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Skin bleaching concerns as Miss India pageant promotes fair skin ideals


TextAlex Peters

People on social media have been calling out the pageant for perpetuating fair skin ideals of beauty

The Miss India beauty pageant is facing criticism over the lack of diversity among its final contestants.

Discussions on social media started after the Times of India newspaper published a collage showcasing the headshots of the finalists all of whom were fair-skinned with very similar features. As the image gained traction, critics began calling out the pageant for not representing the true diversity of India – a country with 1.3 billion people – and for perpetuating Euro-centric ideals of beauty.

“Miss India contestants. 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. So much for India being a 'diverse' country,” tweeted user @labellagorda

“How to choose from such a diverse bunch?!” joked writer Samira Sawlani, while Kamran Shahid added “Why can't a Miss India be a dusky or a dark brown or darker chocolate brown? So much for the love of fair skin. I sincerely believe we are the most racist country in the world...!”

While the pageant’s grooming expert Shamita Singha told the BBC the original pictures had been retouched saying “this is not the skin tones of the actual pictures,”  the controversy taps into a larger discussion in India surrounding colourism and an obsession with fairer skin which has been fuelling the skin-lightening industry for decades.

Since the 1970s, when the first whitening product, Fair and Lovely, arrived in India, skin lightening cosmetics have been among the highest selling in the country. In 2011, the World Health Organisation found that skin-lightening or bleaching products made up 61 percent of the dermatological market in India, while a study last year predicted that the "women's fairness cream category" in India alone will be worth more than $900 million CDN by the year 2023.

In 2017, a study found that of the almost 2,000 men and women surveyed, more than half had tried skin whiteners and 44.6 percent had done so because of media such as TV and advertisements. Advertising for skin lightening creams frequently features Bollywood stars. In 2005 when India’s first fairness cream for men, “Fair and Handsome” was released it was endorsed by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Actress and former Miss India winner, Priyanka Chopra also starred in a campaign for a skin-lightening cream, although she has since spoken out about her regrets over doing it and the pressures she faced in her earlier career surrounding the colour of her skin. “A lot of girls with a darker skin hear things like, “Oh, poor thing, she's dark.” In India, they advertise skin-lightening creams: “Your skin's gonna get lighter in a week.” I used it [when I was very young]. Then when I was an actor, around my early twenties, I did a commercial for a skin-lightening cream. I was playing that girl with insecurities. And when I saw it, I was like, “Oh shit. What did I do?” I started talking about being proud of the way I looked. I actually like my skin tone,” she told Vogue India.

In recent years, social media campaigns such as #unfairandlovely and #darkisbeautiful have celebrated darker skin tones and attempted to challenge the belief that fair skin is more attractive. However as Miss India has shown, these beliefs are still deeply ingrained in the community and highlights the need for a cultural shift when it comes to perceptions of beauty. 

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