Miss India contest: Why do all the finalists 'look the same'?

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Participants at the fbb Colors Femina Miss India East 2019 on April 23,2019 in Kolkata,India.Image source, Getty Images
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Critics say many participants in this year's beauty pageant look similar

It is the contest that kick-started Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra's career, so it is unsurprising that this year's Miss India finalists have such wide smiles in their publicity shots.

After all, this is a competition with the power to change lives.

But instead of being able to enjoy their success, they have found themselves at the centre of a storm over a photo collage which, critics say, suggests the organisers are obsessed with fair skin.

The collage published in the Times of India newspaper - which belongs to the group that organises the annual beauty pageant - depicts 30 headshots of beautiful women.

But when a Twitter user shared it and posed a question: "What is wrong with this picture?" it began to gain traction.

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With their tame, glossy, shoulder-length hair and a skin tone that is virtually identical, some quipped that they all looked the same. Others wondered out loud - albeit as a joke - if in fact they were all the same person.

As the picture gained traction on Twitter, critics made the point that while there was nothing wrong with the image of the women themselves, the lack of diversity in skin colour has once again highlighted India's obsession with being fair and lovely.

The pageant's grooming expert Shamita Singha told the BBC the original pictures had to be retouched as the contestants looked "like plastic". She insisted the Photoshop team were told not to alter skin tone, but blamed a tight publication deadline and newspaper print for the change in appearance.

"This is not the skin tones of the actual pictures," she said, adding that some of the show's past winners like Nehal Chudasama, Srinidhi Shetty and Anukreethy Vas had darker skin.

"These are just some of our girls in the last year," she said. "Everyone's skin colour is kept as is."

Beauty pageants have been serious business in India since the mid-1990s. The country has produced several famous Miss Indias, like Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen and Ms Chopra, who also won global titles. Many pageant winners have also gone on to have lucrative Bollywood careers.

Over the years, institutions that train young women aspiring to participate in beauty pageants have mushroomed across the country.

But again, many of their biggest successes have been women who are light-skinned.

Image source, Getty Images
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Aishwarya Rai soon after she was crowned Miss World 1994

This is hardly surprising.

India's obsession with fairness, especially when it comes to women, is well known and many regard fair skin as being superior to darker tones.

It has always been accepted for instance, that fairer is better in the marriage market.

And ever since the 1970s, when Fair and Lovely - India's first fairness cream - was introduced, skin whitening cosmetics have been among the highest selling in the country and, over the years, top Bollywood actors and actresses have appeared in advertisements to endorse them.

Commercials for such creams and gels promised not just fair skin but also peddled them as means to get a glamorous job, find love, or get married.

And pageants like this, which critics say favour a particular type of skin tone, only serve to perpetuate that stereotype.

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The campaign urges women to love their natural skin colour

In 2005, some bright spark decided that it was not just women who needed fairer skin, so along came India's first fairness cream for men - Fair and Handsome.

Endorsed by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan no less, it soon became a huge success.

In recent years, there have been campaigns such as Dark is Beautiful and #unfairandlovely, questioning "colourism" and calling on people to celebrate dark skin. And last year, I wrote about a new campaign that re-imagined popular Hindu gods and goddesses with a darker skin.

But this has not stopped the flood of new creams and gels that claim to lighten everything from armpit hair to - hold your breath - female genitalia.

Their popularity in India can be gauged from the fact that fairness creams and bleaches sell for hundreds of millions of dollars every year and, according to one estimate, the market for women's fairness products is expected to be 50bn rupees ($716m; £566m) by 2023.

The defenders of skin whitening products say it's a matter of personal choice, that if women can use lipstick to make their lips redder, then what's the big deal about using creams or gels to appear fairer?

It may sound logical, but campaigners point out that this obsession with fair skin is grossly unfair - the "superiority" of light skin is subtly, but constantly, reinforced and that perpetuates societal prejudice and hurts people with darker complexions who grow up with low self-confidence. It also impacts their personal and professional success, they say.

We've heard models with darker skin colours say how they were overlooked for assignments and I can remember only a few darker-skinned Bollywood actresses in leading roles.

Image source, Getty Images
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Beauty pageants have been accused of favouring a particular skin tone

In 2014, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), a self-regulatory body of advertisers, issued a set of guidelines barring commercials from depicting people with darker skin colour as "unattractive, unhappy, depressed or concerned" and said that they should not be shown as being at a disadvantage when it came to "prospects of matrimony, jobs or promotions".

The ads, however, continue to be made, even though they are a bit more discreet now compared to the earlier in-your-face sort of campaigns. Popular film actors and actresses also continue to endorse them.

But as I write this piece, a heart-warming piece of news is just being reported: South Indian actress Sai Pallavi has confirmed that she rejected a 20m rupee deal to appear in a fairness cream advertisement earlier this year.

"What am I going to do with the money I get from such an ad? I don't have... big needs.

"I can say that the standards we have are wrong. This is the Indian colour. We can't go to foreigners and ask them why they're white.

"That's their skin colour and this is ours," she was quoted as saying.

Pallavi's comments are being hailed as a breath of fresh air by commentators, especially as they are seen in context to the Miss India collage where all contestants look the same - whitewashed.