Intimate Conversations With 5 Indian Models About Insecurities, Body-Shaming & More

Intimate Conversations With 5 Indian Models About Insecurities, Body-Shaming & More
Nidhi Sunil and Paloma Monnappa

I was 13 years old when Madhur Bhandarkar’s film Fashion hit the big screens, brought right to my doorstep in small-town India. As it rattled every pre-conceived notion my friends and I had about the glamour industry right out of us, I’m somewhat glad that I didn’t allow the trope of ‘fiction’ to comfort myself when the end credits rolled. Because sitting here less than a decade later in the aftermath of unfiltered conversations with the models of today, I realise not much has changed. Even though, well, everything has.

The industry is at an inflection point. This much is gospel truth, a concept models learn early on can easily be altered by a little photoshop. A flattened stomach here, a streamlined curve there, maybe a little airbrushing over that damned scar across your thigh and god forbid a stretch mark rear its ugly head in a glossy magazine shoot. Somebody’s job is at stake if you let reality check, and there’s a lot of money to be made in convincing women they can attain the strictly unattainable. Still, it appears the world has reached peak photoshop and people are speaking out about everything from the unrealistic body image standards in the industry to the damaging mental health pressures on models everywhere.

In India, Fashion Weeks have never been more eager to pay lip service to buzz words like body positivity and inclusivity. In January, Lakme Fashion Week followed up their hiring of transwoman model Anjali Llama the previous year to promote the Half Full Curve collection that saw models of various age, shape and size walk the ramp gracefully. Last year we saw a milestone in the Indian modelling industry when Mona Veronica Campbell, India’s first plus-sized transgender model, walked their ramp too. Harper’s Bazaar India too made history in September 2017 when it featured transgender models on its cover for the very first time, while more and more unconventional faces have been creating a niche for themselves, empowering themselves with the new tools at their disposal–namely, Instagram. “Now models have social media platforms, so even if they’re not incredibly well known, they can still have a relatively big following and articulate their views in a way they weren’t able to do before,” Francesca Granata, director of the master’s program in fashion studies at Parsons, told The New York Times in an article on the same topic in a different hemisphere.

But is the same tool of empowerment just a new platform for bullying? Just a little over a month ago, we spoke with model Nidhi Sunil (also featured in this compilation) about being trolled on Instagram for being dark-skinned. She turned it back on the attacker by naming and shaming, but it did raise questions about whether there are any safe spaces for these women whose every flaw seems highlighted for a living. Fat-shaming, skinny-shaming, deep unprofessionalism and heightened insecurity seem to be part of the package for most. Some rail against it, others take it out on their own bodies, a few even manage to take it completely in their stride leaving many (including us) in wonder as to how they manage the seemingly impossible.

It left us with a lot of questions. Even with all the changes happening, are things getting any better? For the ones who grow a thick skin for the outside world, what are the scars on their internal makeup? Are real models a bit angered by diverse casting going overboard, stealing work they view as rightfully theirs? And what are the side-effects of surviving on just a banana and cigarettes for days?

We weren’t equipped to answer these ourselves so we got five models at different stages of their careers to sound off on their own experiences. Needless to say, their perspectives ran a huge gamut of insight, all of which we found to be more revealing than any film could be.

I. Pia Trivedi

A never-ending battle

“As a child, I would watch my sister strut her stuff on the runway and I truly loved what I saw. I knew then that I wanted to be a model and I was 15 when that dream came true. Starting off with Lakme India Fashion Week, I quickly moved on to doing shoots for magazine covers, being a VJ for Channel V, participating in reality shows, doing item songs and even a movie. Initially, I didn’t have too many hangups about the industry, but a few years down the line I understood that the modelling industry had many more complicated layers to it than what met the eye.

It started with the prestigious Kingfisher Swimsuit Calendar that I went on to do for two consecutive years. It was not just extremely overwhelming but also challenging and it made me realise many things about my body. I was very young and I had never done such a big shoot before and there I was in a swimsuit, nervously posing under the blazing sun. There was a particular shot I really struggled with and I got told off for it. I think that’s when things started changing for me. It affected me deeply and I was hell-bent on proving my worth. I didn’t eat until my next shot which was a few days later just to make sure my body was in its best form. Although I did realize that it wasn’t the best thing to do, I really felt I had no other option. It was my next shot in a Vikram Phadnis swimsuit that got me recognition and it is till date spoken about.

