Indians are keen followers of global beauty pageants such as Miss World and Miss Universe, which were the first platforms for some of Bollywood’s biggest contemporary stars. Yet the more parochial Miss America contest has been of little interest – until now.
Last week, the crown was placed on the head of Nina Davuluri, the 24-year-old New York-born daughter of immigrants from southern India. She was the first Indian-American – and only the second Asian-American – to have won the competition.
Her victory provoked spiteful tweets from some Americans unable to stomach the country’s increasing ethnic diversity. These, in turn, sparked indignation in India, where they were held up as evidence of American racism.
Yet India’s public debate has since shifted away from the prejudice in America to the more sensitive issue of entrenched biases at home, where – as a sharp editorial in The Hindu newspaper noted – Ms Davuluri probably wouldn’t have got past the first round of a beauty contest because of her colour.
India has an obsession with fair skin, which is traditionally seen as an essential element of beauty. That cultural message is now reinforced by media worship of fair-skinned celebrities and slick television commercials.
India’s market for skin-lightening cream – such as Unilever’s almost 40-year-old brand Fair & Lovely, and newer rivals such as L’Oréal’s White Perfect – is booming, estimated at about $638m last year, up from $397m in 2008, according to market research agency Euromonitor.
The quest for fair skin – once focused on the face and hands – is also moving into extreme territory. Germany’s Beiersdorf offers Indian women a Nivea deodorant claiming to lighten the underarms. Other companies have begun peddling “fairness” products for teenagers, shower gels and even vaginal whitening creams. Shops are filled with new lines for men, once immune from the pressure to be fair.
The new Miss America is giving fresh momentum to the fight. Her victory has inspired many Indian girls on the darker end of the spectrum. She now says she wants to visit her ancestral land to work with the Dark is Beautiful campaign.