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Arunima Maharshi

IWB Blogger

Photographer Akhila Chronicles Life Of Active Women To Show ‘Fierce’ Power Of Self Time

  • IWB Post
  •  July 5, 2019

The quality of being fierce has less to do with your physical attributes and more to do with your attitude – the mental strength and the confidence that you exude. Thanks to my mum, this is the understanding I have carried within and acted on my entire life. And Akhila Vijayaraghavan’s project ‘Fierce’ is the perfect embodiment of the said ideology. Let’s find out how! 

An environmental consultant, a photographer, a fitness enthusiast, are the various introductions of Akhila’s professional and personal inclinations, but ‘Fierce’ is what describes her the best. And from a very personal space has transpired her social photography project, which explores stories of women through the lens of fitness and underlines the need of promoting body positivity and defying gender stereotypes.

Documented life stories of 30 women so far, Akhila’s project was displayed at the Chennai Photo Biennale 2019, where in a conversation with News Today, she shared, “It was a combination of several narratives that prompted me to take this up. First the modern wave of feminism portrayed in popular media challenges womanhood which is empowering and disruptive. I wanted to see if I can change it through photography by juxtaposing it with subjects like body image, mental health, and harassment and bring a nuance to the narrative.”

And here are the excerpts from my conversation with Akhila:


Tell me about the first story that inspired ‘Fierce’ – where did it all start?

I started with it in 2017. The idea was to put out more positive content about women, stories that would portray them not as victims, but strong individuals. I have always been an active person; working out makes me feel fantastic, and has improved my self-perception. And through Fierce, which is broadly about exploring stories of women through their relationship with exercise, I wanted to find out if other women resonate with my thought.

The perception that a fit body is equivalent to a thin body kills the very concept of body positivity. Talk about your findings in this regard.

It is all about how you perceive yourself. For a lot of people the realization that an active life is more about how they feel than how they look, sinks in while on the journey. Weight may be an undeniable component, but it is not the only chase, the end all – be all of exercise regime. And goals may vary from person to person, but as you proceed, you find yourself setting new and more challenging goals instead of seeing weight loss as the only continuous bribe. 


What is your approach when interacting with women for ‘Fierce’? 

Some women I met through gym, some were whom I knew personally, or through social media. I don’t have any fix criteria, as long as they are willing to talk. And being involved in a fancy fitness activity wasn’t a necessary parameter either; walking, working out at a gym, swimming, running, or playing any sport, the key (and only requirement) is to be regular at it, to be committed to self. 

How are the visual ideas of being “fit” re-imagined in the project? 

Visual perception does not matter, what is important is to try. Dealing with body image issues in isolation can make you feel very lonely, and it somewhere intensifies the belief that you are the only one going through it. So stepping out, or reading more about it, makes you realise that a lot of other women could be experiencing something very similar to what you are. And that brings a positive change in the way you perceive your body.

Srividya Gowri, Chennai Powerlifter | Carnatic singer | Mom of two girls | Avid birder “I started my fitness journey with running and added strength training to build endurance. As I started lifting weights, over the past 4 years, I noticed I was becoming stronger. The lifting bug bit me and I got so hooked to powerlifting that I am only an occasional runner now! There are so many myths around lifting, especially the one that you’ll bulk up, but I’ve never looked slimmer. My daughters, who are 14 and 11, are inspired by what I do and my entire family comes to cheer me on, whenever I participate in meets. I’m just a regular mom and I invest in my health in order to have a good mental frame of mind to deal with all the stresses that life throws at you. I was an obese teenager; often depressed about how I looked. Although I did get back into shape over the next decade, I had gained back that weight after my second pregnancy. That’s when I started running. My daughters have learned to make healthy eating choices through me and I definitely want them to have a positive body image. I would have never called myself an assertive person until I started exercising. Exercising, especially lifting, has given me the confidence to speak my mind because it has immensely boosted my sense of self-worth. I love birding during my free time and most family holidays include some nature-based activity. Singing is my other major outlet and it brings me so much peace and inner joy. Music and exercise help me overcome many of my personal challenges” @mission_stronger @theunitchennai #women #sport #fierce #shewins #stronger #powerlifting #womenlift #lifting #ironandchalk #move #justmove #bodypositive #woman #female #hustleforthatmuscle #lift #womenwholift #blackandwhite #photography #photographyproject #canon #5dmarkiii

53 Likes, 15 Comments – fierce (@fierce.shewins) on Instagram: “Srividya Gowri, Chennai Powerlifter | Carnatic singer | Mom of two girls | Avid birder “I started…”

Do you think an Indian woman’s life struggles – the compromises and adjustments she has to make – extend into her fitness story too?

Based on my interactions, I felt that it was the opposite; they appeared to be rather possessive about it, and especially married women. They allocate that time for themselves, and look at it as self-care, or mental therapy, or simply as their ‘me time’. But they did say that it was difficult in the beginning. It ought to become a test of your determination, setting aside time for yourself amidst the hundred demands and expectations of a family life.

At this point, I’m curious to know about your ‘Fierce’ story?

Funnily, no one has asked me this before. This project has been quite personal for me, coming from a place where I wasn’t very comfortable with my own body. While growing up, I had body confidence issues, and it affected me in many ways. But then there came a point when I got fed up and decided to do something; there always was that inkling, and exercise and sports came to my rescue.

