, “look at my plastic surgeon’s fantastic work” is basically what they’re saying with every post. And we value that so much, you know? So this body positivity movement is concurrently happening alongside this “do everything you can to change your body through artificial means” movement.
[44:20] Sinéad Burke: And then taking a step back and looking at it through a feminist lens and asking the question about consent, and agency and choice. And if people choose to do these things, is it our right to judge them for making a choice that they have? And then taking a further step back and saying, well, actually, is that choice their own or are they making that choice due to societal pressures? Or an understanding that if they do make these choices, they will be more financially liquid, they will be more visible and available, and it’s just never ending.
[44:44] Negin Farsad: I’ve got to be honest, I Googled what does Gwyneth Paltrow use on her skin?
[44:50] Sinéad Burke: What did you learn? Tell me everything.
[44:51] Negin Farsad: She does these like microneedling facials or whatever. And I was like, oh, my God. OK. So let me just do all the things. And then I was Googling what does Sandra Bullock do. I was just looking at these celebrities who are over 40 and they look fantastic. And I was like, oh, my God, what do they do? So in that situation — and I’m an extraordinarily self-aware person, right? Is it me making that decision to, like, go and buy the whatever Goop product, or is it this system that’s peer-pressured me to the point of no return? It’s so hard to resist that peer pressure.
[45:37] Sinéad Burke: And this idea that, going back to body positivity, and this idea that you don’t really need to wear makeup anymore, but you better have a really brilliant 15-step skincare routine. Don’t do full coverage and cover up your skin like show your freckles. You’re beautiful. But actually, in order to have your skin in a position where you can show your freckles in a beautiful way, you need to do all of this.
[45:58] Negin Farsad: It’s got to glow, but it’s got a glow naturally from a 16-step process.
[46:05] Sinéad Burke: Use these four acids, a retinol and lots of hydrators and moisturizers, and they’re not the same thing. And I say this because I’ve just read Jia Tolentino’s incredible book, Trick Mirror. And as somebody who invested in skincare recently and she was like, it’s just all part of the same system. It’s all performative, it’s all optimization. It’s all updating yourself to be the best model of a human being that you can be to present to the world. And I was like, oh, God, I feel so seen.
[46:30] Negin Farsad: And you know what’s so upsetting, too, is like my husband is an actor. And, you know, he doesn’t have to worry about any of this stuff. But the thing that’s kind of like running rampant in his community of dudes — he’s an African-American man, and he’s like, not your typical member of the patriarchy. He’s like really into kind of longevity stuff. And like, what can I take to have peak performance. So for men, it’s more like, what can I take to make my muscles grow at the right pace, or what can I take for my mental acuity? There’s this whole world of men obsessing over peak biological performance. It’s funny. So it’s like men are going about it so that they can manipulate their bodies for peak performance regardless of what they look like. I mean, I imagine muscles are a big part of that. But women are manipulating it so that just they can seem beautiful without trying, except for they’re trying really hard.
[47:36] Sinéad Burke: Again, it’s performance, right? It’s not actually about you and the internal self and how you feel in your own skin, but how the world sees you. And on this very dark note to lift it slightly. What gives you hope?
[47:51] Negin Farsad: I wrote a column recently for a progressive magazine where I called this primary basically the electoral zombie apocalypse. That’s what it feels like. It’s just endless. And we have this really absurd primary schedule that favors certain states over others, even though we’re all Americans. It doesn’t make sense. And it just feels very dark. I try and be civically engaged, and I see people out there working really hard for their candidate, or showing up to a council District 2 meeting in New York City. And I just buoyed by that, because there are people that really, really care and really want to see improvements and they’re willing to put their own time and volunteerism into it. And that just gives me so much hope. It’s so great. I think we have just much more civic engagement than we ever have. And I think these like dark political times have really buoyed that volunteerism around the country. And I’m just kind of talking about it anecdotally, but friends of mine who were just never into politics, who just sort of begrudgingly may have voted, are so much more engaged now. And I’m very uplifted by that. I have a friend who just stopped using plastic. Anything that has plastic, he just won’t buy it. If there’s a, you know, a candy bar, but it’s in plastic, you know, tough titties, he’s not buying it. And I just see people like making these changes. I just got an email from a listener, we talk about air travel and what people are doing for air travel. And she just decided on, you know, on trips where it’s really possible to take a bus, she’s just told me about a bus that she took from Los Angeles to Tucson. And it’s kind of really designed for these shorter distances, you know, where mass transit on a bus or train would make more sense. And I get a lot of emails, I mean, I have a podcast, so I get a lot of emails from people. I get a lot of emails about using a bike in American cities that are really not designed for it, you know? And people try to forge away and going to their local community meetings, talking about bike paths. And these are just things that people are doing. And I’m in a unique position of having these podcast listeners who tell me about what they’re doing. And it just gives me so much hope. I get so excited.
[50:12] Sinéad Burke: Well, long may those emails continue. It has been such a treat to talk to you today. I cannot thank you enough. And gosh, you have already changed the world, but I am ludicrously excited to see what you do next.
[50:27] Negin Farsad: Thank you so much. It was such a wonderful conversation and so grateful to have it with you.
[50:38] Sinéad Burke: I love conversations that challenge how I view the world. And really this podcast is the definition of that mentality because with every interview, I learn something new. And as a person who their work is rooted in equality and inclusion and in thinking differently, conversations like today make me realize that there is still so much to learn. And despite knowing something, to quantify that measure of knowledge, it’s actually very little. And instead of feeling intimidated by that or nervous or not wanting to participate because I don’t feel qualified, conversations like this one give me the tools to ask important questions. To facilitate my own natural curiosity and to realize that there is power in not knowing. Once you have the enthusiasm to leap forward and educate yourself further. Next week, I’m speaking with Reza Aslan, who thinks so deeply about religion, politics and the world. He’s the author of Zealot and a number of other incredible books. He’s also a husband, a father and a podcaster. I was with him and got to meet and hang out with his sons and wife a little while ago in Los Angeles. And we talked about the world and his place in it.
[51:48] Reza Aslan: Before 9/11, I was allowed to be many different things. I was allowed to be Muslim, I guess. Iranian, Middle Eastern, Persian heritage. I was allowed to be all of those things. After 9/11, I was only allowed to be Muslim. And I never was all that Muslim until 9/11. Because when everyone else began to force that singular identity upon me, the answer that I responded to was absorbing it. And everyone, everyone in America who looks like me has that exact same story. I used to be Pakistani until 9/11, and then now I’m Muslim. I used to be Arab and now I’m Muslim. That experience was a real wake-up call in the ways in which you really don’t have as much control over how you are identified as you think you do, that so much of your identity comes from the way that other people view you. And that there are two responses to that. One is to push back. And the other is to accept that identity and use it as a tool for transformation.
[53:05] Sinéad Burke: Here in Ireland, we’re still at the beginning of our pandemic. The number of cases are beginning to rise. Sadly, so are the number of deaths. But everything that we’re hearing from the medical experts is this is not yet the crisis. It has yet to come. I cannot begin to imagine those who are working on the front lines, how they are managing their own mental health right now. Every day they’re walking into their place of work, not knowing how difficult or challenging it will be, or when it will be at its worst. They are putting their lives at risk for so many. And there is such uncertainty. They are the people I’m thinking of this week. And if you have friends who are working in the frontline, maybe do something nice for them. Can you send them a letter? A card? Which of course they will have to disinfect before opening. Can you send them a text or a voice note and just say, hey, I’m thinking of you. Join us next week on As Me with Sinéad.
[53:56] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.