Indians are keen followers of global beauty pageants such as Miss World and Miss Universe, which were the first platforms for some of Bollywood’s biggest contemporary stars. Yet the more parochial Miss America contest has been of little interest – until now.

Last week, the crown was placed on the head of Nina Davuluri, the 24-year-old New York-born daughter of immigrants from southern India. She was the first Indian-American – and only the second Asian-American – to have won the competition.

Her victory provoked spiteful tweets from some Americans unable to stomach the country’s increasing ethnic diversity. These, in turn, sparked indignation in India, where they were held up as evidence of American racism.

Yet India’s public debate has since shifted away from the prejudice in America to the more sensitive issue of entrenched biases at home, where – as a sharp editorial in The Hindu newspaper noted – Ms Davuluri probably wouldn’t have got past the first round of a beauty contest because of her colour.

India has an obsession with fair skin, which is traditionally seen as an essential element of beauty. That cultural message is now reinforced by media worship of fair-skinned celebrities and slick television commercials.

India’s market for skin-lightening cream – such as Unilever’s almost 40-year-old brand Fair & Lovely, and newer rivals such as L’Oréal’s White Perfect – is booming, estimated at about $638m last year, up from $397m in 2008, according to market research agency Euromonitor.

The quest for fair skin – once focused on the face and hands – is also moving into extreme territory. Germany’s Beiersdorf offers Indian women a Nivea deodorant claiming to lighten the underarms. Other companies have begun peddling “fairness” products for teenagers, shower gels and even vaginal whitening creams. Shops are filled with new lines for men, once immune from the pressure to be fair.

Yet signs of backlash are emerging. Women of Worth, a group based in the southern city of Chennai, has launched a social media campaign called Dark is Beautiful to challenge the beliefs on matters of colour and beauty. Actress Nandita Das, who is often described in the media as “dusky”, has become the most famous face of the campaign, which says its aim is to destroy the “toxic belief” that a person’s worth can be judged by the colour of their skin.

The activists are taking aim at Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan – they ask him to stop “lending his megastar status to keep alive an essentially racist attitude” in a television advert for a skin-lightening cream, Fair and Handsome. In the advert, Mr Khan says the product was his constant companion in his quest for popularity, fame and wealth – and tosses a tube to a young fan as he strides up the red carpet at a film premier. Activists have filed a petition on asking for the advert to be withdrawn.

The new Miss America is giving fresh momentum to the fight. Her victory has inspired many Indian girls on the darker end of the spectrum. She now says she wants to visit her ancestral land to work with the Dark is Beautiful campaign

Yet India’s “Black is Beautiful” moment is a way off. Marketers say the idea of dark-skinned beauty is still a “niche” notion reaching only the most politically aware. Growth in the sales of speciality fairness creams has slowed in recent months, but ever more lotions and potions claim to promote “whiteness”, a value now permeating the entire personal care market.

As one wit said on Twitter: “I’ll know the Dark is Beautiful campaign has succeeded when Fair & Lovely relaunches itself as a tanning lotion.”

Who’s calling?

Sometimes, it’s not the face but the voice. New Delhi police are investigating who made a series of hoax phone calls imitating Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born leader of the ruling Congress party, to the attorney-general.

The caller reportedly told the attorney-general that she was unhappy with his handling of several crucial cases, and that he “should consider lying low for a while”.

No charges have been filed yet but a civil servant – known for her ability to accurately mimic Mrs Gandhi – is being investigated – as are her possible motives.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article