Why self-love is necessary
Wanting to live up to unrealistic standards of beauty set by advertisements and the beauty industry, young women are made to feel ashamed and inadequate about their bodies and colour. In an off-beat initiative, a 21-year old photographer started an Instagram page called browngirlgazin where she photographed women as they were – dark, plump, pimply – and had them speaking about the traumas of not confirming to the usual norm of beauty or colour
LAKSHMI PRABHALA speaks to Anushka Kelkar and reveals the experiences of some of the women featured on the insta page
We live in a superficial world, where the idea of “beauty” assumes conforming to narrow, sometimes impossible, standards of skin tones, textures and body types. We are constantly told what we should look like, often conditioning us to aspire to look like women on magazine covers or billboards, without realising how unrealistic these goals may be or how adversely it could impact our self-esteem and well-being. In March 2018, Anushka Kelkar, a 21-year-old photographer, started an Instagram page, @browngirlgazin, to understand the relationship Indian women have with their bodies. For over a year, she has been featuring women of different skin colours and sizes, without resorting to airbrushing, using filters or removing blemishes – celebrating womanhood, self-love and body positivity. While she was a student at Ashoka University, Haryana, Anushka observed a big discrepancy in the way young women around her felt and spoke about their bodies while projecting a completely different impression on social media. She recalls, “I started this project with a simple idea – what would happen if I could create a space where women could be open, vulnerable and honest about their bodies and their relationship with them?”
Using photography as a medium, Anushka set out to collaborate with women to record how they felt about their bodies. Anushka used a set of five questions to try and understand a woman’s story better. Following an initial discussion, she proposed a backdrop for the shoot and the kind of aesthetic that she had in mind, but always made sure she stayed true to the story the woman had shared. After the shoot, Anushka would feature select photographs on @browngirlgazin and caption them according to the woman’s responses to her initial question. Early on, Anushka wasn’t sure if women would be comfortable opening up on a public platform, that too about their relationships with their bodies. “But what I think really helped was that they already had the story that they wanted to convey and I saw myself as a channel to help them express their story.” Anushka describes how she helps women feel relaxed and begin to trust her.
“I try to keep every shoot as casual as possible. Even if the girls talked about difficult experiences such as sexual abuse, instead of reacting with shock or disbelief, I would engage with them as a friend. And I think that’s what helped build a rapport.”
According to Anushka, the three most common reasons for women to feel uncomfortable with their
bodies are discrimination based on skin colour, fat shaming and menstruation. Some women were told that they were too dark while others who were bigger than a certain size were made to feel they were not worthy or their bodies didn’t matter. Surprisingly, even though most of her target audience is from urban cities and has access to pads, menstrual cups, etc, there is a lot of social shame associated with menstruation as well as cause for embarrassment. For many women, collaborating with @browngirlgazin seemed to have a cathartic effect. “Because it is a very intense and emotional process, for some it entailed a lot of crying, while others felt overwhelmed and the shoot would happen over multiple attempts. For some others it was a really joyous occasion, a way to begin accepting and celebrating their bodies. Every shoot has been unique in its own way,” Anushka recalls.
Through a series of portraits of Jaanvi Rambade (@_namastebitches), Anushka explored women’s
relationship with their skin.
Like anywhere in India, Jaanvi grew up with Fair and Lovely [name of a face cream] as a norm and had internalised that fair skin was a prerequisite for being considered beautiful. As a child, she believed that the darker tone of her skin made her ugly and unworthy. When only fair-skinned students were picked for leading roles in plays, and dark-skinned children became a laughing stock, Jaanvi figured having dark skin meant others could define what one could or couldn’t do.
However, as she grew older, she found the obsession with fair skin demeaning. “I am a young Indian woman who doesn’t have fair skin and refuses to be apologetic about it. I’ve wasted too much of my time researching fairness hacks and far too much money on fairness creams. I decided that I don’t want to be defined by some narrow standard that is based on oppressive history. I am brown, I am beautiful, and my skin colour should not be something that determines the opportunities that are given to me.”
