Yesterday, a woman of Indian descent was crowned Miss America 2014. Her win is a recognition -- no, a celebration -- of America's diversity. Racist Twitter rants notwithstanding, the Indian-American community will no doubt welcome it, as will Indians themselves. They're always looking for an acknowledgement of their greatness on the global stage.
For me, though, the need to applaud her victory comes from perhaps a more personal place.
When I was 15, the first boy I ever dated told me to buy a fairness cream. Through much of my teens, I experimented with various skin-lightening serums -- until I was finally able to make peace with my complexion in my early 20s. On my wedding day, relatives called my fairer, taller husband a "prince." The message was clear: I was short and dark, not quite good enough to be his princess.
My sister, 26, is several shades darker than me. In accordance with India's tightly structured social norms, my parents want to start setting her up with eligible would-be grooms soon. But her skin -- a rich chocolate brown to my coffee-colored complexion -- is a source of consistent anxiety. India's "arranged marriage market" sees single boys and girls only as their skin colors and educational degrees. That my sister is kind, intelligent, funny, warm -- and ridiculously beautiful to boot? There's no way to measure that. Still, I don't want to dwell on the trauma these false standards of beauty have caused my family; it's not my story to tell.
But almost anyone who has ever fallen outside mainstream acceptability can understand how damaging it is to measure your worth by a thing you cannot change.
India's obsession with fair skin has been well-documented. This isn't a bias that Indians are in any hurry to hide. Skin-lightening creams are a $470 million business in the country. Even superstars like Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone endorse them. Bollywood's highest-paid actresses all fall on on the Caucasian end of the skin spectrum when compared to Nina Davuluri, and it's been pointed out that she would've likely never made it past the initial screening round in the Femina Miss India pageant.
If the preference for fair skin didn't come with the attendant baggage of colonialism, racism, social and economic inequality, and casteism, one might be able to pass it off as a society's weird -- but still destructive -- fetish. Unfortunately, though, that my wealthy friends prefer to marry other fairer-skinned Indians says a lot about what an ivory complexion symbolizes.
It's no surprise, then, that the advertisements for fairness creams tell you that moving up a few notches on a color card could mean better career prospects, and ultimately, greater social acceptability.
So this is why I celebrate Nina Davuluri. Whatever my feelings toward beauty pageants and all the ways in which they make young women feel inadequate, at least this time, the world's most influential country is showing my people that a deep velvet brown complexion is nothing to be ashamed of.