In what is largely a picture-perfect world, some Instagram users are dedicating their pages to vulnerabilities, frailties, flaws. One explores women’s relationships with their breasts, another highlights beauty in the queer / drag experience. There’s a photographer focusing on the magic of every smile, and a ‘brown girl’ inviting pictures of imperfections.
Each handle has garnered a dedicated following that supports the message and sometimes even helps take on trolls. On a platform where beauty and happiness tend to be treated as synonymous with perfection, these handles are gentle reminders from a more real world.
“What is perfect anyway?” says Parmesh Shahani, author, culturist and head of the Godrej India Culture Lab. “When the mainstream is full of mainstream images, where you don’t feel you belong, then you go looking for images that reflect your reality and validate your experience. This exercise helps you realise that you’re not the only one out there, that your struggle is recognised and that you belong to a larger community of unique individuals.”
Why does this matter? Because it has the potential to alter the larger narrative.
“When such pages get attention, institutions that create mainstream trends take notice. You are already seeing this percolate in the general entertainment space,” says Shahani. “Netflix’s Isn’t it Romantic has Rebel Wilson in the lead and Priyanka Chopra as the sidekick.”
For those behind these accounts, it’s enough that they’re offering an alternative narrative on Instagram. “I started @browngirlgazin because of the massive incongruence I saw in the way women in my hostel presented themselves online and how they felt offline,” says Anushka Kelkar, 22, a researcher from Mumbai. “So many of the women felt inadequate in their own bodies, offline. I wanted to offer a space that allows women to be vulnerable and honest about their bodies.”
YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL
Less than a year ago, @browngirlgazin began turning heads on Instagram for her pictures of young women and their relationships with their bodies. Skin colour, stretch marks, acne, piercings and tattoos, people with eating disorders or hormonal imbalances, nothing was taboo on this account.
Kelkar started the page while studying at Ashoka University in New Delhi. “Living in the hostel, I saw an incongruence between the way women presented themselves online and how they actually felt,” she says. “So many of the women around me felt inadequate in their own bodies.”
@browngirlgazin was meant to draw attention to the conversations women were having with their bodies, through images. As soon as she put out the call out for volunteers, on her personal Instagram page, about 30 fellow students responded.
She made up a short questionnaire, asking about their relationship with their bodies when they were younger, how family had contributed to their ideas, etc, details she draws on for her captions.
“The messages of gratitude that I got from strangers indicated to me the impact these photos were having,” she says. There’s been criticism too, mainly that Kelkar features only the urban upper-class, something Kelkar is slowly working to fix.
Meanwhile, she now has over 9,000 followers and a new perspective on life. “This project has changed the way I look at my body. I am no longer consumed by the weight I might have gained, or the pimple on my face. I now listen to my body. Exercise, eating healthy, hanging out with people who make me happy has never meant as much before,” she says.
BOLD AND BEAUTIFUL
By day Alex Mathew works as a marketing executive in Bengaluru. At night, he transforms into Mayamma, a “quintessential Indian woman of Malayali heritage”, and a sari-clad drag queen frequently seen performing at Bengaluru nightclubs.
Maya started her Instagram account @mayathedragqueen in 2015, a few months after she assumed her drag identity. The idea, she says, was to spread love. “I wanted to show everyone that people like me exist. I wanted to tell them that I’m happy that I found my true self,” she says.
She has had to find a way to deal with trolls. “A common ‘judgement’ I receive is, ‘OMG, you’re so gay!’, to which I happily reply, “Yeah, duh!’ I also tell people that they should mind their own business because they’re not paying my bills.”
These days, with a following of over 12,000, she either deletes or ignores ignorant messages. “I raise my voice against important things — like abuse against the LGBT community,” she says.
The account has become bigger than Maya expected it to be, she says, and it has given her a positive outlook and the opportunity to educate people about drag.
This is reflected in some of the comments. @thekillermonsta says, “You look absolutely wonderful! I don’t do drag but I am very gender fluid! It’s so inspiring to see a strong person like you! Specially desi 👌❤❤❤ lots of love and respect!”
Photographer Jay Weinstein’s campaign, @soiaskedthemtosmile, uses pictures of a stranger’s resting face and then their smile to challenge our preconceived notions about people.
What’s in a smile? Everything, according to photographer and travel guide Jay Weinstein. For six years, he’s been going around the world, asking strangers to smile for his camera.
Each post is a two-picture album showing the person’s resting face, and a smile. The idea is for the handle to show how inaccurate our assumptions of others are, Weinstein says on his website.
It started with an encounter in Bikaner, Rajasthan, in 2013. Weinstein noticed a man he wanted to shoot, but hesitated because of his stern face, and turned his camera elsewhere. That’s when the man called out, “Take my picture too!”
“I turned and asked him to smile. His face radiated warmth, his eyes sparkled with a humour I had completely missed. Even his posture softened. I knew then what my next project would be,” Weinstein says.
He set up the @soiaskedthemtosmile handle three years later, and each photo since then has been accompanied by a brief description of the circumstance in which Weinstein bumped into the smiler. There are no names, occupations or religions. He’s successfully got over 3,000 people from six countries to say cheese so far. The objective, Weinstein says, is to allow the viewer to spend time with the portraits and notice their own reaction and thoughts.
