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Ethnic Pageants Restyle the American Beauty Contest

Virginia Nguyen said competition was fierce at Miss Vietnam USA.
Virginia Nguyen said competition was fierce at Miss Vietnam USA. "When I started to win . . . some of the girls wouldn't talk to me," she said. (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)

Some, especially feminists, believe the pageants are more about assimilation than heritage.

"In Little Tokyo beauty contests in the '90s, the women who were selected turned out to have more Caucasian features," said Kyeyoung Park, an associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of California at Los Angeles. "They tended to select more mixed-race people."

Dav said the disconnect might reflect tension between old-world immigrant parents and their Americanized children, many of whom intermarry.

"The first generation wants to see in their children a continuity of the place from which they came," she said. "The second generation has to deal with being a minority among people who don't understand their home, and that's the dichotomy."

Cosmetic surgery is another touchy subject. Like white Americans, ethnic immigrants and their American-born progeny seek out plastic surgeons. But because many Asian Americans are prone to change their eyelids and enlarge their chests, and some black people streamline their broad noses, they are accused of trying to look white.

Nguyen is a natural beauty with no surgical touch-ups. But she did engage in another pageant hot-button practice, showing skin in a yellow bikini.

"Part of being in a public crowd . . . is you have to be comfortable in your own skin," said Nguyen, a medical student who is svelte and fit. "Whether I'm fat or whatever, I have to love myself."

Miss India organizers would have no part of such displays, a cultural taboo. And conservative-minded Ethiopians, said Tekle of Alexandria, would rather not.

"If it is a competition to show skin, then it's not a competition worth having," said Tekle, who grinned and bared it for a cause. "The ultimate goal is to represent your country."

The goal at Miss Liberia was simple: instill pride in Liberian women, said Agnes Donaldson, a pageant organizer.

Days before the contest, two teenage girls approached Miss Liberia in Pennsylvania. "You're so pretty," Donaldson recalled one girl's comment. "You don't look African."

It was an echo of the remarks Budy heard all her life from black Americans and white Americans, and now they were coming from two Liberians.

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