If you live in India and are not a fair-skinned, thin girl, it is more than likely that you have received your fair share of backhanded compliments. Statements (and advice) like “you are really pretty for a dark girl” or “if you lost a little weight, you would be really beautiful” are aplenty. These socially-approved norms of beauty, unrealistic and non-inclusive as they may be, have persisted for generations, affecting how women relate to their bodies. It is little wonder then that the women’s fairness cream industry in India is expected to rake in revenues of more than Rs 5,000 crore by 2023.
Varisha Tariq was only in her first week as a student at Ashoka University in Sonepat, when a fellow student counselled her to run every day to lose weight and reduce her bust size. In a post on the Instagram handle Browngirlgazin, Tariq remembered: “When I heard that, I had to bite my tongue hard to stop myself from crying…I hated the comments that were disguised as healthy concerns and were sometimes aimed at my parents. I hated that everybody felt as if they had the right to comment on my body.” The comments on Tariq’s post showed that she was not alone in feeling powerless against the scrutiny of the female body. A classmate of Tariq’s wrote: “Sending you lots of love and hope....what makes you is not your clothes or body okay? You’re beautiful. That’s what’s important.”
The Browngirlgazin handle, started by photographer Anushka Kelkar, attempts to paint an honest representation of Indian women and their relationship with their bodies. The 21-year-old started shooting and posting portraits of women in March, and has, within three months, amassed more than 4,000 followers.
Despite ticking the checkboxes of what is considered beautiful in India, the fair and slim Kelkar never really felt comfortable in her body. “At a very early age I felt like my body was constantly being policed and I felt scared to treat it as something that was constantly growing and changing,” said Kelkar. “If I saw myself gaining weight, I took it very seriously and felt like that was a personal flaw. I was always really conscious of and awkward in my body.”
College turned out to be a time of transformation. Kelkar, who recently graduated from the Ashoka University, found herself living in a hostel with 30 other women, who all believed they were flawed, were constantly dealing with body issues or who had learned to take pride in their perceived inadequacies. It was there that Kelkar realised that a woman’s perception of her body stems from social conditioning.
“Hostel was a pretty uninhibited space,” she said. “I heard every single girl talk about ways in which she felt like a personal failure because she didn’t measure up to a specific standard. I had a friend who wouldn’t go for a dance because she said, ‘I look too fat in this dress.’ I saw the ways in which these insecurities were crippling, but it was also kind of relatable in how no girl, regardless of what she looked like, felt content in her body.”
Kelkar wanted to do something to highlight these issues and chose the photographic medium to do it. She put up messages on her Facebook page and university groups and within 24 hours, 50-odd women responded with requests to be featured.
“People have very different reasons to do this project,” said Kelkar. “For some it is about celebrating their bodies, for some it is about starting the process of coming to terms with their bodies or features that have been branded as flaws. So before photographing them, I ask them to send me a little write-up on how they see their bodies.”
Kelkar decided to use the word brown in the name of the Instagram handle to highlight what it means to be a young Indian woman who doesn’t conform to conventional beauty standards. “This constant, unwanted feedback and this idea that the entire community around you can tell you what you can or can’t do with your body makes it difficult to take ownership of your bodies and fully embrace it,” she said.
“Outlier voices and projects like Browngirlgazin are important because they spark up conversations and slowly the effect trickles into mainstream media,” said Kaviya, a 28-year-old Mumbai-based artist whose works have dealt with themes of body positivity and the changing rules of beauty. The women in Kaviya’s art are unabashedly opinionated while flaunting their unshaven legs, stretch marks and all those things deemed “ugly” or “unfeminine”. “Mainstream fashion labels are increasingly using diverse models; sporting a unibrow is no longer an oddity thanks to [actor Deepika Padukone’s look in] Padmaavat; short girls take comfort in actor Alia Bhatt being successful; and Tanishq used a dark-skinned model in its wedding ad to stir up conversations about #darkisbeautiful,” said Kaviya. “You realise how huge an impact mainstream media can have on minds if only they consciously decide to change the narrative of what constitutes beauty.”
The testimonies of the women on Browngirlgazin are varied. The issues are not always related to physical attributes – for some, it’s about how their bodies have changed due to mental and physical trauma. In an anonymous post, a woman writes about the scars on her body, a result of long-term physical abuse by her father: “My first memory is of my father burning my leg when I was three because I refused to eat my vegetables. I have lost count of how many times he’s hurt me since. As a daughter of an abusive alcoholic, my body holds inordinate amounts of pain. The scars and injuries make me feel ugly, of course, but they also make me ashamed. Walking around with scars is like carrying permanent proof of my worthlessness… I hate that my body has been so altered by him, it is no longer my own.”
According to Kelkar, the project has helped her in some ways. “Body positivity is not a linear journey which ends in you feeling confident and beautiful because feeling like that all the time is impossible,” she said. “For me, it has become about accepting that your body is alive and constantly evolving, just like you, and the important thing is to have a relationship with it and decode its language.”