For Weinstein, the project has been a lesson in how, as he puts it, we all are far more alike than we are different.
For his followers, 5,700 and counting, it’s a happy reminder of the same thing. ‘Like the sun from behind a cloud,’ says @lifesart53. ‘I love this project! The smile is a universal language,’ says @serfagna.
Artist Indu Harikar has used her Instagram account, @induviduality, for visual campaigns on dating and sexuality. Her latest is called #identitty and is focused on breasts. “In January, I asked women to send in pictures of their breasts — nude, or dressed, in lace, flowers, mehendi, or anything they liked — along with personal stories of experiences around their breasts.”
View this post on Instagram
#identitty “I’ve always have been big breasted, only increased over time. Men, on dating apps, have always tried to “guess my size”. Men in meetings seem to stare at my bust more than listen to what I’m saying. Given my size, it’s always been easier for eventeasers to grope me until I found a way to walk protecting my breasts. My mother has always told me to cover up my chest with loose shapeless clothes or wear a vest in the summer heat, just to hide the enormity. Over time I became so conscious of my breasts, to the point of feeling that I entered a room with my breasts first. I’d always be petrified of my cleavage revealing. It’s taken so much time to stop thinking adverse to my breasts, to accept them, and to love them, as a gift given to me by nature. And what helped me were my cats. They just love to cuddle up on my stomach, with their head on my breast. Like a pillow. The essence of liking my breast has become so simple and pure and innocent, that I cannot hate them anymore.” They wanted to be drawn “in a field of flowers. With a calico cat .” Background #inspiration: #vittoriozecchin who if I am not wrong is also referred to as the #Italian #Klimt. His work is gorgeous. #art #artist #artistsoninstagram #breasts #brownbodies #womensbodies #digitalart #procreate #crowdsourcedartprojects #illustration #illustrator #feminism #feminist#bodypositive
A post shared by Indu Harikumar (@induviduality) on Feb 19, 2019 at 5:29am PST
She already had over 7,000 followers across the country and many responded. Harikar, 39, then made digital recreations of the images and posted them along with each woman’s story.
#identitty started with a conversation on her Instagram direct message tab. “One woman wrote in telling me that men she’d interact with would always stare at her breasts. This took me back to the time when I was younger and people would say to me, ‘What will you give your husband?’ referring to my tiny breasts,” says Harikar.
After she invited entries, she got stories of love too, adoration, discontentment, hate, and the complicated relationships women have with their breasts. One woman wrote, “I wish breasts were detachable things that one could remove at the end of the day…”
Many said it was the first time they had been able to address these feelings.
View this post on Instagram
#identitty “S, are your breasts in front of your waist?” “No.” “Then keep your hand under where your breasts are, not in front of your waist.” That was my Odissi teacher to me, while I danced in our class. Me, suitably in culture shock. I was just 18. Today I see the popularity of boudoir photography and hear Bollywood actresses using phrases like ‘body-shaming’ and taking up Twitter wars against newspapers that publish headlines about their cleavages. But back then as a young woman, I knew that all my conscious life, I had been taught – through a strange kind of social osmosis – that a woman shouldn’t draw attention to her breasts. Like, never ever. Peeping bra straps must be hidden away quickly. Dupattas must cover blooming chests entirely. The more loose and unshapely the outlines of your clothes, the better. There was definitely no template for woman-who-shows-her-breast. So imagine my shock, when the women in Odissi, based on the beautiful damsels of temple sculpture, were totally okay with their breasts. Hell, they were in love with them. They had no qualms about drawing attention to them – by swaying their chests with abandon, keeping slightly cupped palms under their breasts gracefully, draping their pallus across torsos without trying to hide anything. So much for typical ‘Indian cultural heritage’ ideas that I had started out with, and ended up shattering, fortunately. While emulating the body language of these women over the years, I learnt something very quietly, instinctively, experientially as a woman: that strange pleasure of self-love. This was something no one ever taught me – not sex education, not my liberal parents, not even my lovers – that the body is a beautiful thing. It is more than just what is viewed from outside, glimpsed in a mirror, or gazed at by a man. It doesn’t owe belonging to any culture – Indian, western or martian. Like a beautiful home we inhabit, every part of it, is functional and aesthetic all at once. Its lines and curves and contours are to be admired, enjoyed, lived in, and taken care of, not to be judged. Nothing ‘haww ji’ about any of it. (1/2) #art #artist #artistsoninstagram #breasts #brownbodies
A post shared by Indu Harikumar (@induviduality) on Feb 16, 2019 at 9:14pm PST
A mother wrote in, “With my first born, I couldn’t [breastfeed] for 10 days. But one day magically he latched on. It was painful and tiring but I was so proud of me and my baby. I have new found respect for my breasts…”
While all the stories were different, they were also so similar, says Harikar. “For me, it has become a place to also deal with my grievances and become more comfortable in my body. Because now I know that’s what other people are also going through and it feels like we’re all in this together.”
First Published: Mar 09, 2019 17:49 IST