CHENNAI: Akhshaya Navaneethan was in class 12 when she had her first brush with bodyshaming in public. Her school teacher refused to cast her in a dance performance because she had a plus-sized body.
Despite being briefly upset, the spirited 16-year-old decided to move on. After joining college in 2013, Akhshaya stepped into the world of fashion. “I was new to the fashion industry. I was still the girl from school who used to oil her hair, wear a pair of jeans and kurta. I wasn’t conscious about my looks nor was I mindful of my wardrobe .During this phase, I noticed several people mock me for my choice of clothes and my body,” she shares.
Akshaya broke down, but she decided to rise from the ashes. “I told myself, ‘The way I look, or my size doesn’t define my beauty or potential. If I don’t feel confident about myself, how will others? I need to know who I am...everyone should be comfortable in their own skin.’ I accepted myself for what I am and started working towards becoming the best version of myself,” she says. Several hurdles and six years of dogged persistence later, she is a force to reckon with.
Earlier this year, the 24-year-old auditioned to be part of the famous Lakme Fashion Week. Today, she is the first plus-size model to represent south India in the bi-annual fashion event. She will be walking for ace designer Rina Dhaka who has collaborated with aLL — The Plus Size Store to showcase the brand’s new couture line ‘ALL PRIMERO’. As Akhshaya prepares to sashay down the ramp on Sunday, one might expect her to be a bundle of nerves. But, she’s unflustered.
“I couldn’t make it to the earlier auditions because of financial and health-related constraints. This time, when I headed to the audition, my only aim was to interact with other gritty plus-size women and understand their stories. I was surprised when I learned that I was the first one to register. Though I was nervous, everyone there made me feel comfortable. It was an awakening experience,” shares Akhshaya, who moonlights as an emcee, soft skill trainer and motivational speaker. Designer Arulmozhi’s show in 2016 gave Akhshaya her big break. Recalling her first ramp walk, she says, “Though my stretch marks were visible, I didn’t hesitate to do it. After that show, many people started approaching me.”
Over the last few years, she has been using her social media platforms to promote body positivity and self-love. This year, she went the extra mile and shaved her head to promote other causes too. “It was a decision that put life in perspective. I donated my hair to cancer patients. I started flaunting the bald head look and the response I received was overwhelming. People suffering from body image issues — women whose husbands loathe them because of post-pregnancy weight gain, men who don’t feel body-positive — and youngsters, messaged me and thanked me for giving them the much-needed push. My friends — some even expectant mothers — decided to shave their head,” she shares.
Serendipitously, in May, when acclaimed photographer L Ramachandran was looking for a bald and plus-size model for his project Cosmic Divine, he spotted Akhshaya and she became the muse for the project. “It was exciting to work with such a renowned name. It was indeed a turning point,” she says. Thick, curvy, fluffy — no matter what moniker is attached to one’s body, Akhshaya says “it’s about owning the image”. “I feel it’s important that we connect with ourselves first as individuals. Self-confidence has been key to what I am now. ” she says.