On September 15, Nina Davuluri was named Miss America 2014. She was the first Indian-American woman to win the title. She ran on the platform of “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competence.” This is well-established.
What isn’t as well known, however, is that Nina Davuluri probably would not have won a similar competition in India, the country that gave her the culture she represents so proudly. Not because she isn’t talented enough, or Indian enough, but because she’s too dark-skinned.
If you look at the winners, and even contestants, of past Miss India pageants, you’ll notice that the majority are light-skinned. But this isn’t just the Indian pageant scene: The media and the film industry are also complicit. In India, there is a conspicuous bias towards those that are light-skinned to the point of “skin-tone selection”—marriage prospects are higher for those of lighter complexion. This extends back to when the caste system was still relevant. Those who worked outside (farmers and slaves) were undesirable to higher castes, and because they spent more time in the sun, they became darker. Thus, darkness became associated with the undesirable.
Unfortunately, this idea has been institutionalized. Those with light skin are considered more beautiful; they therefore win beauty pageants, which serve as feeders into massively popular Bollywood movies. Film stars achieve royal (if not divine) status, so these same “beauty” figures dominate the celebrity scene, convincing the rest of the country that light skin equates to greater attractiveness. Writer Tunku Varadarajan succinctly describes this phenomenon: “Ninety-nine percent of India’s movie stars don’t share a complexion with 99 percent of Indians.”
Our perception of “beauty” (internal and external) represents more than just an amalgamation of our opinions. Our definition of beauty, and any quality really, is a testament to our values, a reflection of each and every one of us. These values can also be seen as goals, for we push ourselves to achieve such qualities. Thus, those we consider “beautiful” become our role models, as we aspire to become more like them.
For example, I think it is admirable that Nina Davuluri, in the face of so much controversy, has handled herself with so much poise and class. I will try to emulate such behavior in the future because Davuluri has become one of my role models. Davuluri (who is also very beautiful on the outside) is a great person to respect because of all that she has accomplished and wants to do in the future.
Unfortunately, this process can also be harmful, especially when the “role models” all belong to one homogenous set. This is exactly the case in India. Because those with light skin are the only ones considered beautiful, the definition of beauty has become unfairly restricted, dangerous, and provincial—it automatically labels a good portion of the population unattractive without much hope of improvement. Such limited thinking can restrict the contributions of those who are different, since, if society encourages one “type” of beauty, what’s stopping society from promoting a single “type” of person.
I’m not saying that everyone in India believes that dark skin is unattractive. In fact, I’m sure many people in India are just fine with their appearances, and refuse to buy into the lightness bias. But enough people in India have an inclination toward light skin that those who fit the description can dominate entire industries. And America isn’t perfect, either. The Twitter hate that immediately followed Davuluri’s naming was less than reassuring, with people saying she didn’t deserve to win because she was an Arab, wasn’t American, or because it would not have been “classic.”
We should be more careful when considering why someone is worth admiring, and how it reflects on our character. In different ways, America and India are very diverse countries. They encompass several languages, cultures, and forms of beauty. But it is as unfair to cast away a single form of beauty as it is to laud one. What both cultures should do is work to accept all forms of beauty. Nina Davuluri’s success is an indication of both a willingness and necessity to do so. She did her part. Now it’s our turn.
Avi Saraf ’17 is a Crimson editorial comper in Wigglesworth Hall.
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