Beauty has long been trapped in a perpetual cycle, imposed on us by advertising and most often measured by the degree of proximity to white standards. Only when we look back at native traditions, definitions and rituals that made us feel beautiful prior to colonisation, subsequent globalisation and the advent of the internet and social media, do we realise the extent of our separation and indoctrination.
Aboriginal writer and model Sasha Sarago expressed the sentiment beautifully in her TEDxSydney talk: “To indigenous women, true beauty came from the traditional roles we upheld, our kinship systems, connection to country and the waterways and how we pass this ancient knowledge down to the next generation. You see, in my culture, our beauty is not monolithic. It’s not measured by a thin waistline, porcelain skin or slender hips. It runs much deeper than that.”
To acquaint ourselves with some of these ideas, we spoke to South Asian and diaspora creatives who are subverting the idea of beauty and liberating it from its limited (appearance and perfection obsessed) scope, definitions and colonial hangover. From Sita Sunar’s healing circles to Sriram Y’s liberating tryst with the selfie camera, each one demonstrates that a sustainable, nourishing relationship with beauty is possible.
On Beauty Rooted In Comfort
ELLE: How would you describe your niche and your work?
I am a UK-based writer, editor and creative consultant of Bangladeshi origin. I studied English Literature and Publishing at Oxford Brookes. When I was around 16, I started writing for local publications and student websites. I’ve worked at HuffPost and written for the likes of Refinery29, Dazed, AnOther, I-D, The Independent, Metro, gal-dem, Riposte, Women’s Health and Glamour. I’m also a speaker and chair—I’ve hosted conversations on topics from self-care, to being freelance to female pleasure.
My career, Alhamdullilah, has been a reflection of my interests, which tends to be amplifying the voices of women of colour and Muslim women and those who are marginalised. I care about the everyday stories of those who may be ‘minorities’ but are in fact a part of the global majority.
ELLE: Why did you choose comfort or Aram as a peg for your newsletter?
After eight years of writing about the communities I come from, be it being raised working-class, being Muslim, South Asian, Bangladeshi or even just a woman of colour, I was tired of being asked to profile and interview Black and brown women about their traumas. No one ever asks us about our joys!
As someone whose desi, culturally we are taught to look after everyone else first before we are to look after ourselves and as someone who is the first-born, I definitely fell into that trap. The Aram launched on International Women’s Day in 2020, before the pandemic properly struck the UK and just before we were having conversations on what rest actually is.
Also, I’m tired of self-care being whitewashed. Self-care has been in our cultures for centuries, be it the halood (turmeric) with honey, flour and milk I spread across my face and body when I need to relax in the bath after a long day or memories of gathering neem from my grandparent’s village in Sylhet, (Bangladesh) to mix oil for my hair. Our cultural self-care is not as capitalisitic or individualistic as the self-care that’s promoted in the West.
ELLE: What is your view on beauty and self care as activism?
It’s important that we say things out loud! Tell your aunties how beautiful their complexion is; raise your nieces, baby cousins and daughters with this lens that they are beautiful in their own way; especially beautiful in their differences. Speak up when you hear nonsense about complexion, colourism or anything that seeks a singular story when it comes to beauty! It comes down to this larger conversation on breaking down systemic racism and corporate beauty and wellness that sell very limited ideas of how to look and feel beautiful. There is no way to do self care right. There is no better day to start enjoying being yourself unlike today.
On Holding Space For Community
ELLE: How does your background inform the work you do?
Sita Sunar (SS): I am a 34-year-old Nepalese-Indian currently based in Amsterdam. I am a certified ashtanga yoga teacher, model and entrepreneur. Through my platform Conscious Mandal I host and facilitate gatherings and circles. I am also the community manager at Zazi Vintage.
Both my parents have Nepalese roots. Nepal has about 87 different indigenous communities and my mother comes from one of them. My dad’s family, on the other hand, moved from the mountains in Nepal to Karnataka and eventually settled down in Goa.
