The crowning of first Indian-American Miss America Nina Davuluri may have highlighted some American xenophobia, but comparing her to Indian pageant winners has others discussing Indian prejudices. “What’s interesting is Miss America Nina Davuluri would never win pageants in South Asia because she’d be too dark to be considered beautiful,” journalist Anna John tweeted. Davuluri looks “too ‘Indian’ to ever be Miss India,” Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote in First Post.
India’s skin-color obsession drives a whitening-cream market valued at $432M in 2010. Beauty queens appear in skin-whitening advertisements; the pursuit of fair skin is pervasive, particularly in pageants. Chaudhry points to cultural anthropologist Susan Runkle, who followed contestants preparing for the 2003 Miss India pageant. Skin-lightening was part of the regimen:
I sat in on weekly individual sessions that dermatologist Dr. Jamuna Pai held with the contestants in order to examine their skin. Every single one of the young women was taking some sort of medication to alter her skin, particularly in colour, in the training programme in 2003. In a disturbingly casual manner, Dr. Pai emphasized the need for all the contestants to bleach their skin by prescribing the peeling agent Retin-A as well as glycolic acid and, in the case of isolated dark patches, a laser treatment.
Runkle’s subjects recognized that India’s fair-skin obsession didn’t match international ideals:
When I asked Dr. Pai, who trained as a plastic surgeon in London, why fair skin was such a concern at the pageant, she offered the following explanation. “Fair skin is really an obsession with us, it’s a fixation. Even with the fairest of the fair, they feel they want to be fairer. It isn’t important anymore, because the international winners are getting darker and darker.You wouldn’t notice our obsession, because you have such beautiful white skin, but I feel it’s ingrained in us. When an Indian man looks for a bride, he wants one who is tall, fair and slim, and fairer people always get jobs first. Today, this is being disproved because of the success internationally of dark-skinned models, but we still lighten their skin here because it gives the girls extra confidence when they go abroad.”
Yale professor Asha Rangappa noted that “most beautiful woman in the world” Aishwarya Rai — Bollywood star and Miss India contest alumnus — “has barely-olive skin, brown hair and green eyes, practically a mutation in the predominantly dark-complected subcontinent.” Invoking Indian-American celebrities like Mindy Kaling, Rangappa argued, “For all the racist commentary following Davuluri’s win at Miss America, the fact remains that America is way ahead of India in celebrating a realistic ideal of Indian beauty.”
Pictured, from top left, clockwise: Nina Davuluri; Miss World 1994 Aishwarya Rai; Miss India-World 2013 Navneet Kaur Dhillon; Miss India-World 2011 Kanishtha Dhankhar; and Miss India-World 2012 Vanya Mishra.