Anushka Kelkar grew up thinking that relatives’ and neighbors’ comments about her appearance were unique to her own upbringing.
But when she moved from Bombay to Delhi to attend college, she realized that every single woman around her had dealt with the same type of criticism and been subjected to the same beauty standards ― whether about their skin color, body hair or size.
That got the 21-year-old thinking about the complex and problematic relationship women have with their bodies and appearance, not just in India, but globally. So she launched a project called browngirlgazin to change the conversation about what is considered beautiful, pairing photographs of Indian women with quotes describing how they feel about their bodies.
Kelkar chatted with HuffPost about the impact her project has had, how social media plays a role and what it has taught her about her relationship with her own body.
Why did you launch this project?
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When I was younger, I felt like my body wasn’t something I was ashamed of consciously, but I never felt I could fully embrace it or have fun with it. I never really felt like it was mine, because it was constantly being policed by random people, but also the community directly around me. Aunties, parents’ friends, people around me would say things like, “You would look better if you did this.”
I thought it was personal. But when I got to university and lived in a space with other women who are my age, I started having a lot more open conversations where all the women around me ― regardless of what they look like ― had a story.
Family pressure can cause insecurities, but social media has made it so much worse.
Definitely. I felt like there was such a big incongruence between the things my friends and people around me were saying and the way they portrayed themselves on social media. I would see pictures of people on Instagram twirling around in a lehenga, and then I would see them in residence and they would say things like, “I feel so ugly, I’ve put on weight.”
I was like, this is so toxic, because none of us talk about this, we all feel the pressure and we’re all enabling this culture. You wake up to people on your feed looking flawless and look at yourself afterward. How do you not compare? We all know it’s a game, but we’re all playing it anyway.
We all feel the pressure and we’re all enabling this culture. You wake up to people on your feed looking flawless and look at yourself afterward. How do you not compare? We all know it’s a game, but we’re all playing it anyway.
What body image issues do you think Indian women face specifically?
I think the biggest issue is that from very early on, women are made to feel like their body is not just theirs, but the property of everyone around them. That translates into many different things. Obviously, the extreme is rape, which is a very real problem here, but it’s also a lot about microaggression. It becomes a culture where women aren’t allowed to take ownership of their own bodies and feel proud and comfortable in them.
Marriage in our community is a big deal, so for women, the way you look kind of becomes a really big deal because you are thinking about which boy is going to want you or which family is going to want you. It’s so problematic because you can’t get to know yourself as an individual and feel like you have power and control.
Do you find that the women you photograph are willing to be open and honest with you?
I didn’t think they would be when I started. I thought there would be a lot of apprehension. I don’t how if this is global, but it’s not something you openly talk about. Strangely enough, though, once I posted about the project on various platforms, so many women hit me up within the first few hours. It felt really strange, honestly. It felt like they’ve been waiting to share. I just can’t believe no one has done this before ― I don’t know what I was doing for all these years before this.
I think the biggest issue is that from very early on, women are made to feel like their body is not just theirs but the property of everyone around them.
How has this project changed the way you feel about your own body?
Just interacting with so many women has made me feel like this isn’t about personal failures at all, it’s about a much larger, systemic problem. It’s about redefining the way we look at beauty itself. Before, I felt like I was not able to live up to the standard. Now I’m like, literally no one can, because the standards are so specific and narrow.
What do you want people to take away from the project?
I’ve seen a lot of body-positive campaigns in India where the aim is to say you are beautiful and that’s it. I wanted to focus a lot more on not getting to an end goal where you think you’re beautiful, but learning to think of your body as something that’s alive, that has its own language and is constantly changing and evolving. To start communicating with your body better, which is why a lot of the stories are about people who don’t feel they’ve gotten to a point where they are totally happy with themselves. This is a process, but knowing that there are so many other incredible women who are doing the same thing every day helps to feel less alone and ashamed.
Shame in what way?
It’s such a big thing with women, at least in my society. It’s so ingrained that even one time one of the girls I was shooting said she wanted to do the shoot without her shirt on, just her bra. And I was like, theoretically, I’m totally cool with that, I’m all about that. But when I was shooting I felt this shame and I was like, oh my god, this is so internalized. It was also getting past that and being able to talk about these things without feeling so ashamed.
Follow Kelkar’s stunning portrait series here.