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The Miss America 2014 contest had a record five Asian Americans competing for the crown. Three of them made it to the top five. It finally came down to Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, and Miss California, Crystal Lee, with Davuluri emerging as the winner. Is the idea of beauty being re-defined in America?

If you believe that our experience of beauty is based on existing cultural and social norms, then the palette of colors in the top ten of the Miss America 2014 contest is a  stirring commentary on race and diversity.

Zed Nelson, a documentary photographer, featured on CNN, traveled the world in search of people who explored the validity of their own attractiveness by body improvement. He found that the Eurocentric perception of beauty has so persistently been the standard of pretty that many people from non-western nations also bought the western prescription for beauty-enhancement.

This is borne out in a country like India with “Fair & Lovely” creaming the crop of beauty hopefuls. It is no surprise then that we saw twitter exclamations of Nina Davuluri’s skin color being “too dark to win Miss India in India.”

Such evidence of internalized racism buttresses the stereotypes in our culture and empowers the purveyors of white vanity. If we do not believe in the appeal of the color pigments that shade our skins, then how are we to convince the world that Nina Davuluri is beautiful?

“If you can sell the idea of one prescriptive look, then you can sell people the products and services to help them attempt to achieve this idea,” said Nelson, implying that the formulaic description of beauty was a matter of profit and loss and demand curves. We have been conditioned into believing the binary colors of beauty by the products that are arranged at the retail counters of department stores. Indeed, Davuluri had difficulty finding the “right color of lipstick”-the right color for her skin tone?

The beauty industry exploits the vulnerabilities extant in our society and the Miss America pageant does little to address these insecurities. But at least it has come to be more representative of the color scheme of America.

Soon after her historic win, Davuluri brushed off racist remarks like loose powder from her compact with a combination of intelligence, confidence, grace and class. Davuluri has shown that beauty is much more than mere skin color.

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....