Any perception of beauty—here, strictly of countenance—or the lack of it is deeply subjective. Best, as sagely said, let the beholder’s eyes judge. But, the fact is not only do people assess beauty, they also compare notes. Why else would there be beauty pageants, with panels of judges telling the world who the most beautiful woman in the universe/world/Asia Pacific is, that is for a period roughly corresponding to a year? Wit and ability are also tested, some would argue, but clever answers and insane talent alone will not bring home the sash, cash (prize money and endorsement deals) and the crown. The futility of trying to standardise beauty should have been apparent by now, but it hasn’t. That said, this is even less apparent to Tripura chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb, who wants to convince the rest of India that Diana Hayden (Miss World 1997) doesn’t represent Indian beauty, Aishwarya Rai (Miss World 1994) does. The brickbats that have come his way since are richly deserved.
What compelled the chief minister to wade into not just judging beauty, but also asserting what should be perceived as standard Indian beauty—for a woman—is hard to fathom, though the fact that the two women’s names gives away their religion is not one that can be easily missed. Whatever the motivation, the fact is that such statements hardly befit a public personality, much less the chief minister of a state. It normalises casual sexism and discrimination. It has implied that not only will a woman’s appearance be the subject of public discussion, but also, for an Indian woman to be considered beautiful, she must look a certain way. In this particular case, even if we were to agree with standardised judging of beauty, Hayden won the same honour as Rai, representing the same country on an international stage. The country cheered her win as much as it did Rai’s. And no number of Debs can take that away from her.