Beyond Our Bodies

4 women who are smashing stereotypes and spreading body positivity, one story at a time.

Annabelle D’Costa

We rallied an inspiring group of well-known self-love and body positive advocates to talk about the relationship with their bodies and why they believe all bodies are beautiful, powerful, and should be celebrated for what they are.

Sumukhi Suresh, stand-up comedian, actor and writer 

From playing unconventional roles, Anu Aunty in The Engineering Anthem, a nosey maid in the Maid Interview to writing her own characters, Behti Naak and Pushpavalli, Sumukhi Suresh has been using jokes to touch upon some hot-button issues considered taboo in public conversations. For many real women, struggling with the perfect body image and self-esteem is no joke. The real-life story behind Suresh's comedy series, Pushpavalli, is one that flouts the traditional standards of beauty in favour of self-love. An actor, stand-up comedian, writer and director, Suresh wears multiple hats and conquers the hearts of her audience with her laid-back approach punched with comedy bombs and epic facial expressions, in her YouTube videos or stand-up specials. “The characters of Anu Aunty or the nosey maid were all written by men. I realised that men tend to write about characters who they are most used to seeing, such as mothers, caretakers, maids, sisters or wives. They don’t understand the multiple layers that a women’s character can actually have,” says Suresh about playing unconventional characters. “The moment I started writing characters for myself; for instance, Behti Naak, I decided that I didn’t want to create women who are the karta dhartas, the abla naaris or the ones who are morally correct. In Pushpavalli, I had people asking me how a woman can play the role of a stalker. But, according to me, both women and men can play grey characters,” she adds. 

Suresh shares that as a stand-up comic, choosing what to wear onstage isn’t always easy. There’re several things to consider—the embodiment factor, the comfort level, and confidence! Unlike men, as a woman doing comedy, there’s the added burden of having to anticipate how an audience might react to an appearance, based on preexisting notions of femininity. Whether showing your cleavage will get you dismissed or will wearing pants make a bolder impression are some questions that often leave women comedians perplexed. Decoding the complicated art of dressing for stage, Suresh says, “The beauty about comic and stand-up comedy is that it’s about you! It’s not based on your appearance. As long as you have a voice and are true to your jokes, you’re fine.” As someone who is still on the path of learning to embrace herself, Suresh says, “The deal about body positivity for me is to learn more about it than act like a know-it-all. Rather than parroting the definition of body positivity, I would say that I’m still learning about it. Body positivity and self-love is a journey that I’m still going through.”  

Suresh shares that she still faces days when she hates her body and even her face. According to her, she’s still learning and teaching herself to believe that she looks the part. “I only started paying close attention to my appearance when shooting for Pushpavalli. My director, Debbie Rao, would always pay close attention to how I looked on screen. While it used to always bother me back then, I realised that it had nothing to do with ‘beauty’, but just the general aesthetics of the frame. It wasn’t about my double chin being seen or not!” 

Rytasha Rathore, actor

If you are someone who has always struggled with weight loss and body acceptance, then TV-actor and influencer Rathore is your next role model. By reclaiming the word 'fat', she is the unapologetic, unfiltered and unedited woman in the public eye that little girls around the world need right now. Not only has she made her appearance as Komal Laakha Singh Ahlawat in the serial Badho Bahu, but she’s also popular on Instagram for her #100healthydays and #bodypositivity campaigns. 

Coming from a foodie background—her uncle being a chef—and her mother and grandmother being excellent cooks, Rathore says that her relationship with food has been that of "Oh my god! Yum, I want to eat it all!" It was not until the age of 9 that she started paying attention to her health, mainly due to her father being a doctor. Cut to today, the actor says she’s been mindful of what she puts into her mouth. “Health to me means mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health—healthy is not just about the body, it is when all four are equally taken care of.”

Speaking about the body positivity movement that celebrates bodies of all shapes and sizes in a culture that very often exalts the ‘slim and thin ideal’, Rathore says that her idea of body positivity is not one that promotes obesity. “You can love yourself and still be aware of your shortcomings. But to let that consume you and let it affect your mental and emotional health is a strict no-no! I am obese for now, but I am happy and I love myself. You should too! While I love myself, I also see the areas where I can improve. Despite being a lazy person, I squeeze in 30-minutes of physical activity into my day, because after all, health is wealth.”

