A touch of Photoshop or is it a touch of cultural bias coupled with colonial mentality?
From Miss India’s Indrani Rehman in 1952 to 2018’s Miss India Anukreethy Vas, almost all women, except for two or three title holders, are fair-skinned and not representative of the thousands of women in India who possess darker-skin tones.
Once again this year, India’s obsession with fair skin tone emerged as 30 candidates, each representing a state, all happened to be fair-skinned.
This parade of fair-skinned women triggered a ruckus from human rights campaigners saying the contest underscored the country’s failure to respect women from all walks of life.
Anti-colourism activist Muna Beatty even described Femina Miss India’s selection as a “copy-paste job”, as all contestants had long, dark hair and fair skin. She warned that such ‘preference’ for fair-skin could impact the mental health and self-esteem of dark-skinned women in India, where the controversial issue on the treatment of women has become a nationwide debate and continues to divide the nation.
“You have youngsters, kids watching this and thinking to themselves, ‘If I don’t fit these criteria or this skin tone, then I’m not beautiful’ and… ‘I’m not good enough’,” she said.
Several netizens expressed their disapproval saying that the contestants did not represent the diversity and potential of Indian women. One Twitter commentary said it all:
In an interview with CBC News, India-born writer Samira Sawlani, said “In the grand scheme of things, why is this such a big deal? Miss India is meant to be representative of India and that bloody photo is not representative of India.” Ms. Sawlani was referring to that collage photo showing the 30 contestants who look so similar that in one news item from The Telegraph, they were described as “interchangeable.”
Femina Miss India
Every year, Femina Miss India selects contestants to vie for the most coveted crowns in Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International.
The bashing and condemnation of the organisers comes at a time when the treatment of women in the country of 1.3 billion people faces increasing scrutiny.
Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of India’s Dark Is Beautiful campaign, said she was not surprised at the pageant selection in a country where a woman is often judged by her appearance and complexion, calling it a “deep-rooted toxic” problem.
“You’re basically saying you need to look a certain way to be valued in life,” she said. “We need more platforms that showcase… women as people who are capable, women with a lot of potential, women who can achieve a lot, rather than women who look good in this prescribed sort of format.”
A cultural phenomenon
The perennial fixation with fair skin is virtually a cultural phenomenon in India which has a strong multi billion dollar lightening cream market. Even actors such as Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone have endorsed fairness creams, leading to their disgrace.
India’s preoccupation with fair skin is well known. In 1978, Unilever introduced to the public Fair & Lovely cream, which later created a series of whitening face cleansers, shower gels and even vaginal washes that claim to lighten the surrounding skin.
According to a report by market researchers ACNielsen, in 2010, India’s whitening-cream market was assessed at S$432m and was growing at 18% per year. In 2012, Indians reportedly consumed 233 tonnes of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola.
A study conducted from 2013 to 2016 and cited at The Conversation revealed that 70% of the men and women interviewed wanted a date or partner with someone who had light skin. This colourism is what drives so many Indians to have lighter skin, creating a phenomenon termed “bleaching syndrome.”
Bleaching syndrome is not a shallow trend, it is a tactic of espousing and adapting a superior identity that mirrors a well-ingrained idea that fair skin is better, more powerful, and more beautiful.
Muna Beatty has been running a campaign dubbed #ColourMeRight, to help little girls have a better future. With this campaign, she aims to stop Indian media from portraying people with darker complexions as inferior and to make sure that there are dark-skinned role models for young children.
According to Beatty, the campaign has a long way to go to end colourism in India. It intends to give a voice to innumerable women who have been made to feel invisible and pushed into silence because of their skin colour.
In an interview with Aljazeera, the activist was realistic enough to know the odds of her campaign. “I don’t know how effective it will be, how many people it will reach or how many minds it will change … but I do know it already made a difference in my little daughter’s life.,” Muna said.