Since their arrival at Tufts, Athena Nair has remained an influential figure in the social and artistic life on campus. They have participated in campus organizations such as the Jumbo Drag Collective, TEDxTufts, various musical theater communities and many more.
Outside of school, Nair, a psychology major, has testified at congressional briefings on eating disorders. They served as the youngest member on the board of The Body Positive, a national organization dedicated to providing compassion and support for those struggling with their bodies.
Nair reflected on their achievements, struggles and favorite memories from their time at Tufts. They talked all things arts and activism, sharing the impact they’ve made on Tufts — and similarly, the impact Tufts has made on them).
Art and performance have heavily shaped Nair’s journey at Tufts. They cite one of their biggest influences as Tufts professor Kareem Khubchandani in the Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies.
“Through all my spaces — the queer spaces, the performance spaces, the Desi spaces and then the interactions and overlaps of all of them — I would hear about [Khubchandani] and then we finally got to meet,” Nair said. “My first class with Auntie was Intro to Queer Studies in fall 2020. So, I would say that Auntie also really guided my journey at Tufts.”
Nair continued to highlight the influence of Khubchandani’s teaching.
“Studying queerness, and studying queer dance, queer nightlife, I learned so much more about myself,” Nair said. “I felt myself opening up on so many journeys. I have known that I’m queer for a very long time, but that has meant a lot of different things. … Getting the chance with [Khubchandani] to explore that in so many ways through performance has been so important.”
Throughout Nair’s academic career, they have put on multiple musicals that have challenged typical boundaries. After putting on a virtual musical with the help of Khubchandani, Nair took on their second challenge with the production of “Chicago” in the spring of their junior year.
“One of my big ventures as I embark from Tufts is doing [’Chicago’] professionally and with a decolonizing and drag vision,” Nair said. “Bringing out the camp and drag aspects, adding new aspects, playing with gender, also bringing my Bollywood expertise and knowledge and South Asian classical dance expertise and knowledge, all of those come into the art that I’m making.”
Nair continues to make spaces more inclusive with their work on body positivity and fatphobia. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they ran two different weekly virtual support groups about body positivity. Their 2020 TEDxTufts talk unpacked America’s fear of fatness through discussing fatphobia, diet culture and body positivity. Currently, they are teaching a class at the Experimental College titled Fatphobia and the Body Positivity Movement, which has been “so exhausting and so gratifying,” according to Nair.
Exhausting but gratifying is perhaps the right way to describe Nair’s time here at Tufts. While much of their work has been fruitful, it did not come without struggle.
In their attempt to diversify and transform typically whitewashed and heteronormative spaces, Nair said, they have often felt discouraged and drained by the process. They spoke particularly of their experience in student musical theater and a capella groups.
“Amidst these projects, like the musical that I did, and then “Chicago” and drag, I feel like I’ve also been navigating so many spaces at Tufts that [I have been] trying to adjust and change and sometimes that really doesn’t work,” Nair said. “That has been a big part of my work is that I’m doing my own thing. I’m building my own community.”
Nair’s most notable experience at Tufts may be their continued journey of radical self-love and acceptance, as they termed it. When asked how they are able to make such a difference on the people and spaces around them, they harkened back to the importance of internal change first.
“It started with like, I need to change the world,” Nair said. “[But I realized that] I can’t help other people love themselves until I know what it’s like to love myself.”
Yet, self-love will continue to be a challenge despite the progress Nair has made. In order to combat these moments of self-doubt, Nair emphasized the importance of allowing grace and tuning into your body’s needs.
“At base, I have this radical love for myself,” Nair said. “[It’s not] the same as liking myself all the time. It’s not the same as even accepting myself all the time. It is love, the way that I love people in my life and siblings and family [but] can still be really frustrated and have moments of tension and agony. … Given that I have this whole world inside of me, I try to hold myself as if I’m holding a kid or a younger self, just with that gentleness and love.”
Some of Nair’s favorite memories on campus include the opportunities to dress without inhibition. Whether going to class or a red-carpet walk, the chance to dress up every day has been a source of great joy during their time at Tufts.
“It’s really fun to bring people joy and color, and to show people that you can show up anywhere, wherever you want, and you can honor yourself and your energy however you want,” Nair said. “I guess that's something that I’m proud of that I bring to a lot of different spaces, being unabashed and celebrating myself, however I feel like I want to.”