Miss America, Julie Chen and The Beauty of Choice
By Aarti Virani Special to CNN | 9/17/2013, 9:02 a.m.
Editor's note: Aarti Virani is an arts, culture and lifestyle writer who has written for The Wall Street Journal, Vogue India and Travel + Leisure. She sits on the board of the South Asian Journalists Association, where she leads efforts to ensure mainstream news media organizations provide fair and accurate coverage of the South Asian-American community.
(CNN) -- Nina Davuluri, a 24-year-old Indian-American from upstate New York, expertly twirled to the pulsing beats of a Bollywood tune during the talent portion of the Miss America pageant. At the same time, she spun the traditional notion of American beauty on its head.
In the interview portion of Sunday's pageant, Davuluri was asked about Chinese-American journalist Julie Chen's decision to have eyelid surgery to advance her career.
"I don't agree with plastic surgery; however, I can understand that from a standpoint," Davuluri said, delivering a noncommittal, diplomatic answer. "But more importantly, I've always viewed a Miss America as the girl next door, and the girl next door is evolving as the diversity in America evolves. She's not who she was 10 years ago, and she's not going to be the same come 10 years down the road. So I wouldn't want to change someone's looks or appearance, but definitely be confident in who you are."
While Chen made the decision to undergo eyelid surgery, Davuluri opted to highlight her heritage on a historically conservative American platform. And both women reveal that each of their definitions of beauty, to varying degrees, is rooted in the idea of individual choice -- a concept that, for better or worse, is as American as it gets.
Half a century ago, Miss America was synonymous with a blond-haired, blue-eyed incarnation of beauty. But the first Indian-American winner of Miss America and Chen's candid admission reflect the evolution of American beauty, which is now less about assimilation than it is about the freedom of choice.
It's been more than 60 years since the Miss America Pageant had Rule No. 7, a stipulation that barred nonwhites from participating: "Contestant must be in good health and of the white race." And gone is the day when it was required for contestants to list their ancestry.
On the surface, this change suggests that culturally assimilating to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideals is no longer a prerequisite to winning.
But Davuluri's win sparked criticism, including tired call-center analogies, references to terrorism and being dubbed "Princess Jasmine" -- for supposedly prioritizing her subcontinental roots over her star-spangled ones. Critics seemed to emphasize that her Indian heritage -- she was born in New York to parents from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh -- and American patriotism could not occupy the same space, no matter how genuine her display.
Davuluri, an eloquent speaker and aspiring doctor, should be a welcome respite from a surge of recent pageant participants who have claimed headlines for all the wrong reasons. Cases in point: Blond-haired, hazel-eyed Miss Teen USA hopeful Caitlin Upton, who gained notoriety in 2007 for a largely incoherent response to a geography question, or all-American Miss Utah 2013, aka Marisa Powell, of "create education better" fame.
Chen also faced hurdles following her decision to have plastic surgery, including a family that was initially divided over her choice.
"I did it; I moved on. No one's more proud of being Chinese than I am," Chen told the hosts of CBS' "The Talk" last week. "After I had that done, the ball did roll for me," she added, referring to her new and improved journalism career.
Ultimately, whether it is Julie Chen or Nina Davuluri, Miss Kansas or Miss New York, I'm grateful that they all set the stage for my own story: the daughter of Indian immigrants, born and raised in Japan and educated in the United States.
It's heartening to know that there are others who exist outside traditional conventions of American identity, paving the way for a more inclusive definition of both inner and outer beauty.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aarti Virani.
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