Local resident Chaneen Saliee is a mother to two toddlers, both girls. The oldest, Jasmine, is just under three years old. The youngest, Ocean, is 14 months old and can be heard cooing gently in the background of our phone call. They are an everyday Tower Hamlets family; they enjoy trips to Victoria Park and local family-friendly ‘coffee and conversation’ sessions.
Saliee is also an award-winning parent blogger and influencer, having been ranked ‘No 1 Mum Influencer 2020’ in Mother & Baby magazine. She has been featured in Vogue twice (in Vogue Italia and UK), with tender, artful images of her breastfeeding.
‘I’ve always felt quite radical because [breastfeeding] is still something that is seen as taboo, for some reason’, she says with a laugh.
Ontop of being an influencer, she also runs a business selling breastfeeding clothes called Chic and Discreet. Now she is currently in talks to be a regular columnist at Mother & Baby magazine. Indeed, Sailee seems to be someone “who has it all”.
But her Instagram feed, where she initially rose to fame, is a refreshingly personal diary that dispels any notion of parenthood as an idealised experience. It documents the complex mix of insecurities, worries and joys that make up motherhood using longform, poetic captions and a visual feed expertly curated with warm, beige tones.
There are images of her breastfeeding on the floor of her local GP a day after she was featured in Vogue, images of her at home with no makeup and of her family laughing together. Her captions reach even further into different facets of her identity.
There are honest discussions of race and racism as well as her experiences with breastfeeding, which are feelings of discomfort and frustration some people experience while breastfeeding.
Laying bare the everyday ups and downs of motherhood, especially as a black mother in the largely white world of ‘mummy blogging’ is a cathartic experience, which is why she started expressing herself online in the first place, repurposing the poems she would write into Instagram captions, and later her own book of poems about motherhood, Solidarity.
‘I just used to write poems for myself and then I thought let’s just do it, let’s share it.
‘My Insta became like an online journal for me. I believe very strongly that if I talk about my own experiences people will relate to me because I’m not the only one going through it.’
In fact, this is how her online following grew. The frank, honest documentation of her new experiences as a young mother in her mid-twenties grew into a shared experience with other parents.
Each post has a confessional tone, exploring an aspect of motherhood seldom seen in mainstream media, whether it is breastfeeding aversion or coronavirus lockdown fatigue. And each post has a stream of supportive comments. ‘I felt so guilty for having all these horrible intrusive thoughts’, says one follower who experienced breastfeeding aversion in the comments section under one post.
‘When I would write these captions, I was writing them for myself really,’ Saliee says. ‘Then I would start getting all these comments, people saying things like “This made me cry, thank you.” Suddenly, you’re all going through the same thing, together.’
As her online following grew, she realised that, as a black mother, she had stumbled onto the power of representation.
‘Motherhood is idealised. When you watch TV they’re almost always white, smiley and have these perfect lives. You hardly see black or other BAME mothers.’
Once she discovered the power of racial and cultural representation in how motherhood is portrayed, she was determined to harness her platform to represent black women and mothers.
‘Representation is so important,’ she says. ‘Seeing yourself on TV, on social media, it creates confidence because you think, “there’s someone who looks like me doing all these things, and I can do this too.”’
‘I want to be that person for black mothers.’
She also realised her identity is a type of superpower and that she can use her visibility to dispel common stereotypes.
‘I want to show motherhood and black mothers being represented as they are. That we don’t just have to be powerful and strong all the time, but also to show the strength in being vulnerable.’
Beyond motherhood, Saliee understands the power of representation in an intimate way that only someone who knows the effects of a lifetime of not being afforded it can understand.
‘I have been the only black person in my class. And that feeling of otherness, that sort of thing impacts you.’
‘So my journey so far has been one of doubting myself and feeling uncomfortable to do something,’ she says, referring to how she would hesitate to take advantage of new opportunities in her growing influencer career.
‘I’ll ask myself, “Why do I feel this way? What’s stopping me?” And the answer is that there is no one in my community that looks like me.’
Saliee, with her honest, frank experiences is making the world of mummy blogging a more open, inclusive space. In a recently published article in Mother & Baby, she discusses her experiences of racism, a discussion she hopes to continue with more columns for the magazine.
And is not only the global mummy influencer world Saliee is intent on changing. She also has her eyes set closer to home with a new project encouraging mothers to take up paid jobs, utilising their domestic skills. Through her network of local mothers at meetings and her local daycare centre, she has come to realise that so many of her peers have also had similar hesitations she has had in her career.
‘I know so many mothers who do so many things: cook for massive groups of people, organise events. I suggested to one mother that she could start a catering company but she was not confident.’
After all, unpaid domestic labour, which are domestic roles such as rearing children, cleaning, cooking, is a crucial part of keeping society functioning. In 2020 alone, unpaid labour usually performed by women was worth £140 billion to the UK economy, according to calculations based on ONS figures.
After moving to her current home in Old Ford three years ago, Saliee has established herself in the community, as she looks to created a local business.
‘I’m definitely settled here. Childcare in Tower Hamlets is amazing, because not only are there all these community activities, but there are child care centres and providers that are free for residents. Not all boroughs have this.’
With all the work she is doing empowering women and encouraging mothers to be more confident and take up space, to what extent is she motivated by her daughters?
‘A huge extent I think. I want my daughters to love the skin they’re in,’ she says.
‘Social change might not happen in my lifetime, or my in my daughters’ lifetimes. But that’s not where my energy is going. I just want to help them navigate this world.’
You can find Chaneen Saliee’s book, Solidarity, Poetry and Prose on amazon.co.uk
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