This article is the first in a series called Women and Media. This series will try to showcase some of the innovative and unusual ways in which women represent themselves and their struggles in the media today, and the women responsible for creating these spaces of discourse and debate. The ways in which women represent themselves are often creative, beautiful, and fascinating; more importantly, however, they are intended to make you stop and think about the female representation in the mainstream media.
The internet has become a source of vast, unlimited information – there is so much knowledge available at our fingertips today. Social media platforms on the internet allow us to share our thoughts with other people more than ever before, making it easier for even the obscurest opinion to find an audience. It has also become an open forum for those who were could not find accurate representations of themselves to take matters into their own hands and represent themselves in a more holistic manner.
Social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter have become modern-day portfolios that are accessible to a large population to consume and talk about. Instagram in particular lends itself to imaginative ways of creating conversation and debate around issues that may not get much attention or may be considered controversial in nature.
@browngirlgazin, which has quickly become one of my favourite accounts on Instagram over the last few months, features raw and honest photographs of young women. Started in March 2018 by Anushka Kelkar, a student at Ashoka University, @browngirlgazin takes photographs of and portrays women in ways that may not be considered “conventionally flattering”; according to the @browngirlgazin bio, the project tries to “make more honest portraits of women, their relationships with their bodies, and redefining (sic) ‘beauty’”. Her photographs don’t shy away from showing flaws, scars, stretch marks, and hair on women that tend to be photoshopped away, in places that you generally don’t see them in magazines or photo-essays.
When I asked Anushka about what inspired her to begin this project, she cited her own disillusionment with the “perfection” she saw on her social media feeds: “When I was younger, I often felt like my body was very different from all the ‘beautiful’ women I saw on TV, or in the media that I consumed. When we see images on our feed, we can’t help but compare ourselves to the people we are seeing in those images and I felt a deep disconnect between the way I saw the women around me, and the way they were portrayed on social media.”
Thus, for Anushka, @browngirlgazin became a platform where she could create a space where women could feel open enough to be honest and vulnerable about their bodies. After talking to her girlfriends in college, who she mentioned were “really supportive and incredible”, she said they “realised that these insecurities were not actually as shameful or personal as we thought they were”. It was then that Anushka decided to channel her own talent and interest in photography into “making more representative portraits [of women] and openly discuss the kind of pressure that women are routinely put under to fit into a certain kind of beauty standard”.
In her own words, the creative focus behind @browngirlgazin has been to “challenge my own aesthetics as a photographer – I wanted to make the women feel comfortable with my gaze, and I wanted that comfort to translate into the images I was creating.”
Anushka is my senior in university; she has taken portraits of some of my friends and classmates, along with other women across all the undergraduate batches. By her own estimate, she has photographed over 50 women since the project started in March. She talks to the women she shoots about their bodies, beauty and the beauty standards of Indian society, and their relationships with both.
What about Anushka’s own relationship with beauty? Has it been impacted since she began her project? It’s been a learning process, she says. Growing up, she didn’t really question the beauty standards that existed in society. They were so ingrained in her that she just thought they were normal and all-encompassing. Only when she began to question society’s beauty standards did she realise how narrow and problematic they are, and that beauty cannot be defined by these standards because it isn’t something that can only be found in certain types of bodies. She says, “I think representation has a really big role to play in defining what we find beautiful. On @browngirlgazin, I follow a lot of accounts that are celebrating traits which aren’t conventionally considered beautiful like dark skin or acne, and the more images I see, the more I’m able to widen my own perceptions of beauty.”
This way of viewing beauty has also been influenced in part by the way Anushka sees the women around her. Talking about the women she has grown up around and is friends with, she admires the fact that they aren’t flawless, their hair isn’t always in place and they have fat rolls and funny birthmarks and lots of bad skin days. This doesn’t make them any less incredible in her eyes; in fact, this serves as a reminder that bodies are strange and funny, and constantly changing.
Anushka’s photographs are as colourful as the women that they are trying to capture, taking both the subject of the photographs and the viewer out of their comfort zones. For me, as someone who hasn’t been involved in the project in any way and has seen it grow since its inception, @browngirlgazin has become a sort of watershed moment in my life – it has been so incredible to see all these women I had seen around me in university talk about themselves and find the courage to showcase their vulnerabilities to the scrutiny of the world. This project has helped me give more thought to the ways in which we often consider ourselves and how much they have been influenced by how our friends, family, and the world expect us to look and behave. @browngirlgazin has also made me realise that learning to love yourself is not an easy task, but a long, difficult process that could take months and years of unlearning others’ opinions of your body.
Being part of the project has been a uniquely different experience that has impacted the women who have modelled for @browngirlgazin as well. Being in front of the camera has been a challenge and an exercise in vulnerability for many of those who have had their photographs taken and their flaws and scars exposed through the project.
