New Internationalist

Bittersweet victory for ‘Indian’ Miss America

Nina Davuluri [Related Image]
Nina Davuluri, winner of Miss America 2014 Andy Jones under a Creative Commons Licence

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. 

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  1. #1 chandrika sen sharma 23 Sep 13

    So true Mari. This obsession with fairness only started after the English dominated India for over two centuries. They gravitated towards the ’fairer’ locals and also rewarded them with the more prestigious jobs, leading to the Indians believing that ’fair is better’. It is good to remember that before that, the Indian idea of beauty also included Draupadi, of Pandava fame, who emerged from ashes, and was frankly called black as night and as beautiful. So was Lord Krishna. We Indians of all hues should be proud of our color and thankful that we don't need to subject ourselves to hours of torturous sunbathing!

  2. #2 angryrat 23 Sep 13

    Had an Indian girlfriend, and I can attest to this 100%. It's insane that while Europe wants to get darker, and bake under the murderous Florida sun in the middle of the Summer, India (and, to be fair, other, South-East Asian countries, too) find only white skinned girls attractive. They put women under so much pressure, they actually use skin-bleaching cremes. Which my dearest ex used, too. No matter what I told her, she just could not get this idiotic idea out of her head that she needs fairer skin. (Bigotry against women in general was a major reason why she was screwed up, and ended up breaking up with me, by the way; women are not very kindly treated in India, it seems.)

  3. #3 david cohen 23 Sep 13

    A Miss America contest that has attracted my attention for the first time
    since I was 10 years old in 1946. Then Bess Myerson won, the firat and
    only Jew to win. I am Jewish and this triumph resonated through my Jewish
    neighborhood. Yes it made us proud, more important it made we Jews
    feel accepted in a mainstream cultural event that went beyond musicals
    and comedy where Jews were already present.

    The reaction to Ms. Nina Davuluri has painful and shameful moments.
    Ms Davuluri has handled her victory well. She is and will stay a
    positive force for diversity.

    Color plays a major role in all our cultures. I have never seen a Mexican or
    Brazilian news anchor who wasn't light complected and often blonder. So many
    people go for opposites. So caucasians can be zealous about getting the
    ’perfect tan’, and by drakening themselves through sunshine end up with
    forms of skin cancer.

    Nina Davuluri's success will hopefully lead to her ’cultural competence’
    bringing to the US examples in dance, poetry and song that are rooted in India.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    September 23, 2013

    David Cohen,
    Senior Advisor, Civic Ventures
    Senior Congressional Fellow,
    Council for a Livable World

  4. #4 Aloke Surin 23 Sep 13

    Enjoyed the article and the age-old issues of skin color vis-a-vis ’beauty’ as perceived both in Indian and world contexts. Loved the phrase ’Mother Teresa in a bikini’! It aptly portrays the nonsense that beauty pageant contestants routinely spew forth re Changing the World One Gorgeous Eyelash At a Time!

    It is so blatantly apparent throughout the world that the forces that really ’pick’ the winners of ’contests’ like these are aligned with the cosmetics and beauty industries worth billions of dollars. For the TV networks, it is one more opportunity to showcase eye candy and up their ratings and earnings. And the ’trend’ towards picking ethnic non-Caucasian women for the beauty crown - now inching its way in Canada and North America for sheer demographic reasons (Holy Smokes, there are all these immigrants who now constitute a serious chunk of the tax paying and consumer markets!) - is a reluctant acknowledgement by the host communities that yes, beauty does come packaged in non Anglo Saxon skin tones as well. I am waiting for some of the more staid European countries to pick a beauty queen who does not belong to their native races!

    Looking at the big picture, though, beauty pageants and their associated circuses are only an extension of the power that vests in the big global corporations which can sell you anything and have you believe that that they are engineering real grassroots change:all I can say to that is, BS!

  5. #5 Elizabeth 23 Sep 13

    Enjoyed reading this one.

  6. #6 Kalpana 23 Sep 13

    Well said Mari ! Wake up America and for those who passed racist remarks my message is ’behave yourself, grow up ad get an education’ Same goes for us Indians who practice a different kind of racism and prejudice, that's another story for another time !

  7. #7 premila 23 Sep 13

    Some ’fair-bride wanted’ adverts,. are getting wary, in case ’Fair’ in India may mean ’ wheatish-plus’,(ie if they are on the 5th day of the ’7-days only’ fairness campaign) so they now advertise for ’white’ brides!

  8. #8 Prithvi Raval 24 Sep 13

    Nice article !
    Does bring about the 'color latitude' our subcontinent has.
    Is it just closeness to the Equator ?

  9. #10 Betty 25 Sep 13

    WOW ! Blaming the Brits for Asians' innate obsession and discrimination based on skin colour.

  10. #11 Christine 27 Sep 13

    Mari, enjoyed this article. Good on Nina Davuluri. She must have poise and beauty that is within! And that was what crowned her glory.
    I remember as a young girl in India, I was liked because my skin colour, which was just a bit lighter than some. It was sad that people would say things like that to your face.. ‘how fair you are’… almost like nothing else mattered. You could be ugly… and a horrible person inside, but if you were fair.. ‘wow! She is so lovely!.’ It is not something anyone should grow up thinking.. that fair is good – which is when we are born with the idea that skin tone matters.
    Now living in Australia for the last 16 years I am the ‘Indian’.. the ‘dark girl’.. not the fair and lovely girl I was used to be called. And funnily enough, I feel more comfortable here than in India.
    Racism is something that is inside of you… and I was riddled with it when I was a new immigrant – but, I have grown up I think – and skin colour does not matter to me anymore. I have friends from different parts of the world.. and I have learnt to see them beyond the colour of their skin... I think that is the first lesson for a migrant… Learning all the time!!! Now, I am proud to be an Australian of Indian origin.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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