I have, as it turns out now that I am writing this, enough memories of televised beauty pageants, watching young women walk sure-footed in high heels across a stage, listening to them in the ‘question round’ straining to transmit the obvious – that they have fine minds and interested hearts, doh mind the swimsuit.
Beauty pageants are cringe-inducing on many levels. Yet even when we are quite uninterested, they will commandeer attention as when Jennifer Hosten won Miss World in 1970. I mean, from that tiny island of Grenada? And what about Penny, Giselle, Wendy and Lisa? Those ‘crownings’ had some political significance, in the sense of experiences that transcend the person involved. They were moments when other people might get to know that we exist, in a world, as David Rudder puts it, “that don’t need islands no more”. And there is no denying the politics of race and ethnicity in the definition of beauty. Our Caribbean women winning affirmed especally in the 70’s and 80’s for those who needed it, that black is beautiful.
If you had asked me, well even up to August this year, whether I would be attending Miss World, I would have been bemused. A joke perhaps? But there I was on Saturday, two rows from the stage in a hall in Bali, sandwiched between two beautifully clad women, both waving a huge Dominican flag. I think you saw me on TV? I was sitting directly in front the mother of the person who eventually won, Miss Philippines.
Can I say that I had an experience, one that I will remember for several reasons? For watching Lassa, composed, seeing dimensions of her young womanhood, some absolutely consistent with the 10-year-old Lassa – her certainty, her ease with people, her clarity on the beauty of her naturalness.
I was sitting in front the support contingent from the Philippines and participated in their utter delight, observed the mother’s tension and her release. I shared in those seconds of contagious pure maternal satisfaction. The families around, those supporting Miss Dominica and Miss Botswana, would have felt some disappointment for their daughters, nieces, god-daughter, but they were proud and taking pictures.
The show, the concept, is a curiosity, out of time, yet it resonates, springing to life oddly. Like for Dominica, having a contestant for the first time in 35 years, one who has in the last year, won four other competitions in the Caribbean. Someone who represents a country so tiny, so often confused with Dominican Republic, giving an opportunity for others to see the country’s specialness, its natural grace.
The feminist critique of the beauty competition is for the smallness of its vision of femininity, for its reinforcement and validation of male attention to young women’s sexuality, whether or not men even watch the shows. They exploit the dominant gender culture’s preoccupation with the compare and contrast of women’s bodies.
We lament the constructed idealization of beauty – thin, fair, straight hair. There is something fundamentally disquieting and reductive about judging young women for how they look. It mirrors our daily reality as women across the life cycle, that we are first of all, the sum of what we look like. Whatever our feminist gains, the profitability of the cosmetics industry reminds of the durability of the notion of beauty as a woman’s primary attribute and asset.
We tell young women that they are entitled to the range of life’s opportunities without discriminatory barriers. And indeed depending on the country and depending on socio-economic factors, more women have and are breaking ceilings, pushing back walls, constructing reservoirs of self-reliance, designing whole edifices to integrated life.
So these beauty competitions try to refresh and reinvent themselves, promoting beauty with a purpose, beauty with brains, beauty with muscle, beauty with talent. I wonder about this, about this promotion of Superwoman. Now these young women must be purposeful, strong, smart and beautiful. More fields of judgement.
Still, this is what the social scientists call a negotiated space and we see young women (and those who support them) seek ways to use this experience to make common cause on issues that they care about.
Leslassa has started an NGO through which she advocates for holistic education. Over this last year, she used her platform to speak about domestic violence and child abuse. and she will continue to do so. Her world has opened up and in that opening she is telling young women to stay true. Her fabulous head of unprocessed natural African hair such a thing of beauty.
Others in the competition used their professions to bring services to the excluded as dentists, as midwives. Miss Barbados contributes to an organization that brings happy experiences to children who are terminally ill.
I judged them all to have won. And yes I was happy to be there with Team Lassa.