Nina Davuluri, an American woman of Indian origin has won Miss America and that too after performing a Bollywood dance routine for the talent portion of the pageant. In consequence, for the first time in my life, I’ve gone and googled “Miss America 2013”, and scrutinised at least three contestants.
But never mind me. Almost immediately after Davuluri was crowned Miss Amerca, a rash of racist tweets sprang up on Twitter, thus revealing to all us Indians that trolls exist all over the world and the offensive twits of social media aren’t necessarily a shade of saffron.
It’s ironic that Davuluri’s win is being criticised by racists in America as un-American because the fact of the matter is that it’s highly unlikely Davuluri would ever have won a beauty pageant in India. By Indian standards, Davuluri is not pretty, let alone beautiful. First of all, she’s not fair. Second, she looks strong enough to arm wrestle Salman Khan. This is the sort of beauty that makes very few of us Indians cheer.
In Nisha Pahuja’s powerful documentary, The World Before Her, Pahuja’s camera records the preparatory rituals and exercises that Miss India contests must undergo before the actual pageant. Sabira Merchant, a Miss India trainer, actually says, “It’s become like a little factory”, of the pageant. To become a final contestant, the selected girls — and most of them are literally girls, given they’re in their teens — must go for all sorts of sessions. Some are exercise routines that push the contestants into a certain weight and body shape that emphasises delicacy. Then there’s the session with cosmetologist and “aesthetic physician” Dr Jamuna Pai who sees nothing wrong with jabbing a few Botox shots and fillers into teenaged girls in order to mould their ‘imperfect’ faces to ‘perfect’ proportions. The contestants are also made to go through whitening procedures — one young woman, under a face pack, complains her skin feels like it’s burning; she’s told to bear it because it’s for her own good — and made to walk a ramp wearing tiny shorts that will ‘show off’ their legs while their faces and upper bodies are covered in sheets that make them look like members of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s one of the most appalling things you’ll ever see because everything, and I mean everything, is wrong with what these girls are being made to do.
Nina Davuluri probably wouldn’t make it to be basic qualifying rounds according to the standards set out by beauty contests in India and considering the Middle East’s fixation with fairness, her being called “Arab” by her American haters is positively laughable. As usual, the trolling does more to reveal what idiots trolls are rather than actually insult the person being targeted. (Though I suppose that’s if you’re reading with some degree of objective calm.) More ironic is the fact that most Indians would probably agree with the American racists who think Theresa Vail is way more beautiful than Davuluri because Vail is white and blonde.
Ironically, the American racists’ problem with Davuluri is precisely the problem that many Indians would have with her — her skin colour. The West’s ability to see exotic beauty in non-white people, limited as it may be, is something that befuddles most of India because if you look at our popular entertainment, there’s almost no diversity. Every woman is fair, has the same hair, similar figures and so on. It’s got to the point where it’s difficult to tell one model/actress from another. (This is particularly distressing for me these days because I have to watch a lot of Bollywood films in order to earn my salary. As a result, I spend much of my time peering at movie posters trying to tell one excessively made-up and Photoshopped face from another.)
But much to national mystification, the Indian women who do go out and get noticed in the world at large are rarely the fair and lovely. Yes, Aishwarya Rai and Priyanka Chopra won international beauty pageants, but if you’re looking for what the West has dubbed an Indian beauty, it’s women who were or would be (ahem) dark horses in India. Like Persis Khambatta of Star Trek fame, whose duskiness was emphasised in the roles she played. Or Padma Lakshmi, who isn’t fair by any standards. Or Freida Pinto. Pinto couldn’t make it as a model or actress in India because Indian modelling agencies and casting agents considered her too dark, too slight and too plain in general. Tell that to Woody Allen, Michael Winterbottom, Danny Boyle and the others who want to cast her.
Despite the fact that the American beauty and fashion establishment isn’t particularly well known for being supportive of diversity, I have to say that if this year’s Miss America is any indication, America’s feminine beauty is a very different bird from what we know of it here in India. The women participating in Miss America are not Stepford Wives-esque. They’re curvy, muscular, un-petite and they don’t look like they emerged out of cookie cutters. It’s such a contrast to the fragility that women in India are expected to project. Indian women are usually brought up to be what a man needs us to be in order to feel masculine and worthy in a patriarchal system, particularly if they are to be considered beautiful. Consequently, being tall is a bad thing because how will a man feel like a man if the woman towers over him. Being strong is a big no-no, to the extent that the actress Nutan was criticised for having what a grandmother of mine termed “the arms of a swimmer”. It was not a compliment, incidentally. Basically, we must come across as delicate because it lets men feel and seem powerful.
Perhaps the Miss America contestants are as toned and muscular as they are because of there’s a conception that American men like women to be that way, but to me, from my little Indian window, these women didn’t look like they were moulded entirely according to the needs and gazes of men. The fact that their bodies emphasised strength rather than fragility in different shapes and sizes made Miss America unexpectedly heartening.