The Femina Miss India pageant has little to do with Indian women—or Indian beauty

Fairest of them all.
Fairest of them all.
Image: AP Photo/Gautam Singh
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So tall. So thin. So fair.

That is how all of the contestants for this year’s Femina Miss India could be described. And they couldn’t be more unrepresentative of Indian women.

On Saturday, a group picture of the 21 women participating in this year’s Miss India beauty pageant posted on Twitter highlighted just how out of touch the pageant is:

This picture hardly represents the ethnic diversity of India’s 29 states. A bunch of models in any western country would have looked similar. In fact, Miss America’s last contest seemed to have more dark-skinned contestants than the Indian beauty pageant:

The Miss America pageant, Sept. 2015.
The Miss America pageant, Sept. 2015.
Image: AP Photo/Mel Evans

Most of the finalists in Femina Miss India 2015 come from Delhi, Bangalore, and Mumbai. There isn’t a single one from south Indian states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala or Andhra Pradesh. Women from northeastern states such as Manipur, Nagaland, and Mizoram are also conspicuous by their absence. There is one contestant from Assam.

All these women must be at least 5 feet 6 inches tall, the rules state. Whoever thought of the eligibility criteria for Miss India clearly did not know—or care—that the average height of an Indian woman is 5 feet nothing.

On the contest website, each aspirant has her own video, where she describes her interests—which range from public health to scuba diving—and it is hard to overlook the fact that all of them speak in perfect English, sometimes laced with western accents. Perhaps, in a country with almost 780 languages, some linguistic diversity in a national contest would be a good idea.

But, the most egregious aspect of this group picture is the lack of brownness among these models. It is hard to say if it is their natural skin colour that has been photographed, or if they have been digitally whitewashed. Both options are problematic.

It is impossible to expect avant-garde feminism, or even much feminism from a beauty contest, but it is disappointing to see Femina continue to perpetuate a toxic beauty stereotype, and one that is decades old.

Many dark-skinned women in India have faced life-long discrimination. But lately, the public debate about the country’s insane obsession with fair skin has finally started showing some positive results. Campaigns such as Dark is Beautiful have gained prominence over the last few years, with support from Bollywood stars. Last year, the country’s advertising watchdog asked beauty companies to abandon discriminatory portrayal of dark-skinned women, hoping to put an end to ads that depict darker women as losers, unworthy of professional and personal happiness.

But the 51-year-old Femina Miss India pageant seems to be caught in a time warp. It is time they look around the country, and fill the gaps in their outdated and out-of-touch contest.

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