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#NoFilter: These Instagram accounts celebrate flaws, frailties, imperfections

How do you really feel about your body? What is it like to navigate beauty in the world of drag? Check out Insta accounts that encourage honesty, debate.

art and culture Updated: Mar 11, 2019 15:09 IST
Natasha Rego
Natasha Rego
Hindustan Times
Instragam,Beauty,Perfection
Indu Harikar’s #identitty focuses on how women feel abut their breasts. ‘One woman wrote, ‘I wish breasts were detachable things that one could remove at the end of the day’,’ Harikar says.

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.

SMILE, PLEASE

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.

IDENTITTY ISSUES

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.”

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

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.”

AN UNFILTERED PRESENT

Dolly Singh, 36, started taking photographs of herself doing yoga to keep track of her progress, and posted them on an Instagram handle she called @yogaforallmumbai. The pictures, which she started posting in 2016, show her doing bendy asanas in parks and along the beach in Bandra, Mumbai. “In the hot and stuffy summer, I didn’t want to practice indoors,” she says.

This decision to head outdoors unexpectedly turned her into a body-positive influencer. As her follower count climbed — it’s now at nearly 5,000 — she had tabloid stories done about her account, and fashion brands approach her to endorse their clothes.

“Because I pose in a crop top, bared midriff and shorts, and am flexible, I was seen as challenging the norm,” says Singh, who works as content head with a TV production house.

She got offers to model. “But that would be perpetuating the very standards I was seen to be challenging,” she says. “So I refused.”

Instead, she has focused on fostering the community that built up around her account. One comment, by @minobhaiyya, says, “As a big desi girl doing yoga I feel like we’re constantly overshadowed by thinner yogis regardless of our capabilities. It’s really inspirational to see someone like you doing yoga!”

A few weeks ago, she got a message from an American school teacher named Elle Rok, on Facebook, telling her how she used Singh as an example when discussing the word “inspiration”. “We need young children to grow up with different reference points for fitness and beauty,” says Singh. “They need to know that not every big girl is lazy and not every thin girl is healthy.”

There is, of course, the flip side — bodyshaming comments, or snide questions about why she hasn’t lost weight. “If I get a sense that the person is an attention-seeker, I just block that profile. But if it seems like a genuine opinion, I respond.”

To a woman who said, ‘You do great yoga and it’s very nice to see you, but why do you wear such clothes, and why can’t you look pretty?’ Singh responded saying, ‘There are few things in our control, and our looks are not one of them. Besides,’ she added, ‘the idea of my page is to dispel those very ideas of what is beautiful and what is pretty.’ Her followers piled on to her defence, she adds, laughing.

“You see, I’m not a before-and-after picture. I am the picture of an unfiltered present. And I’m okay with that.”

INTIMACY AS ACTIVISM

Pulkit Mogha started Instagramming six years ago, to showcase real queer intimacies. He had already done a #100nudes series, a collection of nude selfies (faces and genetalia painted over) by queer-identifying men with a caption ‘confessing’ their desires.

“Based on the response, I understood the potential for using intimacy as a form of activism,” he says.

A few years ago, he started chatting with a guy who did not think of himself as good looking. He responded by asking him for a nude that he could post publicly. It’s a striking picture — a large nude man, standing with his bare back to the camera. The comments and messages in response to this image changed the subject’s perception of himself.

“They were overwhelmingly positive, just people telling him he was beautiful,” says Mogha, 27, a Goa-based photographer, architect and urban policy researcher.

@pulkitxmogha currently has over 3,500 followers. His experiments with masculinity and body image are rooted in volunteer work he did during college with Delhi-based NGO Pravah. “I realised then that, when it comes to body image issues in Indian men, there is not enough documentation or imagery out there. And I decided to contribute to it.”

“Our ideal for the perfect body is dictated by western media. I try to take photos that celebrate our bodies as they are, with their flaws. Men have shared worries about skin colour, curves, stretch marks and love handles. There are not enough platforms that celebrate or even discuss our bodies, desires, subcultures and habits,” he says.

First Published: Mar 09, 2019 17:49 IST