Record as five black women win beauty crowns

Role models: ‘More than beauty,’ argues latest Miss World winner, Toni-Ann Singh. © Getty

Is this progress? Five black women now hold all the world’s top beauty titles, a development which is being hailed despite the troubled histories and controversial values of pageants.

Grandiose music, a blingy crown and rivers of sequins — crowning a new Miss World is quite the cliché.

But beneath the extravagance is a less frivolous story. Toni-Ann Singh’s win this weekend means that the titles of Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss America, Miss Universe and Miss World are currently all held by black women, for the very first time.

Toni-Ann, from Jamaica, stated that “representation is a beautiful thing”.

Earlier this month, Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi, shared a similar sentiment, noting the positive impact of diversity, with examples of girls seeing her and shouting, “You look like me. She looks like me.”

It wasn’t always like this. Until 1970, women of colour were banned from Miss USA and Miss America. For the latter, this was even codified in a rule stating that all contestants had to be “of the white race”.

In addition to issues of racism, critics see beauty contests as typifying the objectification and oppression of women. As early as 1968, this became a big issue for the women’s liberation movement.

And despite increased racial representation, pageants still showcase certain body types — the famous five fit the “tall, slim and able” mould.

“Body positivity” is today’s zeitgeist. Thus from clouds of hairspray and taffeta, a “rebranding” of relevance has emerged from beauty contests.

By enabling successful contestants to share their views and support charities, “empowerment” is used as justification for what is often seen as an industry with questionable values.

The 2019 Miss Universe finals saw statements on climate change, protests and social media, while the 2015 winner, Pia Wurtzbach, promoted HIV awareness amongst Filipinos.

Yet, for some, this is just window dressing.

Rather than making women more confident, contests still objectify and control them through restrictive “morality clauses” dictating competitor’s behaviour.

Columnist Jessica Valenti sees pageants as “antiquated reminders of exactly what we don’t want for women that should have no place in our future”.

So, is this recent story really progress?

A beautiful future?

Yes! This is a very positive sign that the beauty industry is becoming increasingly colour blind and moving to become more representative. The world of pageants is doing more to have a wider impact. So much news has been dominated by gloom and politics recently — let’s celebrate this and what we can take from it!

Not really. It is important that these women have won, but their victories can’t disguise the deeper issues. Pageants ultimately promote shallow and outmoded views and values. The fact these contests continue to exist at all means that you can’t argue progress is being made for women, of any colour.

You Decide

  1. Should employers ever have the right to dictate how people behave whilst they are working for them?
  2. Is it true to say that that these beauty contests empower women?

Activities

  1. Pick a charity that you would support if you had an international platform to promote it. Design a poster that would persuade other people to back it too.
  2. Think of the three most important, probing questions that you would want to ask in a Miss or Mr World competition to help you decide on a winner. Then imagine that you were being asked them yourself — and write down your answers.

Some People Say...

“It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

Socrates (470-399 BC), ancient Greek philosopher and one of the founders of Western philosophy

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That beauty pageants are still popular. There were over 20,000 applications to Miss England this year — a record high. This is happening alongside the belief that we are currently in the “third wave” of “body positivity” focussed on targeting unrealistic standards of beauty.
What do we not know?
Whether winning these competitions has any long-lasting impact on these women’s lives, or the causes which they choose to support. For example, whilst the organisers of Miss America claim to provide major scholarships for women, they only really offer a small grant.

Word Watch

Codified
Laws or rules arranged into a systematic code.
Objectification
Reducing someone to the status of a mere object.
1968
A campaigning movement that protested at the 1968 Miss America Final, throwing items representing the physical oppression of women into a “freedom trash can”.
Zeitgeist
The defining spirit of the age.
Window dressing
The superficial presentation of something, with the intention of creating a favourable impression.

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