They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the truth is that when beauty is constantly viewed from the lens of a predominantly white and Western gaze, and for so long shaped by and held to Eurocentric standards, the concept of beauty becomes dangerously distorted.
They also say that beauty is more than skin deep but history would have us believe that the ideal is not any deeper than medium-beige.
But for the first time in the history of beauty pageants, all the five major title holders (Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA) are Black women. It’s a feat that may have gone unnoticed. But to many Black women, and perhaps even more importantly, young Black girls, who for so long have been told that beauty was not an arena wherein they could feel included, let alone lauded, the current reign of Black beauty queens signals what might be considered the shattering of a glass ceiling. And this recognition of Black beauty on such a large and influential scale is as meaningful as it is momentous.
On December 8, 2019, history was made as Miss South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi, won the 68th Miss Universe competition—the first Black woman to win the renowned pageant since Leila Lopes in 2011. More noticeably however, she was the first dark-skinned Black woman to wear the crown with short, natural and unprocessed hair. Then came another first: taking a stand against prejudiced beauty standards for Black women.
“I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me—with my kind of skin and my kind of hair—was never considered to be beautiful,” Tunzi said in her closing speech. “I think it is time that stops today. I want children to look at me and see my face, and I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.”
With her skin as dark and smooth as the world’s finest chocolate and her cropped, natural hair unrivaled by the crown, she was incredibly, undeniably beautiful.
One week later, Miss Jamaica, Toni-Ann Singh, couldn’t have lost the Miss World competition if she tried. She simply stood out from start to finish. She exuded poise, grace, and charisma.
This is why everyone should be celebrating the dominance of Black beauty queens:
Black girls seeing themselves up on that stage
I was 10 years old the first time I entered a beauty pageant, and I came in second place. I never dreamt of being a beauty queen, but I suppose it was easy for me to imagine it because being fair-skinned and one-quarter Chinese in Jamaica meant there was always someone who looked like me competing or winning. And I realized very early that there was something wrong with that perception of beauty.
I can still remember one of the games we would play in primary school. We would hold hands in a circle and a boy would choose a girl to “love.” The girl would come to the middle of the circle and a “judge” would question the boy as to why he chose her. The fair-skinned and mixed-race girls always got chosen first. “This is the pretty girl you love? This is the ‘brown’ girl you love? This is the long-haired girl you love?”
And then only later, the dark-skinned girls would be chosen. “This is the black girl you love? This is the dry-haired girl you love?” Sometimes, “This is the ugly girl you love?”
I asked a former schoolmate, Rochelle, if she remembered the game. She tells me “I was terrified of that game. I remember[ed] how I feared the descriptors.”
Unbeknownst to us, then, ugly remnants of a dark history played out in our schoolyard games.
Black girls and women taking up space
It is fitting that when asked what was important to teach girls today, Tunzi answered “[…] we should be teaching young girls to take up space.”
From the trauma of slavery and colonization, to the day-to-day toil of simply existing in a vastly anti-Black world, Black women have been left with very little space and opportunity to define beauty for themselves. So, they create it intentionally and unapologetically. No longer waiting for a seat at the table, but commanding the room.
The perception of beauty has been distorted by Eurocentrism
It is important to examine the disturbing history of what is celebrated as beauty in many parts of the world, and how this standard of beauty continues to perpetuate a false ideal at the expense, and to the detriment, of Black women.
In a post-colonial Africa and Caribbean, the ramifications of slavery and colonization have reverberated through the halls of time. Likenesses of both colonizer and colonized have been preserved in genes and passed on through generations, resulting in gradients of skin tones from deep dark to indiscernibly white, and hair textures from pin straight to tightly coiled curls. This spectrum of phenotypes has yielded what might be described as a “melting pot.” But one where opportunity and access to resources are unevenly distributed. And where proximity to whiteness remains the yardstick for respectability, desirability and, of course, beauty.
