"When I was younger, I often felt very different from all the 'beautiful' women I saw in the media I consumed," photographer Anushka Kelkar tells Refinery29. "They all looked flawless in a way that I found impossible to replicate: skinny but with curves in all the right places, glowing, fair skin with no blemishes, long hair that never had split ends. So I started Browngirlgazin."
Based in Mumbai, Anushka dreamed up the Instagram account in 2018. Curious about how women felt about their bodies in a society that is renowned for gender-based violence, she aimed to answer some specific questions. "Did the women around me feel like they owned their bodies? How did their relationships with their bodies affect their lives in other spaces? And how, as women, can we inhabit our bodies fully in a society where they are still associated with shame?"
Scroll through the page and you'll come across women posing candidly and talking openly about everything from acne scars and stretch marks to burns, weight and buzzcuts. But it's far from skin deep. "What I had seen around me was an acute lack of spaces where women could openly share the insecurities or struggles they faced with not fitting into conventional beauty norms, particularly online," says Anushka. "I felt a deep disconnect between the way I saw the women around me, and the way they were portrayed on social media. I also realized that many women, including myself, felt a deep disconnect with their bodies. There was so much shame and stigma attached to women’s bodies in our context, that the only time they were really spoken about was in the context of some violent abuse."
For Anushka, Browngirlgazin creates a space where she, and the women who participate, are able to completely redefine the way they talk about women’s bodies, not to mention what is considered beautiful. "I think by putting out images that are deeply vulnerable, along with people’s own stories in their own words, I’m able to create a platform where people are honestly engaging with their own bodies online."
Anuskha says that Browngirlgazin is no longer solely hers. "With time, it has turned into more of a community project than a personal one. It belongs to the thousands of women who have found pieces of themselves here. In fact, one of the most gratifying parts of this project is getting messages from women who say something along the lines of, 'I thought it was just me and used to feel so ashamed, but now that I know it’s a larger community I feel much stronger.' To be given access to that kind of intimacy, and to see these women move with each other without any hesitations is so refreshing," adds Anushka.
Here are their stories.