Also read: Breaking Boundaries: 6 Trailblazing Women Achievers

Toshada Uma, blogger, model and stylist

Standing at 4'8 inches and as someone who suffers from a condition called alopecia, Toshada Uma is not your conventional model-blogger. Petite and bald, Uma is not only carving out her own space in the industry and on social media with 565,000 Instagram followers but is also breaking barriers in modelling. Reclaiming her position in the beauty and fashion industry where women proudly sashay in fashionable gowns, near-perfect makeup and wear their long lustrous mane as their crown, Uma has rewritten the rules of beauty. It was in 2016 when Uma took the empowering decision to shave her head. Little did she know that her decision would mark itself as a metamorphic experience in terms of the person she would emerge from it later. “In my mind, it was simply a haircut I felt comfortable in! I wouldn't attach an adjective to it, it wasn't the biggest or best decision of my life but simply a decision. My condition is a part of me, I don't consider it a weakness, nor do I think it gives me strength. I am a lot more than a condition,” shares Uma. Taking the conversation of body positivity ahead, Uma firmly believes that all bodies are created beautiful and not discriminating based on appearance is what body positivity really means.

By embracing her hair loss as a medical condition, Uma has today opened up a window into an alternate kind of beauty. For those uninitiated, Uma explains, “Over a million cases of alopecia areata are reported from India alone, per year. This is a condition where you lose hair in patches all over the body. Occurring when the immune system attacks the hair follicles, it may further be triggered by severe stress, thyroid disorders, autoimmune diseases and such. In my case, it's due to hypothyroidism.” Unlike for most women, for whom a new hair cut means a new look, for 19-year-old Uma, that means donning one of her favourite wigs, one day at a time. Embracing her new look, Uma says, “I think everyone has the right to wear whatever they feel like and present themselves in the manner they wish to. If not wearing any makeup or wigs makes one comfortable, so be it; if decking up makes someone feel comfortable, so be it! It's incredibly important to learn that we needn't fit into a certain mould of beauty or success. Once you realise that, self-love comes easy!” And the best way to do so is by accepting yourself unapologetically, and fearlessly, says Uma, who dedicates her time posting tutorials on making wigs and eyebrow extensions. 

Indu Harikumar, illustrator and storyteller

In an age of social media frenzy and airbrushed and photoshopped pictures slowly taking over our lives, artist Indu Harikumar’s latest Instagram project is an honest and candid representation of real women and their bodies. Forging a path of her own to help us dismantle the societal notion of art, this Mumbai-based artist’s work combats taboos around our bodies, promoting the message of self-love and acceptance. From her 100 Tinder Tales crowd-sourced project (2016) which shared people’s experiences on the dating app to her Girlisthan project which saw women openly embracing their scars and stretch marks to her Body of Stories project which explored stories around body shaming, body positivity, colour and gender bias to her most recent project #Identtity which sees women flaunting their perfect-imperfect breasts – this storyteller’s artwork challenges conventional ideologies while providing a safe space for women. After having received stories or photographs from women, this 39-year old illustrator turns them into illustrations and posts them on her Instagram with the accompanying stories. “I do not have an agenda behind my work. I just let people’s stories lead me on. Because if I did have an agenda, it would’ve been quite overwhelming,” she says.

Championing body positivity in the hopes of finding solidarity with women around her, her artwork creates a celebration for women everywhere. For someone, who was skinny till the age of 35, and who would often be reminded of being small chested, Harikumar has today come a long way and how. “I felt like half a person back then. Today, it’s not only about my body, but who I have become through my work and my experiences. My work has helped me deal with my own inner demons. Besides, people who consume my work, also seem to be telling me this. I don’t really know how they deal with theirs (demons), but maybe it’s just knowing that you’re not alone out there and that there are more people having such similar experiences and at least opening up channels of conversations,” she says. 

Also read: This Bartending Guru Recommends Weight-Training with Bottles for Women 

Lead image: Shutterstock


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