It’s a competition with the power to change women’s lives in a nation of 1.3 billion people, but this year’s Miss India finalists are drawing attention for another reason.

A photo spread of the 30 contestants published in the Times of India earlier this week is sparking backlash for the contestants’ similarities — all of the women appear to share fair skin tones.

“How to choose from such a diverse bunch?” tweeted Indian-born, London-based writer Samira Sawlani, among the first to call out the lack of inclusion.

“I went straight into that kind of sarcasm,” she said in an interview with CBC News. “Then when the sarcasm died down, I just thought to myself, growing up in the culture, in the community, how all these years on, we are still seeing this Eurocentric beauty ideal being held up to us.”

“This is some kind of colonial hangover that we seem to have.”

Colourism, or shadism, is defined as discrimination — often within one’s own ethnic group — against people with darker skin tones. While it’s prevalent in many cultures around the world, the infatuation in India with fair skin tones has fuelled a booming skin-lightening industry. For many women, it can affect job and relationship prospects.

‘So normal that we’re in denial’

A marketing study published last year is forecasting that the “women’s fairness cream category” in India alone will be worth more than $900 million CDN by the year 2023. The report cited the rising influence of media and entertainment and inferior treatment in the workplace as key factors increasing the popularity of skin-lightening products. 

In the grand scheme of things, why is this such a big deal? Miss India is meant to be representative of India and that bloody photo is not representative of India.– Samira Sawlani, India-born writer

The World Health Organization reported in 2011 that 61 per cent of the dermatological market in India consisted of skin-lightening products.

“It’s almost so normal that we’re in denial,” said Sawlani. “If the country was serious about getting rid of this whole concept, products like (the popular skin-lightening brand) Fair and Lovely would be banned.”

Social media campaigns such as #unfairandlovely and #darkisbeautiful have attempted to raise awareness about the deep-rooted societal issue. But the efforts have done little to combat the prejudice which remains rampant not just in India, but within the South Asian diaspora at large, according to activists.

“In its various shapes, this discrimination runs far and wide across Indian society where foreign characteristics, such as fair skin, are extensively sought-after, and have given way to a multi-billion dollar skincare industry,” said Fatima Lodhi, founder of the Dark Is Divine anti-colourist campaign.

A spokesperson for the Miss India pageant told BBC News the original pictures had to be retouched, adding “this is not the skin tones of the actual pictures.”

The organization posted multiple photos of the contestants on its Facebook page, which can be seen below, with more nuanced differences than the controversial headshots.

Contestants as role models

The pageant has crowned darker-skinned women in the past but Sawlani argues it’s the exception. She also said beyond skin colour, there’s little diversity among contestants when it comes to body type, facial features and height.

“In the grand scheme of things, why is this such a big deal? Miss India is meant to be representative of India and that bloody photo is not representative of India,” said Sawlani.

Priyanka Chopra was crowned Miss World in 2000 and has gone on to have a thriving career in Bollywood and Hollywood. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)

The contest is well-known for boosting the careers of many stars, including actress Priyanka Chopra and Bollywood icon Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. Both went on to win the title of Miss World. The winner of this year’s competition will be announced June 15. 

“These [contestants], especially the one who wins, will probably have the opportunity to do some big things,” said Sawlani. “Young women in particular will look at them and if these young women are darker-skinned, they’re not seeing women that look like them in the public eye, being successful.”