I learnt about the authenticity of athletic targets as opposed to aesthetic – that it isn’t about ‘losing 5 or 10 kg’ but about ‘having x number of weeks to get to a target’. This shift in perception and the mental clarity it brought helped me a great deal; the downs are not so down anymore. Though it would have helped had there been stories of body positivity in media as there are now – it wouldn’t have felt so alone. So, the project does come from a fairly personal space, but as I shared before, that is not the only focus.

Lavanya Sunanda, Chennai Powerlifter | Cross-fit Enthusiast | Doting grandmother | Homemaker “I started exercising only in my thirties having never held a bat or returned a serve and have grown to love it. Starting with the treadmill, I was introduced to powerlifting only about a year and a half back and now its cross-fit that’s challenging me. I have two herniated discs and my knees remind me of my age, so I don’t do impact workouts. When I started working out, it was not a battle with the weighing scale but was about staying fit and being able to do simple things like running up a flight of stairs without panting. Age is not an excuse to fossilise. Working out regularly has kept me sane, and has given me the energy to keep up with my day. I have juggled work and home for the greater part of my life but now I have taken a hiatus to care for my aged father and my little grandson. I grab opportunities to support causes and pursue other interests whenever time permits. I feel that avenues for incorporating daily exercise should expand in India. I walk everywhere I go and although the weather is conducive here, the roads are not. As you get older, you definitely develop the ‘IDGAFF (I Don’t Give a Flying Fuck) glow’ which is better than any cosmetic! It’s liberating to just try out new things, challenge yourself and enjoy what you do. Its also about having that beer when you feel like it because life is too short to let the little things become big hangups.” #fierce #shewins #women #sport #lifting #powerlifting #crossfit #bodypositive #woman #female #womenlift #justmove #moveyourbody #exercise #fitness #health #blackandwhite #photographyproject #canon #5dmarkiii #photography @lavanyasunanda

42 Likes, 2 Comments – fierce (@fierce.shewins) on Instagram: “Lavanya Sunanda, Chennai Powerlifter | Cross-fit Enthusiast | Doting grandmother | Homemaker “I…”

Munira Daniel, Chennai Strength training l GirlBoss – CrewPR l Events and Public Relations l Foodie “Forget skinny, I’m training to be the fittest version of myself. I’ve always struggled with weight and body image since my college days. I have been body shamed by people who have biased opinions about how a woman’s body needs to look in order to be accepted or find herself a groom. Over eight years of corporate life and then moving to the world of events, PR, food pop-ups with long working hours and working closely with food establishments made junk more accessible and the weight pile on. Though I lived in oblivion about these issues for a while, I had to get my act together. It wasn’t my weight that drove me to start working out, it was the fact that my mobility was starting to get affected. After a year of strength training, I know that my body has no limits as it keeps getting stronger as I keep pushing it. Of course I know I’m curvy, over-weight or whatever description you want to use but I have never appreciated my body more. I have become more self-aware and have educated myself on training and nutrition. Being introduced to strength training has changed my focus from just weight loss to living healthier, eating smarter, focusing on mobility, and functionality rather than reducing myself to the numbers game. Fit is a way of life and not a one time goal or destination. For me, there’s no looking back now!” @mun.ira_daniel @strength_system #fierce #fiercewins #women #sport #powerlifting #strength #fitness #training #health #move #justmove #moveyourbody #shemoves #bodypositive #bodyimage #body #portrait #blackandwhite #portraitphotography #blackandwhitephotography #photographyproject #canon #5dmarkiii

30 Likes, 1 Comments – fierce (@fierce.shewins) on Instagram: “Munira Daniel, Chennai Strength training l GirlBoss – CrewPR l Events and Public Relations l…”

Do you think fitness can act as an aid in getting women to conquer the urban spaces?  

When I started off with the series, I did want it to be as one of the focuses. The harassment women have to face, the stares, the safety issues, how even their choice of clothes is governed by people around. And after listening to some of the stories, I learnt that these are the reasons why women find confidence in being a part of group activities. We are far from “conquering” urban spaces; it is only in the neighbourhood of urban cities, more so in the socially upward ones, that women have it a little easier. But in some different neighbourhood faraway, the scenario will be very different. Exposure and change in attitude is what is needed, because it is not only men but sometimes older women can also make things difficult and odd for women. 

You also hold the position of an environmental consultant; does that profile of yours mingle with photography in any manner? 

Not really. They are two different things; one being my 9 to 5 job and the other my long term hobby. But before Fierce, I never photographed people, I was more into capturing wildlife, nature, life on the streets, and the likes.

Lastly, if you could share from your expertise, some guidelines that can be worked on at the individual level to combat water crisis?

Couple of things can be done at the individual level, like installing low floor showerhead in the bathroom, or not using shower at all and instead making use of a bucket. Basic rainwater harvesting can be practiced, even if it is about keeping a drum outside; the stored water can be used to for outside purposes, for cleaning cars etc. But by and large, individual attempts are one thing, government need to take up water issues. India is not a water-starved country – this crisis is a result of badly managed water. It needs to be tackled at local level, and solutions have to come from the state governments.

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