Miss America and the Indian Beauty Myth

Nina Davuluri made history Sunday night when she became the first Indian-American to be crowned Miss America. Much of the media coverage since has focused on the entirely predictable racist comments tweeted after she won ("OMG Miss America is a terrorist!" -- wow, I didn't see that one coming). Of course, that only lasted a few hours before public shaming websites popped up exposing the bigoted tweeters and encouraging followers to spam them back. The pushback is heartening and well-intentioned, but misses what ought to be the real shame target: India. After all, despite being a country of almost a billion people, India has left it to America to crown the first Indian beauty queen who looks... well, Indian.

The Indian beauty myth has its roots in the so-called history of the Aryan-Dravidian divide, which has permeated Indian consciousness for decades. As the story goes, Aryans invaded India sometime in 1200 B.C., driving Dravidians, the original Indian race, farther south. The Aryans-in-the-North and Dravidians-in-the-South theory supposedly explained linguistic differences between the two regions. More importantly, it explained why North Indians were lighter skinned than South Indians, an idea which gained traction during the racial stratification of British rule and elevated the social status (read: marriageability) of lighter-skinned Indians above their darker counterparts. The Aryan-Dravidian myth was debunked in 2009 by a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, which used DNA samples from Indians in both regions to prove that there was no genetic difference between the two. Still, the idea that some Indians have a claim to "whiteness" continues to rule the country's concept of beauty.

Take, for example, Bollywood actress and former Miss World, Aishwarya Rai. Known as "the most beautiful woman in the world," Rai is India's crown jewel of female Indian beauty and the standard against which all other Indian women are compared -- despite the fact that she has barely-olive skin, brown hair and green eyes, practically a mutation in the predominantly dark-complected subcontinent. Do a Google search of historical and recent Miss India winners and other top-billed Bollywood actresses, and you'll see why Indians collectively spend more on skin-whitening products than they do on Coca Cola (about $470 million), including creams, face cleansers, shower gels and -- I'm not kidding -- vaginal washes. The industry is supported by the Bollywood stars themselves, who do ad campaigns for major companies like Fair & Lovely. A typical ad has a movie star tossing a tube of lightening cream to a dark-skinned fan, who miraculously transforms into a star also.

The trickle-down effects of the beauty myth can be seen in Indian matrimonial sites, where the most desired quality in a would-be bride is that she be "fair." The racism goes both ways: Indian women seem to seek "fair" in a potential partner as well, though men can usually trump this requirement by 1) being a doctor; 2) being tall; or 3) living in the U.S. Unfortunately for the gals, education, height and country of residence don't count for all that much: If you're dark, you're basically left to scramble after the scraps on the marriage market. It's no wonder that in the U.S., "intermarriage" -- marriage to non-Indians -- occurs at a much higher rate among Indian women than Indian men. I guess it's better to be considered "exotic" and desirable by members of other races than to be considered ugly by your own.

For all the racist commentary following Davuluri's win at Miss America, the fact remains that America is way ahead of India in celebrating a realistic ideal of Indian beauty. In fact, Davuluri is following in the footsteps of other darker-skinned Indian women who have been recognized in America for their talent and beauty, like The Office's Mindy Kaling or ER's Parminder Nagra -- women who'd never get a second glance in India. Davuluri's title offers some vindication for the Indian women and girls whose value, according to Indian standards, has been eclipsed by the color of their skin; with luck, it will be a wake-up call for India to follow America's lead and finally start taking note of the real beauty of Indian women as well.

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