Photograph of Miss India finalists stirs debate over country’s obsession with fair skin

Photograph of Miss India finalists stirs debate over country’s obsession with fair skin

Participants at the fbb Colors Femina Miss India East 2019 on April 23, 2019 in Kolkata,India. (Photo by Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Credit: Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What began as an innocent collage of this year’s Miss India finalists has evolved into a heated social media debate about India’s obsession with fair skin.
The image, published in the Times of India newspaper, had 30 head-shots of glossy-haired finalists who all appeared to share the same fair skin tone.
In a country with 1.3 billion people, hundreds of languages and myriad ethnic groups, Twitter users suggested that beauty pageant organizers were only choosing contestants that perpetuate Eurocentric beauty ideals.

“They all have the same hair, and the SAME SKIN COLOUR, and I’m going to hazard a guess that their heights and vital stats will also be similar,” another Twitter user Prasanna Ratanjankar wrote.

While the contestants’ skin tone looks particularly light and appearance especially uniform in the collage that caused a stir online, other photographs and videos of the contestants reveal them to be not as fair-skinned as the Times of India’s image. The Times of India and Femina, the organization that hosts the pageant, have the same parent company — Bennett, Coleman & Co.

The controversy around the Times of India’s photograph, however, highlighted a sensitive issue in India, where Miss India is a huge cultural event.

The winner of Miss India titles are typically “groomed for the global beauty stage,” said Radhika Parameswaran, a professor at Indiana University’s Media School. “There is a perception they have to emulate Western beauty standards to win.”The organizers of Miss India declined to comment.

The fact that India has won the Miss World contest six times could have convinced pageant organizers to stick to a type, says Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of the Indian NGO Women of Worth, which campaigns for gender equality and against the bias toward lighter skin.

The infatuation with fairness now goes much deeper than pageants. “It is a toxic belief that has become part of our culture,” Emmanuel explained.

Parameswaran is currently researching the backlash against colorism, a term that means “a form of skin color stratification and skin color discrimination that assigns lighter-skinned individuals and particularly women greater worth and value.” It’s an issue, she said, that is very much alive in India.

“Colorism and racism are Siamese twins and cannot be separated,” she added.

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