Wearing the crown

Are Black women the life-support for dying beauty pageants


No more refuting black is beautiful. Black women were crowned in all top five beauty pageants in 2019. As a Black woman in America, this monumental moment seems to have something to do with me. It must since so many of my Black friends have posted so proudly about it.

My Black Beauty

While I am thrilled about the success of these winners, I have specific concerns. The most predictable concern is the standard of beauty that these young women represent. Other than skin tone, not much about the standard of beauty has varied.

Miss Universe, from South Africa, is a small exception. She insisted on wearing her natural hair, though she was advised to wear a wig. Still, I wonder if cornrows or locks, instead of her short afro, would have been a deal-breaker. All five winners could easily be molded as Barbie dolls.

My problem is that I don?t like dolls. I never introduced my daughter to dolls, although my mother bought me plenty of dolls as a child. I remember feeling disconnected from them. I didn?t want to dress like a doll, and I never looked as pretty as a doll.

Dolls were boring because I didn?t like to play make-believe. I wanted to play rough with my brother and his friends. My favorite toy was the monkey bars on the playground. I boxed with boys, not kissed them, and wearing dresses was not convenient.

Like many Black women, my childhood memories of the straightening comb are just shy of traumatic. For those unfamiliar with kinky hair, an iron comb is heated on a stove, then placed in a child?s hair to remove the kinks. Unskilled use of it often results in burns to the neck, ears, or forehead.

?I am not my hair. I am not this skin. I am the soul that lives within.? ?India.Arie

Having lived for more than fifty years, I?ve been through several iterations of beauty values. Attributions of body configuration, skin tone, and hair, vary in the need for conformity. I often seemed at odds with American standards.

When I graduated with my Ph.D. and began a job search, I was warned to grow out my hair and conform to European standards to make myself employable. I did so. Eventually, I allowed my hair to lock but made sure they were thin enough to style into a traditional look when I wanted.

When I started training for my black belt in tae kwon do, I had to get strong enough to break boards with my hand. I fell in love with weight training and the way my body transformed into muscle. Time after time, women and men commented that I was becoming too muscular, even though my body frame was a size 2.

To Be or Not to Be

I have come to terms with my nontraditional beauty, hair locks, biceps, and all. I don?t need permission to flaunt my beauty, or affirmation when I do. Still, the permeating attention on the beauty pageants triggers dissonance in me.

I feel just as exploited as I do prideful. So, I have been sorting through critical questions in my mind.

  • Is there white-flight in beauty pageants?
  • Who are the real winners?
  • Are we still concerned about sexism in pageants?

I searched for answers in secrecy so as not to stir controversy by my pessimism. However, I imagine that I am in the good company of others who don?t know how to break their silence of suspicion. Perhaps, even Ms. World, the latest winner, must have felt a tinge of inevitability as she stood among the finalists.

Is There White-Flight in Beauty Pageants?

A 2015 UK journal article predicted that traditional beauty pageants are losing popularity. Finding contestants prove increasingly more challenging because women have more launching pads to the limelight.

The South China Morning Post echoed the same sentiment in 2018. It stated that the Miss Hong Kong pageant had lost its prestige and much of its viewing audience. ?The culture of indifference towards beauty pageants is spreading quickly across the globe.?

The writer, Lisa Tam, further asserted that the decision to drop the swimsuit contest from the Miss America competition was a last-ditch effort to revive the interest in beauty pageants. The point was to support body positivity and assure that talent was the focus.

The apparent white-flight in beauty pageants was on both sides of the rope. Interest in participating and viewing has been waning in recent years. Taking the focus off physical beauty in a beauty contest is a weak olive branch to feminists and a complete turn off to traditionalists. Something else was necessary to revive interest.

Who are the Real Winners?

The beauty pageant industry is worth over five billion dollars, starting with toddler entries. The white community was the largest investor in it. I have a concern that the Black world community is about to become the new backers of the industry.

We already spend billions a year on beauty products. Many of those products diminish our natural African features. African American economics suggests that the community?s net benefit from the industry will be insignificant. We will not get out of the beauty industry what we put into it.

By the time a young girl advances to one of the major women competitions, she has likely spent enough money to have paid for her college education. The cost of attire, coaches, beauty consultants, travel, and entry fees make competing a financial investment. Unfortunately, only one contestant reaps the benefits.