There are things about modelling that nobody teaches you and you have to learn the hard way. For example, posing, strutting on the runway, following choreography, learning how to do your make up, sacrificing food to nail that one shot and much more. Honestly, it isn’t easy to maintain that perfect look. Not too many people care and you have to go out of your way to fit the standards. I too had to put a lot of effort to fit into the industry. I had to watch my food, I had to exercise. I would barely eat as I’m not genetically thin. Moreover, not just body, but even skin marks are a problem. Having good skin becomes very important, otherwise, you’ll be at the forefront of unpleasant comments. The modelling world looks glamorous but it is extremely stressful — most of my years I have lived out of a suitcase and certainly being on the go constantly doesn’t make it easier to live up to these standards!

Getting older didn’t help. I was comparatively in good shape when I was young and even now I am by no means, ‘fat’. I really had to work hard to maintain myself. Diets, workouts had become an everyday part of life for me in order to avoid being in an uncomfortable situation. All the years of living like this definitely took a toll on my mental health and even though I realized the repercussions of the industry much later, I continue to fight the constant battle with myself of staying thin, unable to accept myself the way I am. But it is a work in progress as I am trying to undo the years of modelling and living like a normal woman as far as my body goes; accepting graciously a woman’s curves

Though the times are changing now and we are moving towards a more inclusive, body positive modelling industry, the shift seems extremely slow. There are still unrealistic standards that one is required to fit into to truly make it big in this world. Even though I am still coming to terms with my own individuality, all I would like to say to the girls and women watching us is, ‘love yourself, no matter what.’ Work out and stay healthy but love your body and have realistic goals for it. The damage we do to ourselves when we are young is really not worth it.”

Image source: Pia Trivedi via Instagram

II. Nidhi Sunil

Breaking Moulds and Challenging Colourism

“As a model, I am the least important person in the room. I do not have much say in what is done to my photographs, or whether or not they are photoshopped. Though models still feel a little guilty about the unrealistic body standards that their shoots might be promoting, we are actually quite helpless. Even today, the modelling industry has very deep-rooted perceptions about ‘Indian Beauty Standards.’ A face is only aspirational when it is fair, free of freckles and scars and it has been extremely hard for me to tackle these notions and make space for myself in the industry as I am a dark-skinned woman.

I was scouted in college back in 2011. Modelling was never on my list. I just thought I would give it a try, but six years later, here I am today, having broken some of the moulds I had to to get here. The journey has been a roller coaster ride. People feel they have a right to comment on me no matter where I am. Whether it’s strangers coming up to me to say “Hey, you have a fashion face”; or people who feel like it’s all right to tell me “Oh, you look like a maid.” I have been trolled on Instagram for being a dark-skinned model and there were days I was traumatized by the pressure of catching up to its unruly standards. The thing is that, as a race, we don’t think our skin is beautiful or aspirational. We don’t believe that it’s something that can sell products to any kind of demographics. This is a particularly Indian mindset. We are ashamed of our own skin colour.

The biggest problem of the industry is that we are only expected to deliver but not told how to. They want us to be ‘in shape,’ and have ‘glowing skin’ but would not take the effort to advise us on the kind of nutrition we should be taking or the work-outs we should be involving ourselves in. They will not groom you but they expect you to be a certain way. This harms models a lot especially young, naive ones who take up smoking to kill their appetite and lose weight. I personally have never struggled with weight, but I have seen other models slip into depression because of it.

Especially now with the advent of social media, the pictures of models are everywhere and the pressure is more than ever. However, that being said, it has also led to more discussion and debate around body positivity and making the modelling industry more inclusive, thus putting pressure on agencies to be more accepting of all kinds of body sizes and colours. Diversity wasn’t a status quo then, but it is slowly becoming one now.

Overcoming dissent and continuing to work with major publications like Conde Nast, Bazaar, Elle to being the face for a very commercial brand like Garnier, to being signed by international agencies and shooting major campaigns brought me in touch with my own voice, like work and exposure often do. I’d like to think I’ve created a niche for myself. I’ve recently become comfortable in my own head space, even though the challenges are far from over. Over the years I’ve made an effort to retain my integrity and tried to be sincere about who I am and what it means to my position in the industry I work in.

Nidhi Sunil (Inega Model Management) and Sasha (TFM India). Image courtesy / Publication: currentMood Mag Photographer: Arjun Mark

III. Paloma Monnappa

Don’t take things too seriously

“The industry is basically divided into two types of models, you have the ‘commercial models’ who can be curvy and short and then you have the ‘runway models’ who have to be tall, skinny and not ‘conventionally pretty’. The more unique and unconventional the face the better shot they have at making it internationally. I started modelling six years ago and was always the ‘short girl’ and I never really looked like a ‘typical model’. I would feel out of place at castings, showing up in my flats and denim shorts as opposed to all the tall girls in their heels and makeup looking all professional with their modelling portfolios in their hands.

