“I describe my own childhood as 'growing up in two worlds'”, mother of two Justine Reid tells us. My father is Aboriginal and my mother is white…
“It was very polarising going from two very different lifestyles, and for a long time I didn’t know where I fit in. I felt like I was too ‘white’ and privileged to be accepted by my family and community in Rockhampton, but too ‘rough’ and ‘Aboriginal’ to be accepted by my white private school friends who often teased me about my culture and identity as a young Aboriginal girl.”
Speaking to Justine today, it’s clear that she has found her voice. “One really positive thing that I believe being Aboriginal gives you is resilience”, she says, and that’s something she has in spades. A domestic violence survivor, she’s now a social worker, helping other women out of the same situation she once felt trapped in. She’s vocal about her passions – from Feminism to cultural advocacy, to body positivity. And as a mother, she’s survived a baptism by fire. “When I became a mother I literally had no idea how hard and exhausting it would be. I had no support from my husband and he initially told me he regretted having a baby. So I felt very much alone. My Mum stayed with us for roughly two months which was my saving grace, and then surrounding myself with other Mums became my way of navigating motherhood. All of these amazing women still give me strength and love and support today.”
Despite a history of trauma, Justine is outspoken, strong, and above all, proud. We speak to the Gangulu woman about life in isolation, surviving abuse, and why she’s made the conscious decision to stop consuming mainstream media…
How are you and your family adjusting to life in isolation?
It’s been rough, I’m not going to lie. I struggled initially with the lack of human contact. I’m an extrovert and really need that connection with other humans to recharge. Then obviously being a mum and having kids at home, unable to go anywhere, trying to home school and trying to work full time…. the struggle was REAL! My daughter Lulu, who is 5, has cried a lot about missing friends and missing her prep teacher and we’ve tried to remedy that with FaceTime dates with friends. We’ve kind of found our groove now. I guess reframing my view that I had to be as productive as normal, and also be able to teach my children and just be ‘on top of it’ like I usually would be, has helped immensely. I lowered my expectations of myself, and became at peace with doing what I could, and if I couldn’t get everything done and be the perfect employee, perfect mum, perfect partner – then that was totally OK. Because this is not normal!
What do you want to see more of on social media and also in the news right now?
I don’t watch the news – I made a conscious decision to consume as little mainstream media as I could a few years ago. And obviously you can’t avoid it all, but I definitely want to see a shift in the way mainstream media reports on issues like domestic and family violence and stories that relate to black Indigenous people of colour (BIPOC).
In terms of Instagram and social media, I definitely want to see less promotion of weight loss products, or anything that targets women and makes us feel like we are less than and need to reach some unattainable beauty standard. But I’m also a realist, and am well aware that this is a deep seated part of the patriarchal society we live in, that thrives through the oppression of women, and this is just another way the patriarchy has adapted to the social media age.
I do love that you can create the content you consume (to a certain extent) on Instagram. I can unfollow someone if I don’t agree with their opinions or their ‘message’. However, I will always call out racism, transphobia, misogyny, etc when I see it.
Can you tell us a little bit about your own childhood?
I describe my own childhood as ‘growing up in two worlds’. My father is Aboriginal and my mother is white. She was a dental therapist and a single Mum (she left my Dad when I was very young). She was the most beautiful human and wonderful mum, who gave me every opportunity in the world including access to private school education. But every school holidays I spent in Rockhampton with Dad, and in community. I witnessed some pretty horrific things there but also was fortunate enough to remain connected to my culture. It was very polarising going from two very different lifestyles, and for a long time I didn’t know where I fit in. I felt like I was too ‘white’ and privileged to be accepted by my family and community in Rockhampton, but too ‘rough’ and ‘Aboriginal’ to be accepted by my white private school friends who often teased me about my culture and identity as a young Aboriginal girl.
In primary school I was also the only child in the whole school who had a single mum, so that was always a sore point. And I was overweight and got bullied for that too. I guess I’m making my childhood sound really awful, but it wasn’t! There were amazing times and memories with my step brother, my cousins and my beautiful mother…. but like everyone, I had my challenges, and there was certainly significant trauma witnessing some pretty horrific domestic violence.
How has your heritage influenced the person you are today, and what will you teach your children about your heritage?
My children know we are Aboriginal and I teach them as much as I can. Part of my job involves keeping Aboriginal children who are in out of home care (the foster system and child protection system) connected to their culture, and I am so passionate about it that naturally I do the same for my own children. One really positive thing that I believe being Aboriginal gives you is resilience. We have the oldest living culture in the world thanks to our ancestors and their resilience. Yes, we have lost so much as First Nations people, but we are still here. And despite the disadvantages and discrimination we still face today, we have proven how strong we are in our culture and that we are not going anywhere. We will continue to fight for our sovereignty and I believe we are seeing a revival of Aboriginal culture in many areas. We will only continue to grow stronger and thrive – I guess this is part of what makes me such a passionate activist for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and our communities.