The dollar goes around and around as hundreds of smaller competitions feed into the five major ones. Cities, where competitions are held, make money. Television stations that air the program and all media outlets that cover it profit as well. The bigger the interest, the more money that is made from year to year.

The competition is not black or white. It is green. We should all know that slavery did not end because white people found value in diversity. It ended because it was no longer economically sustainable. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I worry that the prolific crowning of Black women is about sustaining an industry that is on life-support.

I have heard more about beauty pageants the past month than I have in the last decade. So, I?d say the tactic is working. I am confident that next year, more African Americans will be following all five pageants like we followed golf when Tigger Woods was winning.

Social media news and reports are already indicating how little Black girls now imagine themselves as capable of having the role of Miss Universe. I didn?t know that was ever a community goal. I can?t say that I would like for it to be, especially given the economic sacrifices.

Are We Still Concerned About Sexism?

All of the winners of the pageants demonstrated that beauty does not require the absence of brains. These women are career-focused. Some of them are even interested in STEM fields. I don?t hear much talk about that though. Instead, we are cheering for something we never asked for, and may not need. We certainly don?t need it the most.

Black women made great strides in Hollywood behind the camera in 2019. Chicago elected its first Black woman mayor. We?ve added Black women to the CEO list for Fortune 500 companies. A week after the last 2019 pageant success, the Marine Corps announced its first Black female general.

I?m excited with no regrets about these overlooked advances in the Black community. Yet, I haven?t read any social media posts or news reports this year about little Black girls aspiring to be in these fields because of exposure. I am concerned about where our public values are placed and how they contribute to patriarchy.

Now that Black women wear the crowns, are we not going to address sexism in beauty pageants? OK, let?s just ignore the tendency toward anorexia and spending good money to be judged according to male-defined standards of beauty. Let?s make-believe removing the swimsuit contest removed the sexualization of women. Let?s pretend Black women have not been historically hyper-sexualized. Then, I can have more enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, I cannot pretend or ignore the sexism associated with beauty pageants, as much as I want to take pride in my sisters? success. I am too concerned about the bigger picture. I can?t value the achievement that isn?t really an achievement. It?s sloppy seconds, wearing your older sister?s hand-me-downs. As white women begin to move away from platforms of objectification, the doors open for Black women to take their place. I say, no thank you.

The Future of Black Women

My cognitive dissonance warns that Black women exist within complex contexts. They are not required to ascribe to a feminist agenda that rejects beauty as social capital. No area of life that black women want to pursue should be off-limit. I believe this. On the other hand, I believe in a collective social conscience.

?I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. . . . Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world ? I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.? ? Zora Neale Hurston

If we are going to embark on the path of beauty standards, we had better start sharpening our knives. We must have eyes wide open from an economic position, gender assessment, and race awareness. Let?s not be driven to more consumerism of beauty products and pursuits of male affirmation.

I?d hoped our social conscience moved toward body autonomy rather than exhibition. My heart prioritizes the pursuit of higher education, robust political presence, and STEM leadership.

I desire to flaunt every Black woman on these empowerment paths so little girls can believe their Black girl magic is inside. They don?t need permission to express it, and they don?t need affirmation when they do.


Bakari, R. (2019): What Makes Me So Amazing: You Should Be Amazing Too. Medium. https://medium.com/@rosennab/what-makes-me-so-amazing-you-should-be-amazing-too-4aab8902e370.

Harley, N. (2015): Are the Days of the Traditional Beauty Pageant Numbered? The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/11731114/Are-the-days-of-the-traditional-beauty-pageant-numbered.html.

Jefferson, E. (2019): Where are the Black Women in Stem Leadership.


Tam, L. (2018). Why Stop at Swimsuit contests? Let?s Scrap Beauty Pageants Altogether. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/2150211/why-stop-swimsuit-contests-lets-scrap-beauty-pageants-altogether.

Lindsey, T. (2019). Black Women are Making History Behind the Cameral in Hollywood. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/black-women-are-making-history-behind-the-camera-in-hollywood/2019/03/21/e0c47764-3c61-11e9-aaae-69364b2ed137_story.html

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