I was told that I was an ad personality and started getting many advertisements. When I first started I was mostly doing TV commercials. I never really fit into that ‘model category’ mainly because of my height. I wasn’t ever keen on doing runway but I was interested in doing print shoots & fashion editorials which I rarely got at the time. You may recognize me as the face for one of the advertisements of Fast Track’s Move On Campaign which got me recognition.

Though I feel there’s more pressure among the runway models when it comes to the industry’s crazy beauty standards but it’s not any less when it comes to the ad industry as well. I do feel that my height has always been an issue. I have also been skinny shamed multiple amounts of time and have been hurled comments like, ‘Gosh, do your parents feed you?! or You’re going to disappear very soon!’ Skinny-Shaming is something I strongly feel against and personally have to deal with from people who don’t know me. It’s high time people realise that any kind of body shaming is bad. Skinny shaming is just as offensive as fat shaming. It has the same negative emotional impact.

I’ve been told by so many people & photographers I’ve worked with, that if it weren’t for my height I would have made it big internationally. I know that it has definitely restricted my work but to be honest, I love being small and I never let it affect me. It’s good to be happy with what you have become. Once you want to change something it becomes a habit and you’ll always end up being unsatisfied with yourself.

The key is not to take it so seriously. I never have and I never will. As a model over the years, you will have moments when the industry will put you up on a pedestal & make you feel like you are the most beautiful and special. When you’re accustomed to constant flattery it’s easy to live in a bubble about yourself and become the stereotypical ‘vain model’ but then there will also be moments when you’re surrounded by so many other stunning models and it brings you right back to reality. This is why I firmly believe that girls should not get into modelling at a younger age when they’re still naive.It’s pointless to feel insecure about yourself because everyone is different and perfection does not exist.

Another major problem plaguing the industry is Photoshop & Airbrushing, which is responsible for portraying false and unrealistic pictures of models. I have personally experienced this and am strongly against it. The media promotes an unrealistic image that people (especially women) constantly compare themselves to. The appearance of fake photoshopped models in magazines causes people to set unrealistic expectations about themselves and in some extreme cases develop an eating disorder.

But things are definitely evolving in the fashion industry all over. Social media has provided a platform for models and consumer critics to voice their opinions about these issues. Models didn’t have social networks to try to effect change. Today they do and speaking from personal experience as a social media lifestyle influencer, apps like Instagram has tremendously helped in lifting the lid on a lot of things we would not have tolerated in the past.

I am glad that fashion houses are finally tackling the issue of anorexia in the modelling industry but I feel that there is a clear distinction between being thin and being unhealthy. Accepting that responsibility lies with cracking down on an industry in which catwalk samples are produced in sizes that require already slim women to starve themselves. Honestly, I think people should just mind their own business and focus on being healthy and fit themselves.”

Paloma Monappa

IV. Diandra Soares

Bold, Badass and Beautiful

“I was only 15 when I started to model and at the time, modelling was still in the process of being recognized as a profession. I was too young at the time to have any perceptions about the industry and back in the 90’s, there wasn’t much conversation about the industry happening as such. I have practically grown up in the industry and I am well aware of its nuances, both bad and good.

My career has been a series of ups and downs and I too have been told off for being bigger. The modelling industry has always preferred women of narrower frames but you can’t expect me to crush my bones and become that person. But nevertheless, you have to work with what you are, because like it or not, the modelling industry has certain prerequisites that need to be adhered to as it does not understand that people have different body types. I have struggled with my weight and started working out at the age of 16. Snide comments on my weight and comparisons with thin girls were very rampant. Mine was supposed to be a harder journey, but in spite of that, I have still managed to reach the top. I have walked many international fashion shows in my career, were conducted by Gucci, Leonard Paris, Emanuel Ungaro, Sonia Rykiel, and Miami Fashion Show and have been a successful television personality.

Though I have consciously made a switch to acting now, and am not modelling very actively, I do not think that age had anything to do with it. The shift happened organically.

