Mumbai-based photographer Anushka Kelkar (24), who runs the Instagram page Browngirlgazin, is fair-skinned and thin, very much in line with traditional beauty standards. And yet, she has battled insecurities caused by her acne-ridden skin, so much so that it even affected her everyday life.
“Even if I was on a holiday, all I would think about was my skin; it came in the way of my enjoyment. I am conscious of my privilege; I know there are much worse problems out there. But I couldn’t help but think: what are women giving up in the process of trying to look perfect?,” shares Anushka.
Talking to MAKERS India recently, she recollected what led her to launch the Instagram page, which now has more than 11,000 followers.
The journey of Browngirlgazin
Anushka was only 21, when she started this project to drive conversations around women and their relationship with their bodies. Her Instagram page showcases real and raw portraits of women, who put out vulnerable parts of themselves, to celebrate just the way they are.
Another motivation to launch Browngirlgazin was to challenge the idea of the white gaze that documents Indians and South Asians through a poverty lens. “I wanted to retake that power, and tell them that here we are telling our own story. Yes, poverty exists; but we are also a very dynamic mix of many things. I wanted to present the idea that there is no one brown girl; we are all very different types of brown girls,” says Anushka, who works as a research analyst in Mumbai.
During the initial days of the project, when she was still a graduate student at Delhi’s Ashoka University, Anushka was apprehensive if women would respond to this request. Scroll through her page today and you’ll find unconventional stories ridden with pain and vulnerability. As a photographer, Anushka gives these women the freedom to discover themselves during the project, with little interference. For her, the joy lies not in the eventual outcome but the journey of meeting these diverse women and letting their stories unfold.
Although Browngirlgazin does not generate revenue, Anushka is happy collaborating with brands that align with her sensibilities. One of her favourite campaigns is #JudgeMeNot by Craftsvilla, where she shot 30 different women, each one with a different issue regarding body image.
“Women with piercings and tattoos, acid attack survivors, dark-skinned women and those with glasses - I have covered myriad subjects and captured their personalities, bodies and stories,” shares Anushka.
Diverse struggles, united by shame
Fashion and beauty standards present a paragon of aspiration; but these ideals often put pressure on women to look a certain way.
Although Browngirlgazin -which has more than 440 posts now- began with the thought that beauty standards and shame are intrinsically related, over the years, Anushka has come to realise that the concept of beauty is inherently problematic.
She explains, “In the Indian context, class and caste are two such big markers of beauty standards. For instance, people who are dark skinned are portrayed in movies as drivers and house helps, who belong to a different class, while the protagonist is always light-skinned or fair.”
A sense of responsibility
Anushka, like many others, has been a victim of online abuses; but what deeply impacted her was how her subjects, those who had trusted her with their bodies, were targeted.
She elaborates, “It is one thing to be trolled for putting your own body out there; but here there are hundreds of women who have shot for me and trusted me with their bodies. And it is disgusting to see these trolls say anything they want, with no accountability. I was devastated and it took a toll on me. I was inactive on my page for almost three months.
But while on a break, I also realised how many people felt connected to my content, because I would get several messages and submissions every single day. That’s when I realised that this project was much more than about myself, and that the community I had built was a powerful source of content for many.”
Also, since many of her followers were overly dependent on her social media page, Anushka had to draw her own boundaries on how to move forward. “Sometimes I get messages saying ‘You didn’t post today, so I binged!’ and that felt like a lot of pressure. I care about these young girls deeply; I want to influence them positively. But I am not a therapist,” she says.
‘Body positivity needs to be more integrated’
Anushka believes that the body positivity movement needs to be more deep in its approach. She feels that it is critical for brands to transition from practising ‘token diversity’ to a more ‘inclusive’ approach.
“My hope is that we move into the more psychological aspects of it as well. The next step would be to talk about, our shame, our fears, where do we go from here? And I think it's a psychological process of actually thinking about our self-worth again; that no matter what you look like, you deserve to take up space. I see more and more women rising up and saying that, we don't want to follow some old norms that were defined by someone that doesn't know us,” she adds.
According to Anushka, Browngirlgazin has been able to change the narrative around body image. She’s glad that the people who have shot with her feel that they have transformed relationships with their bodies. But she adds that it will take generations to unlearn shame and what has been fed for so many decades.
“Once I received a message from this young girl, who said she showed my page to her grandmother, and that the grandmother said she wishes that something like this existed in her time. And that just made my heart blossom. It will take time but there’s more movement in this space than there ever was before,” she says.
As someone who takes body positivity very seriously, Anushka uses a tool called ‘body image journaling’ that has helped her to self-reflect and improve her relationship with her body.
She explains, “You just ask yourself a few basic questions about your body, like what was the first memory I have with my body when I was a child? What were the most common things I heard from my parents about my body? What can I not look at in my body? And slowly what starts happening is that you realise your own biases, your own shame.” Anushka opines that it is our responsibility to be mindful about our own relationship with our body, and to give that relationship time and space.
Anushka might have started Browngirlgazin as a research project; but it has come to make women love their bodies.
(Edited by Athira Nair)