Thank you, Miss America

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by Roxanne Jones

(CNN) — Dear Miss America,

Thank you for reminding us what classic American beauty looks like today. For the rest of America — in case any of you have been sleeping for, say, the past two decades, or clinging to out-of-touch fashion magazines — here’s an alert: Beauty is Serena Williams and Michelle Obama. Beauty is Angelina Jolie and Marissa Mayer.

And yes, beauty is Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014.

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Miss New York Nina Davuluri reacts after being crowned as Miss America 2014, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Atlantic City, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Women’s beauty cannot be debated or dictated by others. So in tribute to women across the globe, I celebrate your beautiful brown skin, your breathtaking Bollywood dance skills, and the hard work that I’m sure you put in, not only to earn top grades and graduate from the University of Michigan with a degree in brain behavior and cognitive science, but to become the first Indian-American woman to take home the tiara. I love it.

The beauty pageant circuit is a tough act, as I learned early from my fleeting experiences as a teen who participated in several pageants. Don’t laugh, that college scholarship money is no joke. Back then, there were no other brown girls on the stage. No matter. My family and friends cheered me on and told me how beautiful I was — and I had the audacity to believe them.

Sadly, it was the talent portion that always sunk me. Painting and poetry-writing just didn’t cut it as a stage act. Lucky for me, I found journalism, but those pageants helped give me the confidence to believe that I could share the stage with anyone.

Miss America, I hope you use your crown and platform well and that you have the courage to amplify the voices of those women and girls back in your ancestral home, India, who are valiantly fighting for full equality and the right to live without fear of the brutal sexual violence that plagues that nation.

You are not the first woman of color to take the crown. It was 30 years ago that Vanessa Williams became the first black Miss America. Seven other black women and one Asian woman have won since then. And most went on to successful careers.

But whenever this happens, those pesky bigots climb out of their caves to rant and rave and spew their ignorance about why it’s not fair. Ignore them.

Clearly, those divergent voices — and I admit there are many — failed even the most basic fourth-grade geography lesson and likely couldn’t even find India on a map, which is why they mistakenly think you are Arab. Perhaps they have you confused with Rima Fakih, a Lebanese immigrant from Dearborn, Michigan, who in 2010 was the first Arab-American to win the Miss USA pageant. Must be hard keeping up with a changing world when you’ve spent so much time trying to ignore and reject all those people who look different from you.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 3.2 million people of Asian Indian descent living in the United States. Their median income for 2010 was $90,711. In fact, Indians surpassed Filipinos as the nation’s second-largest Asian population, after Chinese, the data show.

Still, some people will never accept that it is families like yours that are helping to make America a stronger nation. Don’t let them distract you on your journey. Sounds like you’re on the right track:

“I’m so happy this organization has embraced diversity,” you said, according to The Associated Press. “I’m thankful there are children watching at home who can finally relate to a new Miss America.” Asked about the negativity, you said, “I have to rise above that. I always viewed myself as first and foremost American.”

Use those haters to inspire you reach your dream to become a cardiologist, Ms. Davuluri. Reject voices that would try to define and limit you. Reject the magazine covers and fashion gurus, who may understand how to design and sell a pretty dress but have no clue about what defines a woman’s beauty, as evidenced by the consistent and blatant lack of diversity on the runways during Fashion Weeks both here and abroad.

Reject the critics — men and women — who bash women like television personality Julie Chen for getting plastic surgery after being told by her bosses nearly 20 years ago that her Asian eyes would hurt her career. Chen made her choice back then, and brava for her for starting a public debate now about Asian beauty standards.

Today, Chen looks wonderful — hard to tell from a 20-year-old photo if she had grown to be a natural beauty with her original face. But I, for one, want to live in a world where grown women have the right to decide what is best our careers and our bodies.

Was it an awful message to give women in the workplace? Yes. But it’s no different from the countless occasions throughout my career that I’ve witnessed women being told that they are too fat, too black or too Latina to succeed. In my first television job, the news director told me that I should study Diane Sawyer’s look and voice in order to be better at my job — like I was ever going to look like Diane. Thank goodness Oprah came along.

Media is a tough career where regardless of your talent, looks really are still everything — especially for us women. And to be fair, I’ve known more than a few men who’ve gone under the knife or tried extreme diets just to keep their faces in front of the camera.

But to succeed, we must deal with it; work to improve the environment for the women behind us, and move on with our lives.

There’s room on the stage for all types of beauty.

Editor’s note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women’s topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

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