It was so confusing living in the West, because I was bombarded with yoga everywhere. And as someone who had grown up with yoga I felt like such an outsider in my own culture. ‘Am I the imposter here?’, I asked myself. I wanted to dive deeper into the philosophy of yoga. So about four years ago I went back to India and completed 300 hours of ashtanga teacher training at Mysore.
ELLE: The gatherings you host are really popular in Amsterdam…
(SS): It started as casual dinners with friends. I believe food is essential for connection and it acts as a bridge to people’s hearts, cultures and the world. We would have conversations about yoga, rituals, gods and goddesses. And my friends started to push me saying, ‘hey, you should be doing something about it’. That’s how Conscious Mandal unofficially started.
Each gathering I host has a different focus. Sometimes it is about Ayurvedic food, other times we meditate on the full moon. I always tap into what people in the room are feeling. It’s not very structured. On days people don’t feel like moving much we’ll just eat and meditate. We’ll talk, laugh, open up—some people cry. It’s a sacred space where people feel heard, held and comforted.
ELLE: What does beauty mean to you?
(SS): Growing up in India, my ideas of beauty were shaped by the patriarchy. It was about having the perfect hair and the perfect face. Eventually, looking at it from the outside in, has helped me shed these superficial layers and patriarchal standards of beauty. This meant I could going back to the wisdom of my ancestors and what I had learned at home.
And while I believe decolonising is important, I want to be a force for connection. I don’t want to polarise more. I don’t want to say this is mine and this is yours. I want to create bridges between people and cultures, between the Global South and the North.
On Returning To Nature In The Quest For Beauty
ELLE: Talk us through your origin story.
Prabhleen Kaur (PK): I was born in Jalandhar, Punjab. And I have been in New Delhi since I was four years old—I am 31 now. I graduated from NIFT and work as a visual artist across different media, including styling, photography, art direction, mehendi, film and handmade collages. I love ephemeral art forms that don’t last forever. There is a certain kind of gatekeeping in the fashion and allied fields where unless you’re hanging out with a certain clique, you get excluded from projects. Most big names tend to work with the same people over and over again. So I try to work with independent brands who give me the freedom to realise my vision.
ELLE: What led you to develop your unique aesthetic?
(PK): A lack of resources—I never had access to the best brands and renowned names. So I used whatever I had available. Whether that is old fabric I’ve collected from my travels or thrifting for a good pair of shoes. So I started to use materials, clothing and props outside of ways they are supposed to be normally used. Nature became a big factor too as it is in my vicinity and I’m exposed to it a lot. My house is located on the outskirts of the city. We grow a lot of plants at home. There are also small villages around where I live—I enjoy just being in simple, rural settings.
ELLE: You’ve made mehendi cool again, we’d say.
(PK): Many of the things women did in the older times have not been recognised as art forms, whether it is embroidery, knitting, crochet or mehendi. The herb has a cooling, calming effect on the body and used to be applied by men, women and children alike on the palms, under their feet, and on the head. Mehendi wasn’t considered cool until music festivals abroad debuted those horrendous henna tattoos. I didn’t want to glorify and romanticise mehendi. I wanted it to be reinstated as a ritual that everyone can participate in on a regular basis. My dad is the first one to extend his hand whenever I want to practise.
ELLE: How do you keep your approach fresh?
(PK): I am very particular about what I expose myself to. I refrain from following peers on social media because once you see something it stays in your mind and informs your work. It is the only thing I tell my interns or whoever is coming on board to assist me: do not look for visual references and don’t ask me for visual references. Sometimes it becomes challenging where I am trying to explain my concept in words to client but they’re expecting a a visual mood board. I also collect a range of stuff… stamps, matchboxes, old books, stationery and other ephemera sourced locally. These things come in handy when I’m setting up a shoot. I also use things I find around me and in my house.
On Redefining Beauty & Masculinity
ELLE: What have you learnt from being in front of the camera?
