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Miss India Photo Stirs Debate About ‘White-Washed’ Beauty Standards

India has long been obsessed with skin colour, where fairer often equals better.
Participants at the fbb Colors Femina Miss India East 2019 on April 23, 2019 in Kolkata, India.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Participants at the fbb Colors Femina Miss India East 2019 on April 23, 2019 in Kolkata, India.

After the Times of India published a collage of this year’s Miss India beauty pageant finalists, social media users are asking, “Why do they all look the same?”

In the spread of the 30 finalists, all of the women appear to be fair-skinned, with long, dark hair and similar features.

With a population of nearly 1.3 billion people in the subcontinent, folks are criticizing organizers for a lack of diversity and the perpetuation of Eurocentric beauty ideals.

“What is wrong with this picture,” one user asked on Twitter. “Why can’t a Miss India be ... a dark brown or darker chocolate brown?” another user wrote.

While CNN reported that other photos of the contestants showed a difference in skin tones among the contestants, the variation appears slight relative to the myriad skin tones found in India.

For many, the obvious preference for lighter skin is not surprising.

“It is common in Indian families in India and all around the world to hear comments like ‘What did you do?! The sun’s got you so dark!’ delivered with a tone of making one feel tremendously guilty and shameful about it,” said Deepika Mahadevan, who was born in Chennai, Tamil Nadu until moving to Canada with her family 18 years ago.

As a darker-skinned woman, she said she was made fun of growing up and was ostracized. She said she felt less beautiful than her fair-skinned classmates.

Lighter skin’s deep roots

Many have asserted that the desire for lighter, whiter skin is an unconscious legacy born from a history of “white” invaders in India, including the Portuguese, Dutch and French, and eventually the British colonizers. Light skin has been associated with power, status and desirability.

For a country that still revolves around the caste system and social hierarchies, shadeism, discrimination based on skin tone within different communities, is real. Employment and relationships are often impacted by skin tone in India, fuelling the skin-bleaching industry in the hopes of better prospects and less discrimination.

And shadeism is big business. According to a report titled “Skin Lightening Products Market by Type,” produced by Zion Market Research, the global skin lightening products market was valued at around US $4.8 billion in 2017, and is expected to reach approximately US $8.9 billion by 2024, with other estimates projecting a value as as high as $31 billion by that time.

In 2012, India alone used 258 tons of skin-lightening cream, according to Quartz Africa.

Just a few of the skin-lightening products on the market.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Just a few of the skin-lightening products on the market.

But, individuals are trying to drive a change in attitude. Makeup artist Trish Besos, who grew up in Trinidad, said the fair-skin mentality also affects the Indo-Caribbean community.

“I remember my darker skin aunties would always wear makeup lighter than their skin simply because the Indian movies we watched every Sunday on TV portrayed that light skin was beautiful and literally nothing else existed,” Besos told HuffPost Canada.

“Now, as an artist in the makeup and beauty industry, I’ve had Indian brides ask me to make them lighter for their big day and I always cringe inside! My goal is always to show women than they do not have to bend to ridiculous beauty standards, especially white-washed standards. We can only change this mentality with kindness, self-love and acceptance,” she said.

Makeup artist Trish Besos.
Trish Besos
Makeup artist Trish Besos.

Last year, popular Instapoet and best-selling author Rupi Kaur graced the October cover of Cosmopolitan India’s 22nd anniversary issue.

For the special anniversary edition focused on sisterhood and empowering women, Kaur, an Indo-Canadian who grew up in Brampton, Ont., penned a letter talking about society and media-driven beauty norms, as reported by India Today.

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page 88 #thesunandherflowers

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“From a young age, I began my quest to enter the kingdom of prettiness. I thought fixing all the things that were wrong with me would give me what I ultimately wanted. Sometimes it helped, until it didn’t. I would later realise [sic] that there is truly no product on the market that cures low self-esteem.

“So I speak to my younger self while writing this. Forget that skin lightening cream, you’ll grow up to love your brown hyper-pigmented skin. I speak to my younger sisters. Thin brows or thick, neither is better! the trend just changes every ten years. There is nothing you need to fix about you. Thin bodies or thick ones. Both are sexy.”

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