TikTok star India Atkinson reveals primary school was an 'absolute nightmare’
“They never said it was because I had one hand, but there’s always something in the back of your head that tells you there was no other reason. There was nothing else that was different from me to everyone else”
Pulling your long hair into a simple ponytail may sound like an unlikely way to go viral — but that’s exactly how it happened for India Atkinson.
Fellow ‘one-hand girl’ India, from Co Antrim, has been used to getting sideways glances since she was little, after being born without her left hand.
So during lockdown, the 22-year-old decided to take matters into her own hand — as she herself might joke on social media — by showing off how she perfects her day-to-day hairstyle.
Better known as @indiasasha online, the April 2020 video has since been viewed 2.2m times and has helped gain her almost half a million followers — and this time the content creator doesn’t mind the stares.
“I didn’t expect it at all,” India says of the unbelievable reaction to the 38-second video. “It was just a video of me putting my hair up in a ponytail. My work colleagues found it so fascinating that I had to record their reaction.
“When I uploaded the video of me doing my hair and the reactions side-by-side on TikTok, it just blew up. It was not an expected reaction.
“I was sitting in work the next day and my colleagues were saying to me, ‘Oh, it’s at 200k, it’s at 250k, it’s at 300k’, and I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God, what the hell?’” continues the Belfast native, who was working in a call centre at the time.
“Then I was checking the comments and people were either fascinated by it, or there were people who were similar to us and had different diagnoses that had affected their hands, and putting their hair up was something they struggled with — and they were glad to see it online.
“Other people had more questions: ‘How do you do this? How do you do that? Then I just realised I could maybe start doing videos and stuff because I enjoyed doing it. It wasn’t the first time I had made a TikTok — it was something that just happened to blow up.”
The content creator has since uploaded dozens more piss-takes on everything from how she gets a natural “five-finger discount” on getting her nails done to pranking people during a game of rock, paper, scissors.
But the truth is, her daring sense of humour all started as a defence mechanism to deal with others’ reactions to her disability, which is the result of symbrachydactyly, a rare congenital hand condition, she reveals.
“I was always brought up to be a piss-taker. Basically, my Daddy was always the one helping me to crack jokes — in a way to prepare me for the real world, so that whenever people made jokes about me that weren’t in a nice way, I had something to prepare me, or a shield.
“So I had a sense of humour about everything and didn’t take life too seriously and it has stuck with me.
“I think the first joke I ever remember my Daddy making was, ‘You’re like a clock — you’ve got a big hand and a little hand’. So there’s all these things ingrained in my head, and then I just kept putting them into my TikToks.
“And, of course, there are random situations that I can’t foresee, and whenever those situations happen, I just press record and they’re the videos that do the best, to be honest.
“Anytime I go viral, I see my hand as not being a barrier to communication — it’s almost like something that can help break down barriers between people who are similar, and people who are not who have never really seen something similar. So I really enjoy it because it does make it easier to communicate with people.”
Take, for example, the time she was enjoying a booze cruise on the sun-drenched Greek island of Corfu, when a throwaway challenge by the DJ for party-goers not to drink with their right hand — which could have shipwrecked her holiday — resulted not only in hilarious TikTok fodder, but a free cocktail, and becoming the most popular girl on the boat.
But India can remember a time when it wasn’t that way.
“Primary school was an absolute nightmare,” she says. “A lot of people assume it would be secondary school, but primary school was the worst for me.
“I never really had a friendship group — I was just the person that sometimes got invited [to things], sometimes didn’t, and I wasn’t really close to anybody.
“In P5, I felt frozen out by my entire class. They never said it was because I had one hand, but there’s always something in the back of your head that tells you there was no other reason. There was nothing else that was different from me to everyone else.
“Secondary school was when I started coming out of myself a little bit more.”
UK charity Reach, which provides support for children with limb difference and their families, helped put India, as well as her mum and dad, Tracey and Darren, in touch with other children and parents going through the same thing.
It’s a big part of the reason why she says she wants to pay it forward by making people with disabilities more visible on social media, television, and in newspapers and magazines — even if it triggers some.
“Get sick of my face because I’m not going to stop,” laughs the aspiring TV presenter. “I get comments under my videos like, ‘Why is this girl always making content about her hand?’
“And it’s like: people do makeup content, people do sports content, people do twerking content — what’s wrong with me making content about my hand, having a good time myself and giving people a giggle? Like, it shouldn’t be weird to see it. People are just criticising it because it’s not what they’re used to seeing, and that’s the problem.
