The day that Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014 was a day of great reckoning. As Facebook and Twitter posts soon revealed, it was a little confusing for a lot of Americans to see someone of Indian origin walk away with the title.
For South Asians, though, the win posed a different set of questions. While we lauded the victory of one of our own, we couldn’t help but muse at her chances (or lack thereof) had she been competing at a pageant on home ground.
In a part of the world where fair skin and light eyes are the embodiment of beauty, the dusky good looks of Davuluri probably wouldn’t have made the cut.
If you’re a desi girl, it doesn’t matter how good-looking you are unless you have some fairly light skin to go with it. A “wheatish” complexion is at the absolute tolerable end of the melanin spectrum. If you’re any darker, you have crossed over to the dark side (excuse the pun). Forget your high cheekbones and lusciously lidded almond-shaped eyes – you will be passed over for that rather dumpy-looking girl with pale skin.
Popular culture is keen to perpetuate this standard. My mind goes back to the late 1980s when Vital Signs – Pakistan’s original pop music peddlers – released a song where the lead singer tells his lady love that “Gore rang ka zamana kabhi hoga na purana, gori, dar tujhe kiska hai … tera toh rang gora hai”, which can be loosely translated as “Hey girl! It’s always a good time to be light-skinned. You have absolutely nothing to be scared of because you’re so white!”
Granted that just a few years later they came up with another song that went “Saanwli saloni si mehbooba” (“my dark-skinned Juliet”). While the song topped the charts, it hit all the wrong notes when it came to political correctness. The music video featured the then-top model Iraj Manzoor (who, in surprisingly Dorian Gray fashion, is still a top model almost two decades on). Dusky Iraj was the girl who defied the Pakistani model stereotype: tan instead of fair and with a head full of tight curls instead of a poker-straight mane. That she played a village girl in the video was a little disappointing.
I can’t think of any dark-skinned desi girls who have not had a love-hate relationship with their skin tone. In our tumultuous teens, it was an extra cross to bear. As we grew older and into our skins, we learnt to be gracious and make the most of what we had. Some of us were lucky enough to find ourselves in foreign countries among people who actually liked our dark skin.
Imagine that: to have a flaw suddenly become an exotic appeal is a heady experience. You bask in the compliments (and in the shade) as your lighter-skinned friends spend hours under the merciless sun trying to mimic your caramel hue.
All it takes is a trip back home to set you in your place, though. I have yet to spend more than a few hours back in Karachi without some auntie or the other grabbing me by my chin and tut-tutting at the state of my face.
“Just look at your colour!” they shake their heads sadly. “Look at how dark you’ve become!” And then they smugly look over at their own daughters who have probably been spending their days like vampires: avoiding any kind of contact with even the smallest sliver of sunlight. They grin at you with their dumpy, white faces and you can do nothing more than politely hold your tongue. Because if you spoke your mind, you’d be branded dark-skinned and ill-mannered. You can’t have that many things going against you, can you?
The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi living in Dubai