I’m not a close watcher of beauty pageants. I find the commodification of women, the parading in swimsuits for judges to eyeball the women’s vital statistics, slightly nauseating. A bit like a glorified cattle fair or horse sale. A bit long in the tooth? You will be dismissed as a bad bet. Height? Proportionate weight? Perfect skin? And funniest of all is when the shortlisted contestants try to sound like Mother Teresa in a bikini. I wouldn’t treat it seriously enough to spend time worrying about it. But it does bother me that a norm is set for young women, declaring them either beautiful or unworthy. As if girls and women who can’t make it in a conventional beauty contest are not worth anything. As if commercially outlined ‘norms’ of beauty are more important than your brains, your personality, your sensitivity or your inner beauty.
However, a few days ago, the new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, created waves, not just in the ‘US of A’, but back home in India, too. She happens to be of Indian origin, though she was born in Syracuse and is therefore, constitutionally, 100-per-cent American. Many Americans apparently were not amused. Some people have referred to Davuluri as ‘the Arab’, while others commented, ‘This is America, not India.’ One called her ‘Miss 7-11’. Another called Davuluri’s victory ‘a nice slap in the face for the people of 9\11.’
The 24-year-old Miss New York is the first contestant of Indian descent to be crowned Miss America. For her special talent, she performed a Bollywood fusion dance.
‘I’m so happy this organization has embraced diversity,’ she cooed after winning the crown. ‘I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.’
Her pageant platform was ‘celebrating diversity through cultural competency’. I’m not sure I understand what that actually means. Whatever. Ideas about the kind of woman who could truly represent the US have changed radically over the years. To start with, for decades, non-white women were not even considered, leave alone allowed to participate, in the contest. In 1970, after civil rights became a reality, a black woman was allowed to compete. Since 1983, eight African-American women have swept to the top, winning the contest. The year 2001 was revolutionary: Hawaii-born Filipina Angela Perez Baraquio claimed the crown.
Indians will preen over the victory of a girl from ‘home’. We are a peculiar people. Hypocritical. Racist in the extreme. Nina Davuluri would never make it to Miss India, because the colour of her skin would not allow it. She’s too ‘dark’. Indians want lighter tones, referred to as ‘fair’ skins. Check out the huge marriage market ads: Wanted, ‘fair’ brides only. There’s a billion-dollar industry in India for makers of ‘fairness’ creams and skin-lightening agents. Everyone has jumped on the bandwagon, from L’Oreal, to Garnier, to Clarins, as well as many, many Indian brands. Last year, I wrote a blog on the ‘whiten your vagina’ TV ad which went viral.
Nandita Das, an intelligent, stunning Indian actress, has started the ‘Dark is Beautiful’ campaign to stop the rampant skin colour-based discrimination in India. She is exhorting India’s women to ‘Stay Unfair, Stay Beautiful’. It will be a long and uphill task. An English friend was astonished when I pointed out a ‘fair’ Indian beauty to her. ‘Why would someone with gorgeous brown skin want that pale shit-coloured skin?’ she asked me in total disbelief. In Bollywood, and using Indian English, the script would go: ‘We Indians are like that only.’ Fair is beautiful.
So Nina Davuluri’s victory will give confidence to millions of South Asian women in Asia, the US, Britain and elsewhere who have been subjected to racist, anti-brown skin insults all their lives. I wish her well. Perhaps she will change something for Asian women. May the force be with her. And with Nandita Das, too.