After two days of sitting in one position and weaving thin ruby threads and pink beads, Sarah Naqvi had finally achieved the design she wanted. She was not embroidering flowers, initials or meaningless but pretty motifs, and the work was not done on a handkerchief or a kurta – it was on white underwear.
This is one of the artworks of that Naqvi, a textile design student at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, made to create awareness about women’s bodies, normalise physical functions like menstruation, and as a result, combat shame.
As a child, Naqvi remembers watching a commercial for sanitary napkins and asking her mother why underwears were shown stained with blue pink.
“I don’t know,” was her mother’s terse response.
As she grew older, Naqvi realised that menstruation, even among family members, was something rarely discussed – to show or see menstrual blood was considered shameful. Her response to this conditioning – the blood-embroidered underwear – received tremendous validation from women who saw the post on Instagram.
Apart from menstruation, Naqvi’s Instagram feed is a collection of beautiful nudes, women of various weight categories and shades. While these receive plenty of appreciation too, not everyone feels positive about her work, Naqvi said – her first GIF, a nude “goddess”, was taken off by Instagram without her permission.
While the 20-year-old is not sure of what exactly violated Instagram’s community guidelines (the platform is notorious for policing images of the female body), she feels it may have been the word goddess, even though it indicated no religion in particular.
The incident pushed Naqvi to question the very idea of what is aesthetically palatable about women’s bodies, and the idea of “community standards”.
“There is nothing to be offended about women and nudity,” Naqvi said. “Everything is natural, from stretch marks to menstruation, but many women don’t even view their own bodies biologically. Why sexualise it?”
The insecurity amongst many women, Naqvi believes, stems from exposure to what she calls an unhealthy “visual diet” in magazines and advertisements. The constant consumption of images of skinny women with near perfect features, has led many to consider the prototype of a thin, fair woman with big breasts aspirational.
Naqvi wants to feed those who follow her work a positive “visual diet” to normalise aspects of femaleness that are looked down upon by the Indian community. She believes that every stretch mark, scar or flab on the body is a witness to all the ups and downs in a person’s life. To cringe over those is to deny your own history – something that leads to self-hate.
“If we look at our own bodies with shame then we cannot expect others to respect ours, either.” she said.
While her art makes several people uncomfortable, Sarah maintains that their loudness is an extension of her personality.
“I am loud with my clothes, with my ideas and it shows in my works,” she said.
Naqvi draws inspiration from artists Shirin Neshat, an Iranian in exile, and Ghada Amer, an Egyptian who works with large-scale embroidery installations. Both the artists are known for their artworks on gender and sexuality.
Sarah’s parents are both academics, and she is the first person from her home to aspire to create art and fashion. Naqvi’s views on feminism came as a big surprise to her family. But with time and reasoning, she said, they have come around to her ideas. The only thing her parents still worry about are the negative reactions – at times, Naqvi’s Instagram posts have been known to receive lewd comments addressed at her. But this, she said, is what pushes her to stretch the limits further.
“Look away if it bothers you,” she said.
Written by Shweta D’Souza, published first on Scroll.in