Shades of Beauty: Cultural Implications Behind the Miss America Controversy

We welcome this post written by Shikha Upadhyaya, a P.h.D student at the University of Wyoming.

             The world witnessed the crowning of the “new face” of America on the night of September 15, 2013. People all over the world went to various social media outlets to express their views about the new Miss America. Although ethnolinguistic diversity is intuitively considered to be at the core of “American Life,” Americans and non-Americans within United States and all over the world were divided in their views on whether America is ready to be represented by an Indian-American face. This is particularly ironic given the fact that ethnolinguistic diversity is an observable reality of American life. Nina Davuluri (Miss America 2014) aptly stressed this fact during her CNN interview, “…the girl next door is evolving, as the diversity of America evolves. She’s not who she was 10 years ago, and she’s not going to be the same person come 10 years down the road.” Diversity has always been an integral and a “normal” aspect of being an American. Hence, it is safe to state that the new face of Miss America basically legitimized the existence and importance of diversity in the United States.

            While mainstream media in U.S. was cheering Miss America 2014 for her talent, beauty and her courage to represent ethnolinguistic diversity in America, many fans from India applauded her for becoming the first Indian-American to be Miss America. Soon thereafter the conversation shifted to derogatory racist commentaries based on the color of her skin. While such commentaries within the U.S. were racist in nature, Indian media personalities and past beauty queens were engaging in controversial conversations related to whether Davuluri was “white” enough (from an Indian perspective) to win the contest.

            The beauty industry in India establishes and promotes the idea that women need to be white in order to be beautiful. A particular shade of the skin becomes the yardstick for assessing the sociocultural worth of a human being. This is particularly prevalent within Indian beauty pageants. While these pageants claim to provide an important toolkit for young women to be successful in their lives, the process of “grooming” these young women leaves a lasting scar in their personal lives as well as on millions of other aspiring young women in India. These grooming rituals particularly valorize white skin as the ideal skin color, therefrom associating it with higher social and economic status.  Successful Bollywood actors and actresses are part of advertisements for skin whitening creams associated with big brand names. In a sociocultural context where movie actors and actresses become “heroes” and “heroines” of an ordinary citizen’s day to day life, endorsements of such products perpetuates this social stigma associated with darker skin. Furthermore, this constantly communicates the fact that you have to be of a particular skin color to be successful in your life. Hence, this gendered assertion pertaining to skin color and success tacitly pressurizes young women to be in continuous dangerous pursuit of the “unnatural” in the construction of the “natural.”

            Critics of beauty pageants label it as a public event that objectifies women and distorts socioeconomic realties. While these oppositional arguments cannot be dismissed, it is also difficult to ignore the massive public appeal of these competitive contests. While beauty pageants may not accurately reflect social realities, they surely have the capacity to represent the fantasy wherefrom adverse sociocultural ideologies pertaining to genders are reinforced and legitimized. Hence, it is critical to reflect upon broad sociocultural and economic implications of beauty pageants in the day-to-day lives of common people, irrespective of where one comes from.

For more on this subject, read Susan Dewey’s Making Miss India Miss World.

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