“No erotic work of art is filth if it is artistically significant; it is only turned into filth through the beholder if she/he is filthy.”
– Egon Schiele
We used to be one of the only cultures that tied sex to the sacred, as can be seen through the epic text Kamasutra and the elaborate art and murals of temples like Khajuraho. It fared us better than the hypersexualisation and objectification of women, not to mention the all-pervading sense of repression that exists in the country today. Subsequently, or perhaps as a result of, our tolerance levels today are at an all-time low, making us extremely sensitive as a country, often offended at the drop of a hat.
It is no wonder then that many people use art as an outlet to express and challenge such repressive notions. After all, nothing horrifies the audience more than the female body in all its natural beauty and women owning their own sexuality. This is a universal phenomenon unfortunately and in the midst of all the slut-shaming and body shaming, while simultaneous catcalling and sexual DMs, there are people like Sonia Parecadan whose uninhibited creative expression doesn’t waver when it comes to breaking societal norms.
Popularly known as Googlymonstor and Devi, Sonia is an Indian American nude art model based in San Francisco. To simply say that Sonia is a body positive model, albeit true, would be insufficient. “We fear the nude female form for its erotic power instead of just seeing it for what it really is and enjoying it with reverence; it’s the human body—the dynamic, ever-changing outer layer of a unique soul,” she tells Homegrown via email. In a world that is still so afraid of the female body while also dictating strict ‘beauty’ standards of what it should ‘ideally’ look like, Sonia is among a growing group of women that serve as a formidable force of change. Although, being a nude model, so to speak, is not something she consciously set out to do.
It started with experiments in art photography which a man she started dating indulged in as a hobby. She was encouraged to build a portfolio and find other artists she could work with. “I’m not sure if it was something I ‘wanted’ to do, as much as it was just something I ended up doing. And I’m very glad I did. I think it was something that came naturally to me,” she says. Her initial few photographs were taken by someone she was close to; it was the time when she had started learning about her body’s expressiveness, she says, while also being comfortable in her skin. So awkwardness or nerves never really played into her posing in front of the camera.
“I’m really proud to be representing us big-nosed, big-boobed, brown-skinned South Indian ladies in a world entrenched in white supremacist beauty standards. As someone with curves (in my case, boobs) that are waaaaay bigger and heavier than the perky, pink-nippled, ‘acceptable’ C or D cups that society (at least implicitly) has cemented in our minds as aesthetically ‘correct’, I’m glad I’m out there adding a distinctive body type into the mix. Instead of hating my exaggerated features (as I’ve been subtly taught how to do most of my life) and feeling shitty about how ‘vulgar’ or ‘disproportional’ my frame might seem to people, by posing creatively, I get to discover all of its appealing idiosyncrasies,” she says.
She continues, “And not just for the ‘obvious reason’ of being jerk-off fodder. My body is cool looking. It might also be hot to some people—okay, fine. Most women, regardless of size or shape or what they are wearing, who’ve walked down a street at some point in their lives, know what it feels like to be humiliated, hypersexualized or openly objectified without consent. Boy, do I. Refining the way society views women’s bodies is important to me because feeling uncomfortable in your skin really sucks.”
A brown-skinned woman that’s confident, proud and open about her body doesn’t exactly sit well with everyone, especially on an online platform where anonymity and sitting behind a screen enables you to say whatever you want without any real consequences as such. Sonia has been celebrated, supported, shamed and fawned on, both positively and negatively. “A lot it is the predictable, toxic male bullshit, ranging from grating, stalker-ish, creepy fawning to the more aggressive ‘I wanna blank all over those blanks’ type stuff – the unsolicited, intrusively sexual ‘compliments’ that all of us women love getting all the time (NOT!),” she muses.
Sadly, these are reactions and responses that women have ‘gotten used’ across social media platforms just because of its common occurrence, which speaks of a much larger malaise. Though, there are definitely things that Sonia said caught her off guard, for example, finding sexually explicit fake profiles using her images, even selling them to unaware ‘clients’. “Pretty sure I’m considered a porn star in South Asia, partially because so much of my work has been stolen and reposted on Desi porn sites and blogs (and also because I have done a few short, erotic-themed striptease videos that could be considered a type of softcore, there is that).”
A lot of people from the South Asian diaspora often question how she can ‘expose herself’ like this, while others assume that she has some emotional baggage, that she “must be somehow damaged, have low-esteem or daddy issues, ‘demons’— the typical stuff.” From being called a whore, exhibitionist, kinky sex addict to a narcissist that constantly needs praise and compliments, Sonia has had to deal with these and so much more. “One guy in India angrily messaged me to tell me that my images ‘made him horny’ and I’m the reason ‘women get raped in India.’ That was hilarious, sad and very disturbing all at the same time,” says Sonia.
“Occasionally, people pick apart my looks. They complain about an unshaved armpit, unwaxed arms, saggy boobs, or a big nose. Recently, an Indian teen boy with literally the same complexion as me commented on one my photos, saying he ‘hated black bodies’ or something like that. I really couldn’t be angry at him or take it personally, knowing how the world is, how the absurdity of colourism has warped all of our minds. I told him to fix his brain and learn to embrace the immense beauty of our skin colour — and that it’s not nice to insult random people, even if it’s just online. He actually took it quite well — he apologized.”
It’s not all bad though, Sonia says there are a lot of people, men and women, who appreciate the work she does — “even if it’s just that they simply find me pleasant, relaxing, arousing, whatever it is— to gaze at—in a highly stressful, repressive, deadening modern world, I’m happy to offer that visual medicine.” But would her audience react any differently had she been living in India, for better or worse? She agrees that being in San Francisco, in her words, the birthplace of counterculture in the western world, is definitely a lot easier and accepting, in terms of society as well as professionally for a nude art model, than any city in India would be. But there are still misconceptions that plague that side of the world about what an ‘Indian’ is like, with pop culture representations playing a big part in these generalised perceptions of an entire race.
“In western popular culture, when you think of the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ we don’t really think of a Desi chick, or even a brown girl, period. We think of someone conventionally attractive, young, white, cis-hetero, thin, and able-bodied. We don’t necessarily think of Indian American women as artsy, hippie wild women—as self-destructive but enlightened, fallen angels—or as tortured, messy bombshells a la Marilyn Monroe. Whether it’s good or bad, and whether I’m trying to or not, maybe that’s what brown women like me represent in the popular imagination—that quirky girl that teaches you about life, only I’m Indian.”
“There are discourses in Asian American circles that we lack the nuanced, complicated, three-dimensional representation in the media that white people, and particularly white men, enjoy. While I don’t think of myself as some brave, trailblazing activist by doing my work—if I enable people to think outside the box when it comes to Desi women, by publicly not being the neurotypical, good-at-math, sexually-naive, modest, straight-laced, medical student stereotype that we’ve all grown to expect—cool,” she aptly writes.
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