At that time, people were not aware of the concept of mental health, therefore, there weren’t as many realizations. I just dealt with stuff, never gave up and moved on. The shift to body positivity too has been happening in the industry only now because the west has started adapting it since the Indian Modelling industry has no brain of its own. Especially with the advent of social media, people have been obsessed with body positivity. Workouts have always been an essential part of my life and today I have reached a stage wherein I work out not for anyone else, but because I love to. I think the entire conversation about body positivity is pointing fingers in the wrong direction. The fashion and glamour industry is an insecure business, but the models are just doing their job. It isn’t their responsibility to mother young girls about what’s healthy and what’s not. Their parents should be doing that.”

Diandra Soares. Image Courtesy: Gaysi Family

V. Priyanka Kochhar

Comfortable in her own skin

“I started my career as a model at the age of 28, when I was scouted by an agency. As a professional producer-anchor for a daily entertainment show before that, I had quite a few perceptions about the modelling industry. I thought that I would have to do compromising shoots and that there was no clean way to the top. Having completed almost 5 years in the industry, still many of these perceptions hold true. It is very easy to get swayed in the industry but it is all about how you handle things. However, like it is in any profession, you have to work very hard to make it big.

To be honest, modelling industry equals insecurity. You cannot be a model without having insecurities and I too have been there. I was asked to lose weight by the Thailand agency, weight that I did not have according to the Indian market. I have lost work and not been given opportunities to do catalogues because apparently, I am too ‘flat.’ I remember once I had sent my polaroids to an agency in Thailand and they said, ‘Hey, we noticed that you need to lose some weight. Please get in touch with us once you have.’ I think that phase was very difficult for me as I was constantly counting the carbs on my plate, something I had never done before. It certainly did impact my mental health because lack of proper food makes you cranky and irritable. It impacts the way you think and communicate with people. It affects your creativity and your persona to perform. You’re always hungry and well, that sucks. The agency took my measurements once a week and even if I had put on a few centimeters, no pay for the week. So I’d have to survive on my own in a foreign land. Thankfully, it didn’t affect me too much because I had money saved up as I was working earlier and secondly, I was only losing weight. After being in Thailand for three months, losing weight and modelling for the agency I came back to India and ate like a dog...without counting my food. I realized that this is who I am and even though I am willing to work hard for an assignment, I am not ready to completely change myself.

When you model for a brand, they demand flawlessness, they demand perfection. Very few brands actually sign models for being imperfect. I have scars from various motorcycle accidents and I’m proud of them, I have stretch marks, there are days when I don’t get sleep and I go to set with bags under my eyes and zits on my money-maker, my face and they are very much visible but they aren’t there on any of my photographs when they go out. I hate that. I feel strongly about photoshop and airbrushing. These marks are a part of who I am, but us models can hardly help it. Especially now, with the advent of social media, these pictures are everywhere and we need to be very careful about the kind of messages we should be putting out. Thus, I have now started associating myself with campaigns, clients and brands that are doing things differently and breaking the status quo.

However, that being said I do feel that agencies need to start supporting and backing models in front of the clients. When we enter the industry and sign up with an agency, we feel that they are going to be there for us. But that is hardly the case. If clients make us shoot overtime, the agency should call them up and ask them to pay us extra. But that never happens. They need to stand up for their models. I believe that is the first thing I would like to change in the industry.

When it comes to the conversation about body positivity, I do see a little change where the industry is getting a little more inclusive. But I also feel that the larger responsibility lies with the designers, as it is them who need to design clothes for all body shapes and sizes. If you are only going to make clothes for tall, lanky women then you are completely missing the point of being a designer.

Your body changes as you grow, it becomes more mature, but age has never been a problem for me, at least as of yet. As a woman, I do have my insecurities and I work hard to cope up with them. I think for me, my biggest support has been my partner who laughs when I say, ‘I may be getting fat.’ He makes me feel comfortable in my own skin and about who I am. Today, I mostly do print shoots and campaigns, designers contact me for runway only when they are looking for an edgy face. I am too short to be a runway model but I do I feel that I have comfortably created my space in the industry. People know who I am and the kind of work I do and I will never go under the knife or change the way I am for anyone.”

Priyanka Kochhar. Photographed by Ishaan Nair, Assisted by Kirti Virmani.

Feature image credits:

Nidhi Sunil (Left): Instagram/@elleindiaofficial
Paloma Monnappa (Right): Instagram/@vogueindia

Disclaimer: This feature is just the beginning of a larger conversation about India’s fashion industry. Over time, we’d like to speak to models of all genders and explore a more diverse narrative. If you’d like to share your story, write in to us at editor@homegrown.

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