The day after you tearfully accepted the title of Miss America I imagine that more than a few South Asian American girls went to school the next morning holding their heads a little higher. Because while beauty contests remain a source of frustration for feminists like myself, I remember that feeling of wanting to feel accepted — and most of all at that young age — beautiful in my own brown skin. So I can imagine all those girls watching you and thinking, “That looks like my cousin. Or my big sister. Or me.” And smiling.
Because I suspect you and I know for a fact that it can be hard to feel beautiful as a young South Asian American girl when all you see on American television and on the Internet are depictions of white beauty. For example, I knew objectively as a child that South Asian women could be seen as beautiful from the Bollywood movies my parents brought home — but that was hard to remember when my classmates mockingly called me “Pocahontas” every day in seventh grade. So yes, an Indian American crowned Miss America goes a long way to making one feel a little proud about skin color and eye color and all those little things that make one feel more different and entirely un-beautiful.
I wish the story stopped there. I want to celebrate a young woman whose win has an entire segment of society outside the usual pageant watcher demographic cheering a historic win. But just a few days ago, The New York Post’s gossip column Page Six stated that you were allegedly tape-recorded in July calling Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan “fat as f*ck.”
Since the incident became public, you have reportedly apologized to Hagan, but haven’t acknowledged the remarks as your own. Unless a definitive recording emerges, we don’t know whether or not you said the words. But that’s moot at this point. What matters is we have a Miss America who has a responsibility to young woman across the nation — South Asian and otherwise — to be a strong role model. And a strong role model doesn’t let fat talk cross her lips.
You haven’t hid from discussions regarding eating disorders — your platform included a public acknowledgement of your struggle with bulimia. And during your pageant answer and question session on Sunday, you said, “I’ve always viewed Miss America as the girl next door. And Miss America is always evolving… I wouldn’t want to change someone’s looks. Be confident in who you are.” So the fact that young women might associate your win with possible self-hatred instead of joy worries me. Because you see, I too have a little sister and little cousins who are watching you.
Back to fat talk. A couple of years ago, I attended the national conference of a foundation called A Chance to Heal, which aims to empower youth and their influencers to prevent the incidences of eating disorders. Part of the conference challenge was to control the flow of fat talk that emanates in our speech. Phrases like “Do I look fat in this?” “Why is she wearing that?” You get the idea. Eliminating fat talk from our conversation helps to build up young people — not break them down.
I admire you, Nina, I do. Running on a platform of cultural diversity takes courage. But in your own words, you also aspire to be an “active voice for healthy lifestyle, inspired by [your] own lifetime battle with obesity.”
So I ask you to continue that fight as Miss America 2014. 100 percent fat-talk free. Now let’s go celebrate.