Anushka Kelkar starts her talk by discussing how most of us have, at some point or another, wanted to change our body or change how we look in some way. She states that research proves women are more likely to be anxious about their bodies than men.
“‘Why are young Indian women so ashamed of their bodies?’ this was a question that led me to start Brown Girl Gazing. It was a space to unlearn beauty. I wanted to understand, ‘why does beauty matter so much?’ I started by interviewing over 200 women all across India. The stories I heard were heartbreaking.”
She talks about colourism and fat shaming, and says so many women felt that no matter how much they achieved professionally, their looks and body would be the biggest measure of their worth. “So many of us have these internalised insecurities, and we shame ourselves for feeling that way.”
She says, “Not even one woman I spoke to felt actually at home in their body. And that made me want to explore, why is beauty so important in our society?” That question set the tone for her project.
“We live in a larger society which tells women that if they don’t perfectly fit into a certain beauty standard, they will be punished for it. We are taught to betray our own needs to look good for others in South Asian cultures,” she says.
“If you are worried about your looks to the extent that it makes you not want to take up an opportunity, that really limits who you can be and what you can do. But now there’s a new wave of entrepreneurs and artists that are asking this question: why should beauty be the thing that’s limiting us from living our fullest lives? Why are we held back by something that’s so arbitrary?”
“Social media did not exist the way that it does even 10 years ago. Now we’re seeing these images of folks and we don’t even realise that they are edited. So really with my project, we want to redefine how we understand beauty in the context of our lives,” she states.
She also talks about the beauty industry profiting off of our insecurities, and also the evolution of beauty through time.
“It’s not women’s fault, it’s the fault of the larger structures which punish and reward women for fitting into these standards in the first place. Beauty has very real implications. It’s not just something that’s in your head. Beauty, especially in India is associated with class and commands respect.”
She also discusses how everything we feel about beauty has been learned. Which means it can also be unlearned. And there’s immense power in that. “What if, instead of thinking about how can we appear beautiful to others, we think about what feels good to me? What makes me feel free in my body? What makes me feel purposeful, meaningful and happy?” she concludes.