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Cosmic Cuties: Self Loving Space Women Who Kick Sexism’s Ass

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What any woman does with her body is really no one’s business but her own.” So says 17 year old Brooklyn based artist Mikhaila Nödel.

A member of her school’s feminist club, Nödel is the creator of the series ‘Cosmic Cuties’. The zine, with its monthly editions, was conceived as a small blog on Tumblr. The media-sharing website, (which Nödel cites as her biggest influence apart from her art teachers) is often recognized for its users’ high level of engagement with cross-cutting and overlapping social-justice issues. It’s also an excellent platform for makers of visual content to question normative social patterns, and depict the possibility of a more representative and egalitarian lived reality.

Part of this spontaneous collective effort, Nödel’s work is a delightful foil to the saturation of shaming and disciplining notions around us, encouraging us to inculcate self-love into our daily routine. Many people are unhappy with what they see in the mirror, reeling under the insidious and diffused effects of negative body image. And that’s exactly why we need the Cuties.

Nödel describes Comic Cuties as beings “born from space dust [that] slow down the universe and fight sexist crime. They’re these feminist goddesses that watch over all women and are there to protect them.” Complete with stretch marks, body hair and other oft stigmatized markers of a natural body, they float through space in their star-spangled two-pieces, introducing readers to complex issues of bodily-autonomy, female desire, gender politics and much more. It’s a fantastic entry point to the larger conversation of which she is well aware and consciously a part of.

Cosmic Cuties are all about accepting yourself and others,” she explains, and feeling empowered and confident. “If she doesn’t want to shave, that’s her choice! It really doesn’t affect anyone but herself. Body policing is ridiculous because what a woman does with her OWN body has nothing to do with anyone but herself! Stigma against menstruation, breastfeeding, and other natural bodily functions or features of bodies with vaginas are incredibly sexist, because they imply that the female body is something to be hidden or inherently ‘wrong’.

This negative view of the female body is inscribed into us through cultural practices, language and mass media’s preference for fair, slim female bodies. As a result, some form or the other of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) appears to be prevalent among both men and women, but particularly among adolescents. Scholars Jaiyant Cavale and Dweep Chand Singh’s paper ‘Current Status of Body Image Research in India‘ describes BDD as “[compulsive] behaviours that seek to fix [the individual’s] imagined or exaggerated flaws“. It can get to a point where it inhibits normal functioning, and while many of us can still go about our daily lives, negative body image can take a serious hit on our self-esteem and confidence. Nödel’s creations became a counter to her own negative experiences. “I used to be extremely insecure and feminism really helped me get over that. I was bullied in middle school and had really bad self-esteem problems, like most teenage girls, so I’ve been there. I don’t think anyone should go through that.” Learning to accept not only your own body for all its perceived imperfections but accepting all bodies as they are could be key to lifting this spell of Body Dysmorphia. And who better to do it than Cosmic Cuties?

The desire to fit neatly into some arbitrary and often impossible beauty standards may be due to the imposition of Western beauty ideals onto various cultures. However, indigenous attempts to force the human body into non-naturally occurring forms for the sake of ‘beauty’ have also been recorded. For example, Kayan tribeswomen of Thailand retained the old custom of wearing brass coils to elongate their necks. There’s also the elongated ear-lobes among Kenyan Masai women and the stretched lips of the Mursi in Southern Ethiopia. Infamous among these is Chinese foot-binding, which persisted even after it was outlawed in 1912.

And yet these customs have not had the kind of impacts that attractively packaged and sold standards from the West have had. One of the outcomes of such standards is the constant scrutiny of a woman’s weight. Which is why it’s interesting that the Cosmic Cuties are these kickass plus size women whacking away at body shaming. “I don’t believe that one should have to justify their weight–or anything else about their body for that matter–to anyone,” says Nödel. When we become targets of body shaming, we tend to laugh it off, or assure people we’re working on our weight. The result of responding negatively to your own body is a psychological burden no one should have to bear. Nödel says: “A better way to deter body shaming would be to explain that to them. It’s really none of their business!

What’s great is that Nödel encourages conversation, with frequent inputs from Tumblr users. Several requests have been made for Cosmic Cuties to tackle issues like being trans, or being gay, or destroying internalized misogyny among female peers. It’s a really full-bodied project. Pun intended. The illustrations have even addressed the cissexist construction of gender. “I have a zine about gender, in which the cosmic cuties explain that you shouldn’t assume a person’s gender just by their appearance, and they explain that there are genders besides male and female. Also, my most recent zine states that all women are real women, regardless of the gender they were assigned at birth. This includes women who don’t look traditionally feminine (i.e. trans women who never had top surgery or just women who have small breasts in general).

With her well-rounded understanding of feminist politics, she has been very successful with Tumblr users, who regularly engage with her. One fan raised the question of racial diversity, asking why Cosmic Cuties are white. Nödel responds by saying “I just chose not to colour them in for artistic purposes, but there is racial diversity among them. Just because the paper I use is white doesn’t mean they are all white.” Speaking about body-fat distribution, she says “there are definitely different expectations for what a woman’s body should look like, according to their race,” and Cosmic Cuties have been drawn to recognize the intersection of race and body image.

While acknowledging these complexities, Nödel’s definition of feminism is fairly simple: “There is so much stigma against the word, and I think we really need to eradicate that. There are definitely a few people at my school who are ‘anti-feminist’, one of them being a girl. I personally don’t understand how a woman can believe that sexism doesn’t exist.” Not many people readily identify with that ‘f-word’, and even fewer young people do. There’s even a Women Against Feminism website. But Nödel’s stance is clear. “There are people who keep asking me to make male cosmic cuties. They don’t seem to understand that not everything is about men. Just because I’m a feminist, doesn’t mean I hate men. I just don’t think that men have to be at the centre of attention all the time. To me, feminism is just the belief that all women should have equal rights. That’s it. You don’t have to be anything but someone who believes in equality to be a feminist.

It is clear that Cosmic Cuties is feminist to the core. The artist has shown great understanding and maturity through her project, as well as will to make feminist discourse all the more accessible. We hope Nödel, going through the motions of any student going into 12th grade, continues publishing monthly zines featuring these Cuties, reminding us about choice, respect and above all, self-love. As Caroline Caldwell said, “In a society that profits from your self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act,” and Nödel’s work makes her the biggest rebel ever.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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