Wednesday, 18 September 2013

can't win

i hate beauty contests.  hate them with the intensity of a thousand fiery suns.  i won't go into the reasons in too much detail. let me just say that one of the many things i loathe about them is the restrictive notions of "beauty" they promote.

and so, we get the situation where an indian american (and no, i don't mean a native american, i mean one who's heritage is south asian) woman wins the miss america pageant, and the reaction is beyond bizarre.  not only is there the expected outrage amongst the bigots that this woman doesn't fit into their traditional concepts of beauty (ie white), but there's a whole heap of ignorance added on.

if you want a bit of a taste (& really, you probably don't), check some out some of these comments on twitter.  she's accused of being muslim (as if it's a terrible thing), not sure why?  just because she's brown & has a "foreign" sounding name.  she's accused of being arab (um, been there, done that), doing an "indonesian" dance, and of course, she's labelled a "foreigner", because if you aren't white (& possibly black), you couldn't possibly be american.

yes, the last one really grates with me, because i'm always struggling against the "foreigner" label myself.  the many little & big ways that certain people need to make sure i understand that i don't belong here, don't deserve to have the same things as everyone else, should be grateful just to be allowed to exist in this space and place.  yes, it grates.

and i know that this group of people don't represent a whole country, they don't even represent a majority.  but they are the vocal minority that can make for a hostile environment.  they cause fear, they have an impact that is far greater than their number.  this ugly end of racism is the tip of the iceberg, the bits we can see clearly but there is so much more that is insidious and not always so plainly obvious, therefore much harder to fight.

and then there is the other aspect to this discussion, happening amongst indians (yes, the south asian kind) about how, had she been in india, this young woman would have been too dark to even be considered for a beauty contest (did i say how much i loathe them?).  from that article, i found this the experiences of an anthropologist observing the miss india contest:

I sat in on weekly individual sessions that dermatologist Dr. Jamuna Pai held with the contestants in order to examine their skin. Every single one of the young women was taking some sort of medication to alter her skin, particularly in colour, in the training programme in 2003. In a disturbingly casual manner, Dr. Pai emphasized the need for all the contestants to bleach their skin by prescribing the peeling agent Retin-A as well as glycolic acid and, in the case of isolated dark patches, a laser treatment.

i really recommend reading that whole piece - it's long but very interesting. it's funny how, the last time i talked about lighter skin colour being prized in india, there were those in comments who dismissed my experiences.  maybe you'd believe this guy:

As a forensic exercise, I encourage you to Google “Miss India” and compare the complexions of the winners of the last 10 years with that of Davuluri. The preference for light skin isn’t confined to beauty pageants. It dominates the acres of classified matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers. It figures casually and brutally in schoolyard banter, where dark-skinned children are dismissed as “kallu” or “blackie” by confreres sometimes with skin barely half a shade lighter. (Imagine the lifelong impact on a girl who, from her earliest days at school, is looked upon as ugly because of her complexion.) It affects the health of young girls, who are often prevented from playing outdoor sports because being in the sun could “blacken” them. It figures, even, in the adoption business, where dark-skinned orphans and foundlings struggle to find a home.

this is one of the reasons why i find the formal judging of appearance to be so harmful.  cultural definitions of beauty are so strongly impacted by the commercial imperative to buy, change, alter, & no matter how much of this you do, it will never be enough.  that we find it acceptable to judge women in this public and formal fashion makes it acceptable to judge them all the time, in every context, for appearance alone, in ways that are harmful.

i wish nina davuluri all the best.  i don't condemn her decision to take part in the contest - it's a rational choice given the culture we live in.  i just wish we could change that culture to give women better choices and freedom from constant judgement.


Lahore said...

" an indian american (and no, i don't mean a native american, i mean one who's heritage is south asian)"

I'm sure all those Pakistani and Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Americans would fight pretty hard against the Indian label you want to apply to them.

stargazer said...

i'm sure they would. i was just placing india in it's geographic context, which is south asia, not north america.

Michael Peterson said...

Most Americans aren't like the racist bigots on social media and they stand up to racists, like the guy in this video.

Claire Shove said...

Yeah, this is crazy. Skin-bleaching is one of those things I (as a white New Zealander) am able to forget about until something like this brings it to mind and I get all riled up again. It's similar to the insane chemical hair-straightening customs that have somehow become commonplace in African American culture. Something outsiders have little to no awareness of, which makes it possible for them to say terrible things without full realisation of how terrible they actually are.