Sriram Y (SY): I am a 17-year-old 12th grade student based in Bengaluru. I’m also dark-skinned, and growing up, I always thought of it as a flaw—I was bullied for it from when I was in fourth grade. I remember being called a kala panda. I even tried remedying it with skincare hacks but nothing worked. Self-portraiture has been a journey of self love and acceptance. What I thought of as flaws are not flaws anymore. I love my skin colour now—I find it gorgeous and unique. I also get a lot of homophobic hate for not posing in a ‘masculine’ way. I don’t understand what’s gay about me? I believe we are in a society right now where gender norms and stereotypes have been broken. I like to treat everyone equally. And I am happy that I’m breaking the whole gender thing with my work.
ELLE: When and how did you begin taking self-portraits?
(SY): I once saw a picture of travel content creator Larissa D’Sa in Banaras, wearing a yellow sari and sitting in a boat. I wanted to take pictures like that while travelling! The photos my dad took never matched up to my expectations (laughs). During lockdown, I saw this video by YouTuber Mansi Ugale on how to take studio-style pictures of yourself. After that there was a TikTok trend of creating newspaper backdrops. I kept on experimenting and tried new things. I am also studying design as an elective at school so the principles of design and colour theory help me in composing my self portraits.
ELLE: What about your work resonates with people?
(SY): I started making self-portraits during the lockdown, with a private Instgram account with 135 followers to start with. I used to get that odd comment once in a while and not too much engagement or appreciation. Someone I know commented that I take very good pictures but that I should change the model. He went on to insult the way I looked and posed. I confided in my best friend who hyped me up and encouraged me to make my profile public and post reels. So I started posting reels which content creator Dolly Singh noticed. She had over 1.2 million followers and she shared my reels on her stories. That’s when I sort of got discovered and my following blew up. I now collaborate with brands and platforms such as No Borders Shop, Olio Stories and others. I think people get motivated and inspired to be creative when they see my self portraits. Once after posting a reel this girl wrote back to me saying, ‘I never took self portraits because I thought I was too fat.’
On Finding Beauty In The Vernacular
ELLE: How would you describe your work, and your specific aesthetic?
Naveli Choyal (NC): I was born and raised in Ajmer, Rajasthan. Post graduation, I moved to New Delhi and have been based there since; I am 28 now. Quitting my job and the pandemic happened almost together, coincidentally. I always had a keen interest in photography but never took it up professionally. I decided to take that leap of faith and finally pursue it professionally. I like to involve a lot of patterns, prints and colours in my work and play with juxtaposition. I think my aversion towards the ignorance of the rich cultural heritage that we have inherited and the herd mentality which influences trends have helped me build a strong narrative and language of my own work. The standard Indian beauty fixates on a certain image. I, myself, was judged a lot as a kid and measured against these standards. So, it was a conscious decision on my end to break the influenced beauty ideas that we, as a generation, have grown up with and move away from the unethical norm of this industry. I shoot most of my models in their bare skin and I am against retouching/ digitally editing their body type or skin colour.
ELLE: How do you look at your role of communicating India›s beauty to the world?
(NC): Thanks to my upbringing in Rajasthan, the landscape was and still is very close to me. The representation of the state’s beauty in the mainstream media infuriated me. There was so much more to the state than the palaces, forts, and royals. During the first Covid wave when I was forced to go back home, I started to document everyday life from the streets and my home. The people and their lifestyles—their food, garments, jewellery, everyday objects, festivals, mannerisms and landscapes. This not only helped me connect and understand my own roots deeply but also enabled my fellow community members to see Rajasthan in its true light. Now when I work with Indian and international clients I always pay attention to the idea, narrative, and story of the brand. The brands I’ve worked with so far not only benefit the artisan community of India but also complement my visual language. There is a similarity we share in our beliefs and expression and I hope to work with more women-led brands that uplift and support the crafts.
Find ELLE’s latest issue on stands or download your digital copy here.