The last couple of years have seen a surge in efforts to subvert prevailing beauty standards in India by decentering whiteness and shifting the narrative of what it means to be beautiful. Social media has provided a place for beauty to be celebrated in all shapes and forms. Campaigns like #unfairandlovely and ‘Dark is Beautiful’ have gained prominence, even garnering support from a number of Bollywood stars. Even so, the representation of women from the Indian subcontinent remains disappointing. How often do we actually see the full spectrum of skin tones, eye colours, hair textures and facial features that characterise South Asia? Not often enough.
The recently released headshots of the 2019 Femina Miss India pageant finalists prove my point. The women are all skinny and fair, with manes of silky straight black hair down to their waists—in other words, unrepresentative of the majority of Indian women. It’s not just that they’re all fair, it’s that they look exactly the same as well. Clearly, they all share the same vision of the ‘ideal’ Indian woman, what they believe to be the epitome of beauty in India.
Online backlash following the release of these photos has confirmed that the beauty pageant has little to do with Indian women or Indian beauty. The lineup hardly represents the ethnic diversity of India’s 29 states, a reality that is disappointing—even Miss USA has crowned a South Asian woman more representative of the Indian populous.
This is perhaps unsurprising given that we continue to exist in a world which holds whiteness and its associated likeness in the highest regard. To be woman and non-white, is to be inherently lacking; caught in a perpetual strive for desirability. We see this in the way South Asian women are encouraged, often coerced, to violently change their bodies by bleaching their skin, straightening their locks and waxing their body hair into oblivion.
In a time when fast fashion and large corporations control notions of diversity, South Asian visibility is often shaped by individuals who are not themselves from South Asian communities. As a result, a lot of the portrayals of brown women in art, fashion and media tend not to be particularly positive, varied or correct. A quick look at Indian media outlets and brands shows that our conception of diversity involves the tokenistic inclusion of fair-skinned brown women with predominantly Eurocentric features.
Even spaces you think would represent the multiplicities of South Asian women like Bollywood and Instagram only showcase a tiny percentage of what brown women actually look like. Indian models, Instagram influencers and Bollywood stars fall firmly within the boundaries of conventional beauty standards with their glossy manes, lighter skin tones, and sharp facial features. Their superficial acceptance beyond the region is reflective of a colonial legacy that finds comfort in the familiar, while vilifying people and practices it doesn’t recognise.
It is imperative that we address this intra-community bias as we work towards dismantling lingering preferences for whiteness in post-colonial societies. We need to start diversifying diversity. We must counter a toxic culture of other-hatred and self-hatred with radical self-love, inclusivity, and a conscious celebration of difference. South Asia is a heterogeneous, multi-faceted region home to thousands of ethnic and tribal groups which deserve to be represented.
While South Asia stands independent today, we, like much of the colonised world, still struggle to shed the internalised self-loathing centuries of servitude ingrained in us. From our traditional dress and religious mores to the food we eat, we were considered savage. The subsequent post-modern colonial hangover has led us to imitate the West in deeply damaging ways. It’s about time that India’s age-old problem of colourism is met with renewed indignation and active demands for better representation.
In the age of social media activism, it has become all too easy to care from a distance without doing much to actually shift the visual culture of South Asia. Instagram is a great place to start in diversifying portrayals of brown women, but it doesn’t quite tackle the root of the problem. South Asia’s public image continues to be governed by more traditional forms of media like TV commercials, soap operas, and of course Bollywood. It is therefore vital that we remain discerning of production bodies and their depiction of Indian women.
After all, the power of the people has always been India’s greatest asset. It is therefore vital that the spaces we create to support and affirm South Asian women are doing just that, and aren’t just claiming to do so. We need to create a broader scope of representation when it comes to what it means, and looks like, to be South Asian.
Being ‘gender fluid’ and tackling the binary, whether that’s toxic masculinity or what’s expected of your gender, have only recently entered the conversation among the masses. Toxic masculinity has become a popular debate, from what it means, to the effects it has on society and men themselves. It’s also what inspired the photography series Blah, Blah, Blah, Genitals, a social experiment exploring the formation of gender identity in boys.
While couch surfing through Barcelona, creative duo Julia Falkner and Lorena Hydeman wanted to ask the question, how do boys see manhood? With all these debates around what it means to be a man today, has toxic masculinity become a thing of the past?
We sometimes have a rose-tinted lens towards the future. As generations progress, there’s this idea that those that come after us will be more open-minded. McCrindle’s consultancy predicts that there are 2.5 million more Generation Alphas being born every week. These are the children of millennials and born around the year 2010. Generation Z is those born around the 2000s. These generations are expected to be the longest living generations as well as the wealthiest.
In order to respond to this, through family and friends, and with the permission of their parents, Falkner the photographer and Hydeman interviewed and photographed 17 boys aged between 6-16 on what masculinity meant to them.
Dressing up in what is usually deemed to be feminine clothing and playing with makeup, Falker noticed that though the boys enjoyed experimenting with this treasure chest of options, they were also aware that they couldn’t wear this to school in case they were made fun of. “All the boys were really intelligent and shooting with children is always a raw and honest experience but the one thing I did notice was how open the boys depended on which parent/guardian was in the room”.
Many of the boys had one thing in common: their fathers were not present in their lives and those that were raised in single-parent households were more receptive to feminity. “When I asked Rio, who was playing basketball and was already wearing basketball shorts, what he wanted to wear, he went into his mother’s wardrobe and picked out her wedding corset,” says Hydeman. “What was endearing was when he was trying it on, he was saying how he felt so bad that his mother had to wear this on her wedding day and he was just so empathetic towards her”.
When speaking to Screen Shot about how the experiment reflected different minorities’ relationship to gender fluidity, Hydeman said that what became clear was the impact of what fathers thought on the children’s choice of clothes and makeup. “One thing that stands out to me is this conversation I was having with Taye and Tyrell’s mum and how their dad didn’t want them to be a part of it. Coming from a Jamaican background, there’s this alpha male machoness that was prided on. Almost as if how tough your boys are mirrors how much you’ve left an impression on them”.
During the process of the experiment, the creative duo themselves said they had to check their own stereotypes; who they thought would be the least receptive participants to the experiment, often turned out to be the most engaged. For example, boys in their teens were just as open-minded as six-year-olds. “Most of the boys became more feminine than I thought they would,” says Hydeman. “I misjudged them and thought that the sporty boys wouldn’t want to wear heeled boots but that was the complete opposite.”
When exploring how masculinity and toxic masculinity has shaped these boys’ lives, what was apparent was how toxic masculinity in Generation Z and Alphas would perhaps look different from what it does today. Throughout the experiment, what was clear was how the boys, especially the younger boys, were open to the idea of wearing a dress. “They realised it’s just a silhouette at the end of the day,” Falker and Hydeman both say.
While talking to the boys about what it meant to them to be a man or a woman, both Falker and Hydeman reported how respectful and appreciative these young boys were of the women in their lives—something that might have been shaped through discourse around women’s rights. “Maybe toxic masculinity had to become so bad that the next generation would want it to be different,” says Hydeman. Maybe this is a sign of better things to come. A sense of hope and openness via the younger generations ahead.
Blah Blah Genitals went on to be exhibited at the Photo Vogue Festival 2018 in Milan as part of the group exhibition, Embracing Diversity, and as a solo exhibition at Galleria Lattuada.