Desi girls tend to live under a lot of scrutiny for their body type - be it large, dark, blemished or hairy. For a lot of us, the 'end goal' is to be prepared for marriage, so an ideal body type is pedalled in front of us - if you're not slim but busty, light skinned, hair less and spot-free, no one will marry you. And if no one marry's you? Well. Log kya kahenge.
Everything we see perpetuates this, from magazine spreads to the films we watch. In TV and film, the larger character is portrayed with comedic effect - or is the love-less best friend. Someone with a unibrow goes through a makeover and gets the boy. Black counterparts to the white heroine are undersold as bitches and rivals. To be happy, you must adhere to these beauty standards.
Anushka Kelkar is a 21 year old photographer, who wants to challenge that. With her photo series called browngirlgazin, Anushka is making a visual contradiction on all that we believe to be true.
"I wanted Browngirlgazin to highlight how absurd the beauty standards in our society specifically are, and remind myself and the women around me that inhabiting a body is a difficult thing and we shouldn't see having a complicated relationship with our body as a personal failure."
We see our reflection in shop windows, mirrored against shapeless, hairless mannequins and we feel 'wrong'. Anushka's work reminds us that we're individually acceptable in every way and it's not something to be taken lightly.
Anushka grew up in Mumbai and is currently studying in Dehli, majoring in Literature and Journalism. She's been passionate about gender and development, and believes that "images we see shape our world, and have the potential to create fundamental changes in our belief and ideology". The conditioning we've had for most of our lives is to accept whatever beauty standard is catwalked in front of us. It's changed over the years, from curvy to skinny to curvy - but only in certain areas. These are standards that a lot of women can't adhere to. It's not a lot of women's natural state, so many have undergone surgery (myself included) and workout religiously to attain what they are told is accepted beauty.
When you scroll through the browngirlgazin Instagram feed, you will notice that the representation of Indian women is varied. Reaching out to women to bare themselves and their bodies is a tough ask, but Anushka has managed to curate a beautiful safe space and the requirements to be featured on the page is for the comfort of the participants.
"I wanted women to talk freely about any kind of pressures that they had faced in relation to their bodies. Instead of defining what the current beauty standards were, I wanted to give the participants of this project the space to delve into the kind of pressures they had faced and then bring out the kind of standards which we feel compelled to abide by today."
Creating a space like this usually comes with negativity, but Anushka has mostly experienced positive responses, although there have been occasional horrific messages that find their way into her inbox. There's a thirst for women to find comfort in themselves - we don't want to look like something we're not. We want to be comfortable and accepted, so we're looking for these spaces.
"Women and men from all over the world have messaged me about how much they relate with the women I feature, and have sent a lot of love and support my way. However, the idea of women owning and being proud of their bodies is still one that makes many people uncomfortable and I do have to battle quite a few trolls. A lot of these trolls are very angry men who are sick of this kind of feminism and don’t believe these experiences are real. It can be really demotivating sometimes but I think it’s also a reminder of the exact reason why I started this project, if this stigma didn’t exist then the project wouldn’t be relevant."
The images themselves have been crafted beautifully - there's a series of three or six. Each image is incredibly emotive. You can feel the pain or happiness from the subject and a lot of the time, you can relate to it. They are striking and personal, pulling you into the subject's world. Occasionally there's a close up to an area of the subject's body and sometimes you're witnessing a carefree laugh. You can see how comfortable they are being photographed by Anushka
"Most of the participants are kind of anxious about the process, and so I explain what my vision is and what my ideas for the shoot are so I can get their inputs on how they feel about it. For me, collaborating with my subjects is a really important part of the experience and I think it really helps to make them feel like they are equals in the shoot."
This series won't end any time soon though, so if you want to keep up with all the beauty, follow browngirlgazin on Instagram.