When Harnaaz Sandhu, 21, was born in Punjab in the 2000s, she had generations of Indian beauty queens preceding her, a handful of whom had found success on the global stage like she did when she won Miss Universe this week. There was Sushmita Sen, who took the Miss Universe title in 1994. Aishwarya Rai secured Miss World that same year.
Pale-skinned, green-eyed women with long hair and tall frames, the two were the portraits of the “ideal” Indian woman that was marketed by companies like Fair and Lovely over decades.
The standard of beauty for South Asian women seems like it’s always been stuck there, experts say, with women especially experiencing routine discrimination based on color. But a new crop of actresses and models might signify a slow but important change. Brown-skinned girls like Sandhu are more often seeing the limelight. She says she sees an oppressive standard, enforced for generations by colonialism and casteism, slowly lifting.
“So many young women all around the world have broken stereotypes about color, about physical attributes,” Sandhu told NBC Asian America. “And I hope that I’m breaking one of the stereotypes in my community about brown girls.”
The politics and economics of Indian beauty
Pageants in India started as early as the 1940s, and the first Miss India was crowned in 1947, the year British colonialism ended. The pool of contestants in that era looked notably different than they do now. With minimal makeup, traditional Indian garb and kohl-drawn cat eyes, they represented a pre-supermodel-era ideal of Indian celebrity.
The first Miss India to win on the international stage was Reita Faria, who took Miss World in 1966. Faria didn’t match modern beauty conventions either, with medium brown skin and thick, dark hair worn in a beehive.
British occupation further solidified the preference for lighter skin, born from caste hierarchies over hundreds of years. “Fair skin was the ruling skin,” said Harleen Singh, associate professor of women’s studies and South Asian literature at Brandeis University. But what marked another distinct change in how Indian women began to view themselves was the globalization of the cosmetics industry in the 1980s and ’90s. And the change was mirrored in Indian pageantry.
“With the opening of the Indian economy in 1991 and the coming in of international cosmetic brands and fashion brands into the country, there’s also a kind of flattening of beauty around the world,” Singh said. “It wasn’t any coincidence that in the last round of the Miss Universe competition, they’re all wearing ball gowns.”
That Westernization and marketing of beauty began to pervade Indian cosmetic companies as well, with the country’s first supermodels coming into their own. Fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in this era set the standard for how women aspired to look.
In tandem with this new market for cosmetic products, 1994 wins by Sen and Rai started a spike in the number of Indian contestants winning at international pageants.
“Is it a coincidence that before 1991, there were no ‘beautiful’ women in India,” Singh said. “The economics of it are entirely intertwined with standards of beauty.”
Colorism and ‘flattening of beauty’
The year 2000 saw another double win for India in Miss World and Miss Universe. The first title was claimed by Bihari actress Priyanka Chopra, and the other by Lara Dutta, who is Punjabi and Anglo Indian, a term for white descendants of British colonizers.
Sandhu says the brown-skinned Chopra was one of her inspirations growing up, but she never imagined attaining the same level of success one day.
“I remember when I came to know about Priyanka Chopra,” she said. “I came to know that she’s a big actor and she’s doing wonderful [things]. … I never knew what was Miss World, what was Miss Universe.”
Sandu says the pageant allowed her to explore activism and become a role model. Singh, who shares a hometown with the model, says she feels the joy of her win on a personal level. But she can’t deny the way international competitions still tend to cater to Western standards.
“After all this cultural brouhaha about people’s countries and their different languages, in the end we had all these women with long hair, wearing gowns and done up in a particular way in terms of makeup and looks,” she said.
She also noted that there still doesn’t seem to be room for a dark-skinned Indian woman to make it to that level. An example, she said, is the international reception of a different beauty queen — Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri.
Racist and colorist posts about Davuluri came from all over the world following her win. Many questioned how an Indian American woman could represent the U.S. Others said she was too dark-skinned to be a conventional Indian beauty queen.
“A lot of people pointed out that she was too dark-skinned, and she didn’t represent India,” Singh said. “She was ‘too dark’ to be Miss India, but she was wonderful enough to be Miss USA.”
A changing standard
Both Sandhu and Singh say they see change on the horizon. It’s hopefully an opening, they say, for darker-skinned women to enter the mainstream.
“In the last 10 to 15 years, more women who are reflective of brown women and brown colored skin have made it to the fore,” she said.
Though Sandhu isn’t dark-skinned, she says she never grew up imagining herself as a beauty queen. It took her time to find the confidence to enter her first beauty pageant at 17 years old. Patriarchal standards hold women back across skintones, she said, and it’s what she wants to dedicate her life to breaking down.
“Everyone is being shamed, whether you’re fairer, whether you’re brown, whether you have dark skin, we are all being shaded. That’s because they have this belief that a beauty pageant is all about looking pretty. It’s all about having that one particular skin. But now, I think people are changing their perspective.”
There’s a way to go, Singh said. She still doesn’t think the beauty industry makes space for women who don’t meet certain guidelines, even beyond skin tone.
“What constitutes a beautiful woman?” she said. “The fixation we’ve had on fair skin, particular height parameters, bodies. Have we had anyone who doesn’t fit this precise, cookie-cutter image of what ‘good figures’ are all about?”
But standards change, she said, and they’re more reflective of money and power than anything else.
“The idea of beauty is so interesting,” Singh said. “What we find beautiful as individuals cannot be codified or classified. But we have to acknowledge the fact that as communities, as cultures and as markets, we do have a vision of beauty, which greatly flattens out the individual.”
Sandhu says that for large-scale change to happen, it’s important for young women to push against the norms in their own communities.
“You have your own voice,” she said. “Speak for yourself.”