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Would Miss America Have Won the Miss India Pageant?

In India, fair skin has long been prized above dark, but change is afoot.

| September 16th, 2013
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Would Miss America Have Won the Miss India Pageant?

The coronation of Nina Davuluri as Miss America 2014 has set the Internet ablaze with commentary.

Some people are lauding the Indian-American’s beauty, others are not mincing their derision, questioning why the crown would be awarded to a “Miss 7-11,” someone who doesn’t look like a “real” Miss America.

My Facebook page, though, is filled with posts from jubilating fellow Indians, here and in India, thrilled that one of us has been acknowledged for her beauty. Yet as I share their happiness and pride, I can’t help but wonder: Would Miss Davuluri ever have won the title of Miss India?

As an Indian woman, I’ll admit to being a victim of the general malaise we have with our skin color. I was raised in the west by a mother who assuaged my childhood discomfort at being a lone brown girl in a sea of white by telling me that when those girls grew up, they would want to be just like me and would spend hours sitting out in the sun to get the skin color that I had naturally (that’s true).

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And yet at the same time, it was ingrained in me somewhere, as it is in many Indians, that fair, not dark, is what constitutes beauty. Indeed, I spent countless nights as a child hoping I would wake up the next day and be white.

Rare is the Indian woman who will describe her complexion as brown (“wheatish” is the adjective of choice), and though most of us are brown, and our beauty has been admired in many parts of the world, it seems that fairness remains the number one criteria for judging beauty worth in India (In my mother’s time, the fairer you were the better you’d marry).

Most Indian women are careful not to wear colors that enhance their brownness. We never expose ourselves to the sun and for years, skin lightening creams were by far the highest grossing products on the Indian beauty market. Worse, they’re promoted by celebrities and Bollywood movie stars.

Actress Nandita Das in a "Dark is Beautiful" poster.
Dark is Beautiful

I was once asked by an Indian lady whether I felt a “complex” being around my husband.

“Because he’s so fair-skinned and handsome and you’re so…dark,” she said.

No, she didn’t add the word “ugly,” but she may as well have.

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I’m not sure, given her skin color, whether the beautiful Miss Davuluri would even have competed in a Miss India pageant, so in that sense, we Americans should feel really proud today.

For decades, Indians in the United States have been recognized for their academic achievements and professional success. But when an Indian-American wins the country’s most important beauty pageant, “it not only shifts the focus away from spelling bees and casts us in a different light, it sews us more tightly into the national fabric,” says Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at the School of Journalism, University of Indiana, Bloomington, and affiliated with the Center for the Study of Global Change.

That America has nationally recognized an Indian woman as beautiful is a big step forward for the country and the community, but Parameswaran—who does research on the cultural politics of skin color and beauty in a globalizing India—also believes that for Indians worldwide, the discussion on what constitutes beauty is only just beginning.

Because India and Indians are still strongly tied into the notion that fair skin constitutes beauty, she says. While today's debate is still only about appearance, skin color in Indian society has far deeper implications, Parameswaran says, since it’s strongly linked to class and caste, to opportunities and lack thereof. Most importantly, it’s linked to “reproducing your family,” she says, “and the idea of marrying someone fair just to have fair kids is still very strong.”

Effecting a cultural and societal change will take a long, long time, she says, “but I do feel that we’ve moved from accepting skin color as the unstated and brought it out to a place where at least we’re talking about it.”

I am also optimistic that beauty standards will change in India. Today, there’s a strong movement going on, entitled “Dark is Beautiful” and championed by the very talented actress Nandita Das—who is not fair and doesn’t care.

The movement has been doing the Facebook rounds and challenges the long-held view in India that both success and beauty are synonymous with fairness. It also aims to stem the obsession Indians—both female and male—have with whitening creams, and guess what: According to reports, the sales of those creams really have come down in India.

Perhaps that’s also due to the economic cycle, but I for one am listening to Nandita and I know many others are spreading the word. We will get there and Nina Davuluri’s coronation will be a part of that.

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