30 agosto 2010

Don't look to Miss Universe to teach your daughters lessons about beauty

Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt

Washington, DC – I was intrigued by the controversy surrounding the promotional photo shoot  for this year’s Miss Universe competition which featured semi nude and bare breasted painted contestants.  I paid attention to it even more because a contestant from my husband’s native Trinidad and Tobago, LaToya Woods, was one of four women who elected to pose semi-nude in the infamous ad campaign.  It was all the buzz in our social circles.
I was so taken in by the furor generated that I even logged on to MissUniverse.com and caught an online broadcast of the preliminary competitions the weekend before Monday’s finals. As I watched the ladies parade across the stage, immediately, I was struck by the number of African and Caribbean countries that had decided to send a darker skinned representative to the annual international contest put on by Donald Trump. Miss Tanzania stood out most to me, not just because she is a striking beauty, but because she sported short cropped tightly curled hair and African bantu knots – something rarely seen in these types of competitions.
For those who have had the privilege of not noticing, for most of the history of this competition and its sister competition, Ms. World, most contestants have had similar features that are markedly European.  Even representatives of countries that have majority dark skinned peoples with thick curly hair and rounder faces with broader noses managed to send fair skin representatives with long flowing straight hair, angular features, straight noses and light colored eyes.  I know for sure there was a wide variety of contestants in each of those countries national competitions, but they pick the same type each year notwithstanding However, perhaps along the way these countries recognized that only contestants that looked a certain way made it to the top 10 year after year. They figured out a long time ago to increase their chances of winning  it would probably be best to send a representative that toed that line – beauty wise.
In any event, this standard beauty ideal was broken when the representative from my husband’s native Trinidad and Tobago, Wendy Fitzwilliam, a striking, sharp, witty and intelligent beauty with a dark brown skin complexion won the contest in 1998.  There hasn’t been another “Wendy” since then, but I dare say we’ve come a long way where there has been a wider variety of women in the top 10 anyway.
Yes, I know it is more than just a beauty contest and that a bit of the competition focuses on intellect, poise and personality, but overwhelmingly, it’s still a beauty contest and everyone recognizes it as such.  Most people aren’t blessed with the "idolized"  blue eyed, blonde hair, stick thin, flawless skin and Barbie doll looks and therefore there are many children of all races who are negatively affected by the distorted standard of beauty. I want to think it is part of the reason that all of our daughters  want to get plastic surgery at a younger and younger age. I don’t even want to get into what parents of young pageant queens put their daughters through and the harmful messages they deliver to their children about their value.  However, I still believe the dangers of these contests are compounded even more so for darker skinned children of African descent with kinkier hair because it would take more than a pair of blue contact lenses, a fake tan, caps and hair bleach to conform. They’d have to take the extra step of chemically processing their hair straight, bleaching their skin and plugging in hair extensions.
Coming back full circle to the Miss Universe competition, seeing so many countries send darker skinned contestants and some without long flowing hair was wonderful to me for two reasons: 1. It signaled that these countries were beginning to embrace the ethnic features that made up some of the most beautiful women in their native lands and send the best candidate whether or not she fit into the mold of most past  Miss Universe Top 10; and 2. It was a further validation for me who is the mother of a brown-skinned daughter who has thick kinky hair and facial features that are uniquely more African than European.
Certainly, I will not rely on beauty pageants to teach my daughter about valuing her features. I hope to instill pride in her appearance; and the knowledge that her brains and contribution to society matter more than looks.  Notwithstanding, I know that I cannot compete with messages she sees in the media and the world around her. Indeed, when we are out and about I notice some people giving disapproving looks at the tiny plaits that I keep in her very short hair, so I know I have regular humans in the world to combat as well. Google the word “good hair” and you will find a gold mine of dialogue about that topic.  But if she happens to catch a beauty show, while we are flipping channels or if we are cheering on a national favorite, I want her to see a variety of women parading across the stage. I do not want her to look in the mirror and feel she would never be able to compete if she wanted to because she was not born with the right colored skin.
During Monday’s broadcast, I followed the Tweets and Facebook updates and noted how disappointed people were in the top 10 picks. One person wrote:
 *this just in... Black is not beautiful by Ms. Universe standards and even if you're black
you better at least look like a really tanned white girl.*
The answer: If you want you and your children to see more contestants that look like you and people who look like you, quit complaining and start your own beauty pageant! Oh yeah, that’s why there is such a thing as Miss Black America or a Miss Asian Pacific Islander contest then, huh?


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