When Jaanvi first saw the Barbadian pop-icon and actress Rihanna on screen, she began questioning the standards that exist in our society. “Just because most actors in Bollywood are fair-skinned and white-washed doesn’t mean that’s what we need to aspire to be. Being brown is a beautiful thing, and it’s a totally normal thing. It’s time for young women to see brown skin not as ‘diversity’ but as an intrinsically natural and wonderful part of our society.” A collaboration with Varisha Ghazala Tariq (@varisha_tariq) threw light on the struggle of coping with body shaming. Due to a health condition at the age of seven, Varisha was prescribed medicines that contained steroids and this resulted in weight gain. Unable to cope with body shaming, she started working out when she was barely 12. With her carefree childhood taken away from her, Varisha was consumed with hate – for herself as well as the people around her. During her first week in college, Varisha distinctly remembers biting her tongue very hard to keep herself from crying when a friend offered unsolicited advice to lose fat and reduce the size
of her bust. “I hated the comments that were disguised as healthy concern and were sometimes aimed at my parents. I hated that everybody felt as if they had the right to comment on my body. I hated how
affected I was. At the age when I should have been dealing with my biologically changing body, I was
focused on changing its appearance. And I think I broke myself a little in that process.” Varisha was tired of her worth being reduced to digits on a machine; she was made to fear the space she occupied. She became silent, conscious, felt suffocated and hated the person she was. The turning point came
when she began to accept her own body. “I love each and every inch of my body and I would not let another person stand in the way of that. I am living my best and my healthiest and have been that way since I was 12. People need to start dealing with the reality that books, movies, magazines do not, and I repeat do not and cannot represent me. It’s not a ‘lifestyle choice’. I love my body for everything it has been through and what it is. I don’t listen to comments any more because I am the ultimate worshipper of my body, nobody can ever come close to that. I’ll never stop working out, eating healthy food,
sleeping on time or staying hydrated but I will also not deny myself indulging in the good things life has to offer. No, losing weight is not a priority any more. Happiness is.” Very often women find it much more difficult to accept and love their bodies because there are many businesses, from fairness creams to weight-loss tablets, which exist only because women are unhappy with how they look. None of these would be around if women were truly empowered regarding their bodies. Additionally, women also end up having to deal with societal pressure and stigma regarding their appearances. Although they
have a choice, to wear make-up (or not), or to dress as they please, women are always expected to present themselves in a certain manner, especially at events and occasions. Through a photo series, Anushka also explored the theme of ‘Indian wear’ and discovered that for Indian weddings and religious events women were required to adhere to a certain dress code, e.g., wearing bright colours like red or pink and wearing jewellery, etc. But when women with dark skin wore bright colours, they were labelled bold or defiant. Or, if a woman sported piercings at a traditional event, she would invite frowns
and be looked down upon.
Even though Anushka has photographed at least 250 women so far, she is still petrified at the thought of their responses after each shoot. “Every time I send a woman her photographs I know a part of her is going to be taken aback. Very often the reactions have been
‘How can this be me?’, ‘Is this who I am?’, or ‘Is this how I look all the time?’” But Anushka defines her style as “a kind yet unflinching gaze”, where she doesn’t try to make someone look slimmer or aesthetically amazing but aims to capture an honest emotion at a given moment. Her own idea of beauty has also transformed through the endeavours of @browngirlgazin. “I think for me beauty is something that transcends objective aesthetics and is more of a fleeting feeling of wonder or
joy. It has evolved from beautiful features, attire or body posture to something that is more about people’s energy and how they respond to your energy. When I am behind a camera, I know there is a moment when they [my subjects] are totally relaxed and trust me enough to let me in. That moment really encompasses what beauty is.” While @browngirlgazin started out as a photo-project,
over the last year it has grown into a platform where women also came together to speak about issues
such as sexual health care, reproductive health care, relationships with periods, and gaps in urban health care for young women. Anushka believes that people have also begun to question old and narrow beauty standards. “If I had launched this project, say two years ago, I doubt it would have got the response that it has got now. Everyone seems to be getting on-board this bandwagon now, as clothing and perfume brands are trying to collaborate with me. It may take a while before these changes really start percolating into society but one can safely say that it has started,” she says of the positive outcome of her project. A leading ethnic-wear brand Craftsvilla reached out to Anushka after seeing her work, and invited her to be a part of their #JudgeMeNot campaign. The campaign was aimed at questioning the culture of stereotyping women in our society and encouraging women to embrace themselves the way they truly are.
In collaboration with Craftsvilla, Anushka photographed Sudipta Mondal (@sudipta03) as a part
of their #JudgeMeNot campaign. Sudipta grew up in Jharkhand and her parents encouraged her to chase
her dreams and live her life passionately. She took up dance and fi tness as a career, travelled to mountains and beaches and dated men of her choice. Although Sudipta questioned beauty standards, she found herself trying hard to fi t in. While working as a performing artist she was annoyed because she had to fi t into a certain standard of beauty to be respected. “Looking glamorous and dolling up was always important because I thought boys only went on dates with girls who were slim, stylish, and had flawless skin. I always wondered whether anyone cared about my character and personality at all.
Would people want to be my friend and call me hot and bindaas (carefree) if I decided not to fit into this mould any more? Would anyone take me seriously? I used to spend a lot of my time and money in beauty parlours – waxing different parts of my body, changing the way my hair looked, constantly trying to look like the models I’d seen around me. In the past year, all of it changed. I recently chose to shave my head. Now I spend my days outside in nature, climbing trees and walking barefoot on beaches and I have never felt more beautiful or believed in myself more.” More recently, in May this year , Anushka began work on a collaboration with an Indian NGO Make Love Not Scars (@makeluvnotscars) which works in all aspects of rehabilitation for acid attack survivors. A group of warm and passionate women have built and made @makeluvnotscars an amazing community of women supporting one another to build a world where a woman’s worth is not defined by her appearance alone.