Shamar Gunning reflects on the significance of beauty pageants for brown girls in the 21st century.
For the first time in history, all five major pageanting crowns rest on the heads of black women. Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss America, Miss USA , and Miss Teen USA made history at the end of 2019, and in doing so challenged the notion of traditional Western beauty in a way that has never been done before.
This across-the-board representation is important beyond quantification. Take Disney for example, who made 48 films before they finally created their first black princess Tiana in ‘Princess and the Frog’, 2009. Most women of colour today grew up unable to identify with any of the images of beauty displayed all around them. Non-animated real life images of black beauty are seldom better – often whitened, sanitised or non-existent. It’s almost impossible to describe the power of representation to someone who has not been under-represented. Under-representation is not seeing yourself in the celebrities you idolise, the book characters you love, or even in the adverts on television. It is finding your hair-care products in an aisle separate from Beauty, instead labelled ‘ethnic’. It can also be your aunty burning your hair with chemicals to keep it straight, or teachers suspending your friends for unruly braids or afros. This is the experience of women of colour in all Western countries around the world, and it is to these experiences that the 2019 pageantry victories speak.
However, representation must also be multi-faceted. It can’t only include women with light-skin, light eyes, and straight hair. In 2018 Zendaya addressed her “light skin privilege” which for many was their first contact with the concept. This is the understanding that under white supremacy, black women who have fairer complexions and physical attributes closer to whiteness are considered more beautiful and so afforded more opportunities. Thankfully the recently crowned five women represent all shades of blackness. Zozibini Tunzi’s post on Instagram just after winning her title read “so here the crown sits, beautifully so on my kinky coarse hair”, and it was true. Tunzi won her crown without straightening her hair or lightening her skin. In today’s world, especially in the beauty industry, this can be seen as an act of radicalism – when so often women of colour are asked to tame, change, or quieten their true beauty.
This is not to say that pageant-ing has solved the issue of racism forever. Trinidadian Janelle Commissiong was the first black Miss Universe back in 1977, but young girls did not immediately wake up the next day to instantly love everything they saw in the mirror. The development of self-love for black women can be a slow process. In the 2017 Miss World pageant, the black contestants were confused for one another multiple times by presenters and judges. Although the 2019 contestants had different hair types and skin colours, all five winners were able-bodied, cisgendered, and slim. This is the nature of the pageanting industry; an industry which doesn’t do much to assuage personal insecurity. I would even go as far as to claim it perpetuates more unrealistic exceptions on women. The same argument was made in the case of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion show, which despite showcasing black models, even in 2017 allowing Maria Borges to wear her natural hair, still is considered wholly detrimental to young women today. This is, in part, true. It is impossible to know if more girls felt joy at seeing their skin colour represented in a pageant compared to how many hated their body type for not being shown. Still, however negatively pageantry is portrayed, these wins still provide a space for self-love through representation.
Nia Franklin, Zozibini Tunzi, Toni-Ann Singh, Cheslie Kryst and Kaleigh Garris are not the odd faces in a sea of white, but instead are the complete faces of 21st century beauty. These queens have now appeared on talk shows, modelling campaigns, and newspaper covers. The victory is seeing five black women wearing crowns. It is succeeding in every inch of a competition that they were previously barred from entering. It is also a physical confirmation from the Western world of something many of us have only heard from ourselves, our mothers, our grandmothers. Finally, I cannot talk about the winners of the competitions without mentioning the runners up. If you have not seen Nyekachi Douglas, Miss Nigeria’s reaction to Toni-Ann Singh being announced Miss World, please stop reading and go watch that video. Douglas is the definition of black girl magic, of women supporting each other and of what we should all move towards in 2020. This supportive happiness is seen time and time again; look only to Taraji P. Henson in 2015 when Viola Davis won her Emmy – showing joy for a fellow woman of colour. This solidarity extends to all women, when so often the media pits us against each other: Naomi vs Tyra, Kate vs Meghan. Instead we can all aspire to be glad that if it’s not me, it’s her. In this way we can understand that one woman’s accomplishment does not in anyway detract from our own and that there are plenty of crowns to go round.
Artwork by Danni Pollock.