Abheek Sinha was 16 years old when he gave up. He used to do traditional ‘guy’ things like indulging in sports, even representing Tripura in cricket, but he just didn’t look the part. He was lanky, soft-skinned, and not hairy at all. “I wasn’t big, never tried to be an alpha male. I came to play to cricket with piercings and was a little effeminate, so it confused my teammates a lot,” he told VICE.
The constant, everyday tease of ‘Mey mey’ (Bengali for ‘girl’) finally got to him, and he asked his parents to allow him to move to Mumbai. “It’s easier to take on the world when you have your family’s support,” he said. “My parents had an issue when I said I want to grow up to be a hairstylist, but with time, they grew up with me,” he added.
He’d always been fascinated by the tribal culture of Nagaland, and got lots of piercings and tattoos. Even in Bombay, when he’s in the gym, the topic of discussion on many nights revolves around his nose ring, which he wears just because he likes it. “I don’t think masculinity is fundamentally toxic; going to gyms isn’t a bad thing. But people think that not going to the gym means you aren’t ‘masculine’. That’s messed up,” he said.
Life sorted itself out for Sinha though, now 28. He writes on and off, and just wrote a documentary for one of India’s biggest sports magazines on cricket. The evolution of the discussion around the evolution of masculinity actually helped him, as Abbas Tyrewala, the director of Imran Khan and Genilia D’Souza starrer Jaane Tu Jaane Na approached him in a restaurant one day and offered him a part alongside John Abraham in a film, because he looked ‘interesting’. Today, Sinha uses the internet to talk about stigmas surrounding his piercings.
The internet counter-culture is catching up to the plight of ‘non-traditional’ looking Indian men, trying to fight against the gym-brofication of men. 25-year-old Pulkit Mogha, a policy fellow working on climate resistance for vulnerable communities in Goa, has spent the last four years photographing people’s bodies on the side, with all their so called ‘flaws’. “People reached out to me on social media, saying there isn’t much representation of people with brown skin, with curves, with some flaws,” he told VICE. Mogha now spends years building this connection, to make men comfortable enough to pose for him. And many of them are with very hirsute men.
“White bodies, toned bodies—they are all seen as art. All the bodies we see in our culture, with muscles, and [a specific] colour of skin—they aren’t something we can achieve. It’s part of a bigger problem driven by society, [asking] men to be a certain way,” he said. “Body positivity is still a largely western movement. It’s only beginning in India. Body-shaming is everywhere here. It’s easy for people to say, ‘You build muscles and your life changes’”, he added.
After a while, Mogha’s pictures moved into a form of activism, as it rages against the context of the public definition of ‘good-looking, aesthetically appealing bodies’. This change of ‘aesthetic’ though, needs economic support and a sustained representation in culture, to reach a stage of normalisation. And helping that cause in a way is 22-year-old Gina Narang, who runs a boutique modelling agency called A Little Fly.
“Today, everything has become about individualism, especially with social media. It lets people define their own taste, be more comfortable with the way they look, even if it’s not bulky and muscular,” said Narang. “We don’t care about the height or weight of a model. It’s about the aesthetic and vibe.”
Narang ultimately stressed the same point as Mogha and Sinha, that it’s not about the way you look, but what makes you ‘you’. One of her models, Vansh Chauhan, is an engineer on the Mumbai Metro project. “Young Indians are striving to come out of their shells, and be whoever they are, whatever way they look. Men are more interested to talk about things they are interested in, like art, and street culture, etc, rather than build muscles,” she said. “It’s working, and it’s changing things.”
How long it takes for ‘the change’ to reach the mainstream is up in the air, but it takes lots of snowflakes to make a blizzard. And right now, at least we can see them congregating.
Follow Parthshri Arora on Twitter.