Anjali Krishnakumar, one of the models for the project, writes about how @browngirlgazin works, her experience of modelling for Anushka, and how it has affected the way she sees beauty and her own body:
Up till very recently I had very set definitions of what was attractive and what wasn’t. I had decided that girls with great hair and skin, and lighter frames were just by default more attractive than any of the people around them. Never mind that none of the people around me ever met those standards, but they were still incredibly beautiful and wonderful women. Even then, I still wasn’t able to see myself as someone who could be attractive given my very narrow definition of the term (funny how we’re so much harder on ourselves than on others). This is why I think I was so excited to shoot for @browngirlgazin; I was hoping it would help me, as Anushka said, “challenge what we understand to be conventionally attractive in the first place”.
Anushka was the first person to ask me to model for her (not like anyone’s asked me to model for them since). I was also lucky enough to be one of the first few models for @browngirlgazin – which is strange because really my photos went up less than two months ago, and a month before the account started gaining popularity among people outside of Ashoka. That should tell you just how important her account is to people not just within the small confines of our university.
The way the account works is Anushka uploads the pictures along with write-ups which are direct quotes from the models. I think this is one of the reasons why her account became so popular, because it kept in mind the importance of giving a voice to the faces in the pictures as well. Keeping this in mind, most of the girls take pictures that go with the theme of whatever they’re trying to say. If the write up is about body hair, the pictures will highlight their body hair, or if it’s about scars or stretch marks that is what they’ll focus on. For me, I had no real idea of what I wanted to say at the time, so the pictures were all Anushka; she told me what shirt I should wear and even what lipstick to bring. I was really glad I went along with everything she told me to do because the shoot itself was incredibly fun and the resulting pictures helped me realize a lot of things about myself.
While I am not overweight in any sense of the word, I am definitely chubbier than a lot of the girls I see around me. While it was never anything I was particularly obsessed about, my weight has dictated the way I felt about my body since I was maybe twelve or thirteen. Because of it I never looked at myself as traditionally attractive. The way I looked at myself and probably other chubbier girls around me has been a little shameful to say the least. I was convinced that girls who looked like me could only be passably attractive at best, maybe if we wore spandex and pretended we were thinner than we are, there was never the possibility of being actually attractive. Honestly, my entire method of thinking at the time was ridiculous.
After my shoot Anushka asked me for a write up about the way I feel about my body. It took me a while because like I said, I hadn’t done the shoot with any purpose in mind. But shooting for @browngirlgazin, and reading all the stories that other girls have shared, has made me abundantly aware of the insane and impossible beauty standards we’re all attempting to adhere to. I realized that one of these is the need to have a small body. Given the kind of body I have I should have embraced the ‘health and beauty at every size’ movement sooner, but I was convinced that if I just ate right and exercised more I wouldn’t be this size that I was “ashamed” of anymore. After the shoot, I realized how important it is to embrace the movement, that it is possible to be beautiful even without fitting in the traditional moulds of what a beautiful woman is supposed to look like. So that’s what I wrote about in my write up.
Most importantly though, I think I realised that beauty isn’t something that can be measured by things as arbitrary as hair or skin or size. It varies from person to person and beauty in one woman doesn’t automatically make someone who doesn’t look like her less beautiful. Beauty just… is.
According to Anushka, the response she has received to @browngirlgazin over the past few months has been “absolutely phenomenal”. She says, “It’s almost as though women were waiting for someone to ask them to share their stories, and allow them to document their vulnerabilities”. Not just women, but many men have also contacted her, telling her that they had never realized how much pressure there is on women to look a certain way. “One of the most amazing parts of this project for me,” she admits, “has been to see the way in which women support other women in the comments section. I’ve received so much love and support from people who have been a part of this project as well as people on Instagram that haven’t ever seen women being represented in this manner before.”
So what’s next for @browngirlgazin? Well, one thing Anushka is looking forward to is continuing her project in Bombay, and making at least 50 more portraits of women. She’d also like to broaden her horizons when it comes to the subjects she captures, such as people with different gender identities, and document their relationships with their bodies and the kind of pressure they face. She also doesn’t want to confine her project and what it aims to achieve to photographs – “I’d also love to start a podcast where women can tell these stories through a different medium.”
It is incredibly telling that the response to @browngirlgazin has been overwhelmingly positive – it just goes to show that women were just waiting to tell their stories and share their experiences with the world. One of my biggest takeaways from Anushka’s project and reading the stories of the women she has photographed has been that beauty is not a universal phenomenon that you must aspire to; beauty is what makes you feel comfortable and happy at the end of the day. As Anjali has written, it begins with the realisation that “beauty in one woman doesn’t automatically make someone who doesn’t look like her less beautiful. Beauty just… is.”
Anushka Kelkar’s project, @browngirlgazin, can be found on Instagram.
By Anjali Krishnakumar and Rutvi Zamre
Anjali is an author and poet, with her work in poetry currently published in the Bangalore Review.
Rutvi Zamre is an English major who knows that she doesn’t know much.