“Smile for me, no not that big a smile. Don’t talk so much, eh why you so quiet? Be sexy, but not too sexy. Don’t ask why why all. Sit properly. Why don’t you have any makeup on? Why do you have so much makeup on? Here, use some Fair & Lovely! You really need to lose weight. You’re so thin, better put on some weight. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t be unfriendly. Go further your studies, but not too much, we can’t find a mappilai then.”
It may be 2019, but adult Indian women are still being told how to behave on a daily basis. These nuggets of advice doesn’t just come from ‘well meaning’ family members whose only intention is to ‘preserve your self respect’ but also in the form of all the Tamil entertainment we are assaulted with on a daily basis.
Which is why when I chanced upon this series of photos by photographer Catherhea Teoh, my mind was blown. Aptly titled Badd Brown Girls, this series of four images show 7 brown women, all distinctly beautiful in their own ways, relaxing in silky loungewear.
The diversity of the models shattered the concept of the ideal Indian woman into a thousand pieces. These women were pictured chilled, cosy and comfy enjoying their slumber party. The other pictures in the series portray the women enjoying each other’s company, drawing henna, chatting, taking a selfie, laughing and even napping. In a society like ours where women are constantly being told how to behave, this picture speaks volumes.
Catherhea, fondly known as Cat, talks to Varnam about her work. She says, “The whole idea was that Indian women are constantly being judged for the way they are, be it skin colour, size, even their dressing. Badd Brown Girls is a series about women owning themselves and not conforming to society’s norms. Women who are breaking the archaic ‘rules’ and taking charge of their lives,”
And boy, does it translate through. The Kuala Lumpur based photographer came up with the concept herself, and tells us that the women all did their own makeup, and chose their own outfits. “I really cannot take all the credit! The girls in the picture had a huge part in how beautifully it turned out,”
Cat goes on to tell us that the key concept with this photoshoot was autonomy. The caption to the images read “Brown girls who are taking charge of their own autonomy regardless of the persecution by society and those within their own community,” She goes on to say “The series is about brown women being empowered, to recognise the complete autonomy they have over their bodies, lives, and decisions,”
Having had 12 years of experience as a photographer, Cat finds joy in photographing the underrepresented. “Everyone should have a chance, not just the privileged few we see in various forms of media. I want people to see my work, and go, hey that looks like me,” As a photographer cum artist, Cat does her best to get that message across.
That is what is so special about this series of pictures. Brown girls everywhere are looking at this image that they can relate to, women who look like them, owning their bodies. That is empowerment. There hasn’t been this kind of powerful brown female representation with such diverse models in the Malaysian social media spheres.
And no aunty, these girls did not work on this photoshoot for men, but FOR THEMSELVES.
Where do we go from here, you may ask. Images like these spark conversation (and joy) and hopefully more women are comfortable in their own skin, turning a deaf ear to what society tells them to live their life.
These pictures will effect change in ways we could have never imagined. Equally important, is that Indian women, and women everywhere, begin to discuss their autonomy what it means to them.
One of the models from the shoot, Kaveeta Nair, quips the final image of the series, “We are brown. We are badd. We don’t conform to your standards of how we should be, according to ancient, backward societal standards. Instead we are who we want to be, from career-driven to pro-choice to being bold and strong to wearing whatever the hell we want to, being confident and happy with who we are,”
All images are credits of Catherhea Teoh. Follow Catherhea’s art on Instagram here.