What about your relationship with your mother – what impact has she had on you? You've said she always hated the word “nice” and was a feminist…
Being a single Mum and growing up in a household with just her and I (apart from when I would go to Rocky and see Dad), my mum showed me how fierce and independent women are. She was always one to speak her mind and was very politically aware, and had a passion for social justice. I believe this is where I get my passion as an advocate and activist from. She and I were very different in so many ways, but we truly loved one another so deeply and when she passed away suddenly in 2018 it left a screaming deficit in my life. She was my rock and my go-to. I also believe her passing gave me the strength to leave my own domestically violent relationship, which I know she would be so proud of!
What do you find most fulfilling about being a social worker and what is the most challenging?
The most fulfilling part of social work is making a difference in people’s lives. But working in the child protection space is incredibly challenging. The system is so broken, and needs a complete overhaul. Aboriginal families and children are still extremely over represented, and this is part of the reason I got into social work. So sometimes you see how discriminatory, and simply unfair the system can be, and you feel helpless because you want to create big macro-level change but you are just one person. It’s frustrating to say the least.
You left a left a “horrifically abusive marriage” – what gave you strength to leave, and what advice do you have for women in an abusive relationship?
The pain of losing my mum was indescribable – she also died really suddenly while driving my son Archie to school, so I realised how fleeting life really is. She was only 62 and starting to plan her retirement, and then one day she was just gone. And I knew I couldn’t continue to live and exist in this relationship, knowing tomorrow I might not be here, and this would have been virtually my entire adult life. I just had to get out, but that took time and multiple attempts.
On average it takes a woman in a domestically violent relationship 7 attempts to leave. To any woman in that situation I would say “you can leave, you can be safe, you can create a life of love and happiness without this man, but you need a plan to leave, that ensures you are safe. You need to break the silence and reach out to those around you, and you need to call 1800 RESPECT because leaving an abusive relationship is the most dangerous time for a woman.” This is what frustrates me so much when people say “why doesn’t she just leave” – you absolutely cannot “just leave” – that is, in so many instances, a literal death sentence!
You recently posted two photos to Instagram - one where you reflect “societal norms of “beauty” and "one where I do not” – what are your thoughts on the pressure to conform to societal norms?
The pressure for women to achieve unattainable standards of beauty is just total BS. And like I mentioned earlier, it’s completely driven by the patriarchy as a means to make us feel shit about ourselves. The goal posts keep changing – it used to be a gaunt, thin, ‘heroin chic’ beauty ideal that we had to conform to to be considered attractive, and now it’s all about the curves and the big boobs and big booty – think Kardashians. And it’s an industry that preys on making women feel like shit about themselves for profit. It’s just so awful! I’m all for women doing what they want with their own bodies, but seeing 19 year old girls getting filler and Botox and plastic surgery, because they’re being sent the message that they must look a certain way, is just abhorrent!
You've said “for so long I accepted being told I was fat and useless (among other things) as normal and it turns out that IT’S NOT NORMAL, HEALTHY OR OKAY!” Can you share your body love journey? And what would you say to your younger self about body love?
I actually had a really positive relationship with my body. I was 160kg and quite happy, and being ‘plus size’ and loud and fierce was part of my identity. But I was told that I needed to lose weight because I had multiple weight related health conditions, so I made a decision to have a gastric sleeve surgery in 2017, which saw me lose 70kg. Then I was left with loose skin that I was incredibly self-conscious about, and also resulted in infections and rashes, so I made another decision to have the loose skin on my arms and stomach removed, which has left me with enormous scars. Now that I represent more of a ‘societal norm’ of beauty, people treat me differently (especially men) and it makes me so uncomfortable. I felt ‘safe’ when I was 160kg, and now I feel quite vulnerable. I never did any of this to look ‘good’, because my weight didn’t bother me, it bothered everyone else. So I guess I’ve had to learn to love my body again, but body positivity and rejecting diet culture is hard when you are bombarded with it constantly.
As a working mother, do you put pressure on yourself? What stresses you out?
I used to put a lot of pressure on myself as a working mum. I was also going home to a volatile and often abusive home and once I left and was a single mother I had a new set of challenges and pressures. I think it is hard for all mothers at times, regardless of whether they work or stay at home or are single or married. We all feel like we are failing at times. The biggest light bulb moment for me was when I realised a relationship is a partnership, and I wouldn’t settle for anything less than a partner who stepped up to the plate and didn’t expect me to cook and clean, and wash and iron, and make school lunches etc. I have that now with my current partner and it makes #MumLife so much easier!
Becoming a mother for the first time can be isolating – did you ever feel lonely? And where did your support come from?
When I became a mother I literally had no idea how hard and exhausting it would be. I had no support from my husband and he initially told me he regretted having a baby. So I felt very much alone. My Mum stayed with us for roughly two months which was my saving grace, and then surrounding myself with other Mums became my way of navigating motherhood. All of these amazing women still give me strength and love and support today.