Beauty in predominantly Black countries remains notoriously political, and perhaps the climax of beauty politics in these countries is the selection of who is selected to represent the country on the world stage at an international pageant like Miss World or Miss Universe. Criticism is usually rife when the winner is another “light-skinned or mixed race” girl. Many Jamaicans proudly quote the national motto, “Out of many, one people” at assertions that a winner does not look “Jamaican enough.” Others contend that with over 90% of the population identifying as Black, they don’t see themselves represented in the fair-skinned, wavy haired beauty queens.
Afrocentric beauty is no longer “second place”
Since its first international title in 1958, South Africa has won the Miss World title twice and Miss Universe title three times. Only once, with Tunzi’s victory, has the winner been unambiguously Black. Jamaica has won three previous Miss World titles prior to the current title, all of whom were mixed race or ethnically ambiguous.
From the stages of beauty pageants and fashion runways to the pages and covers of magazines, it has been no secret that Afrocentric beauty has long been relegated to second place. Sometimes quite literally. Black models and even more specifically, dark-skinned Black models are woefully underrepresented in runway lineups. The idea that an unambiguously Black woman in any arena for public consumption cannot appeal to a large audience has been perpetuated since the dawn of modern entertainment. Consequently, the opportunities for representation of Black beauty have been too few and far between. And the opportunities that do exist often go to fairer-skinned Black women with the need to appease the oppressive white gaze.
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Black actresses, media personalities, women working in a corporate environment, have all felt the chafe of the Eurocentric beauty ideal. Tunzi herself has spoken out about the fact the she was encouraged to wear a wig throughout the Miss Universe competition. Kinky, coiled hair is such an immutably natural Black beauty trait yet continues to be policed in workplaces and schools.
But Black beauty is rising
Even against rigid confines, Black beauty has flourished. In the last decade, and with the rise of social media, a new generation of pro-Black proponents are embracing their Blackness and, consequently pushing back against oppressive beauty ideals. One microcosm of the current era of pro-Blackness is a growing natural hair movement.
One of my closest childhood friends, Kemara, tells me, “I definitely didn’t know black hair could be so beautiful. [There weren’t] many role models for that.”
If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Representation matters.
In recent years, there have been some notable improvements in the world of beauty pageants. At a time when representation has never been more mainstream, and diversity and inclusion are buzzwords for every big corporation and makeup brand, the needle is moving. Both Miss Jamaica Universe 2007 and Miss Jamaica World 2015 had dreadlocks, with the latter making the top five at the 2015 Miss World pageant. With African models and actresses such as Adut Akech and Lupita Nyong’o getting major beauty campaigns, and more Black beauty pageant contestants forgoing weaves and relaxers in favour of their natural hair, it seems the long-overdue change is afoot.
But some question whether the societal shift toward inclusion is simply a pendulum swing, or the shift is to create meaningful, sustainable change. Because representation does matter. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. And every child deserves to see themselves in someone. Whether it’s a teacher, a doctor, or a beauty queen.
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Beauty matters too
Whether we like to admit it or not, beauty also matters. We like to be around it. We want to have it. We are willing to pay for it, and we pay big-time. (The global beauty industry is estimated be worth a staggering $532 billion, and the Canadian market alone is expected to generate $15.8 billion in sales in 2021). Whether we like to admit it or not, how we see ourselves in proximity to beauty is directly related to our self-esteem. Not to be conflated with how others see us, but rather, how we ourselves. Oprah once said that if she had seen supermodel Alek Wek on the cover of a magazine when she was growing up, she would have felt beautiful too. Little black girls deserve to see beauty reflected as it is in them. And now they will.
My friend and former fellow beauty pageant contestant, Lesa, told me she cried when Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe.
“Dark skin. Natural hair. She’s regal. We couldn’t have asked for a better representation.”
Two weeks later, we exchanged excited messages once again as our countrywoman walked away with the Miss World crown.
“What a time to be alive!” Lesa wrote to me. It is a beautiful time, indeed.