“When I was younger, I only ever had the opportunity to meet other people that were similar to me through Reach,” India continues. “My Mummy wanted me to meet other children who had a similar disability but up until then, there hadn’t really been much at all.
“There’s not been a moment where I have seen somebody on TV or walked past somebody on the street where I would have thought, ‘Wow, there’s somebody like me.’ Thankfully, that’s starting to change.
“More people are getting the opportunity to be in the public eye and be proud of who they are, and not put their hand in their pocket so that nobody can see it. I have finally started to see that more and it is absolutely amazing.
“It also reassures me whenever there’s a child that was my age who didn’t see anything, that hopefully now they are seeing things. Because you’ve no idea...” she quickly corrects herself: “Well, you do have an idea.
“You’re probably one of the few people that actually does have an idea about how important it is to not feel like you’re some bloody science project or exhibition whenever you’re walking down the street — that it’s just normal, this is your body, and that really helps.”
Oscar-winning actor Troy Kotsur (who is deaf), Australian model Madeline Stuart (who has Down syndrome) and comedian Rosie Jones (who has cerebral palsy) are just some of those helping to shatter stereotypes about people with disabilities.
Meanwhile, global fashion brands including American Eagle, Nike and Ugg have also answered the call for greater inclusivity, with stylish adaptive clothing ranges.
But not all visibility is necessarily good, agrees India, citing the controversy over the 2020 kids’ filmThe Witches, starring Anne Hathaway as the frightening Grand High Witch, recognised as a witch by having hands with three fingers and feet with no toes.
The actress later apologised for the upset the movie’s portrayal of limb difference caused to the community and promised to “do better” in the future.
“I personally didn’t take offence because I’m not easily offended, but what broke my heart is that this is a children’s movie,” says India, who believes education and normalisation are the twin cornerstones of a more inclusive society.
“For us, we don’t think, ‘Oh my God, people are going to think we’re witches now’ because we’re adults. But for kids, that’ll be something that’s on their mind. It was used as a prop to make someone more villainous.
“A lot of the time, disability hasn’t been represented in the way that it should. It’s either been, ‘Look at me, I’m disabled, I can do this!’ and it’s kind of like, ‘Of course we can do that — why are you stating the obvious?’
“Or it’s just being used as a prop, which is awful. Why is it not being presented in a beautiful or equal way sometimes?”
As our fun-filled Magazine+ photoshoot shows, the influencer has all the makings of a model and has already been snapped up by a number of fashion, beauty and food brands online.
But she’s conscious not to be used as a “box-ticking exercise” for companies looking to boost their inclusivity credentials either.
“It was amazing,” she beams of posing up a storm. “I really, really enjoyed it — I don’t know if you could tell by me doing dance moves every two seconds!
“Modelling is something I would definitely consider doing. I’d love to do anything really that puts something different out there,” adds India, who has two younger sisters, Tiana Mya (17) and Asha Dionne (18).
“I feel like when you’re in the creator space, and you’re doing a lot in the public eye, it’s kind of bittersweet. Like the bittersweetness (sic) of tokenism — it’s not great to be used, but it’s great to be out there and representing.
“Tokenism is something that I’m trying to keep a close eye out for. You can usually tell the brands that are looking for that because they’re not really valuing your type of content. They’ll maybe suggest that you always get your hand in the content in a very roundabout way and that’s: ‘Sorry, no, I don’t want to work with you anymore.’”
As well as keeping fans entertained with her bite-sized videos, advocate India is known for her straight-talking way of dealing with trolls.
Dipping into her inbox can be a bit like playing Russian roulette though, she jokes: “My DMs are a strange place sometimes.
“It’s either a strange person making a really inappropriate comment, or it is a brand looking to work with me — but you can usually tell which ones you’re better not opening, so I just don’t.
“The most common [comment] is, ‘It looks like a foot’, and I don’t understand because if your foot looks like this, you should go to a podiatrist!
“Other than that, I get a lot of strange comments sexualising my disability from men online. I find that to be the most uncomfortable, especially knowing there are kids out there with similar things.”
“The number one reason why I deal with all the hate comments is that I handle them well,” says India. “I’d rather people give the comments to me, and me to handle them, than for some child to end up having to handle them when they’re not ready.
“The number one priority for me, especially with having little sisters, is to make sure that the little ones are more prepared and given a better life in a better world than what maybe we were.”
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