The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The history of beauty pageants reveals the limits of Black representation

Black contestants — and winners — have not translated into changed beauty standards or structural transformation

In 1968, Saundra Williams, 19, of Philadelphia, is crowned the first Miss Black America in Atlantic City, N.J., flanked by first runner-up Theresa Claytor, 20, right, and second runner-up, Linda Johnson, 21. (AP)
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In January, Cheslie Kryst, a lawyer, television correspondent and former Miss USA, died by suicide. Her loss has been widely felt. In part, this is because Kryst’s title as Miss USA was historic. In 2019, she helped make pageant history when she and three other Black women — Nia Imani Franklin, Kaliegh Garris and Zozibini Tunzi — took home the titles of Miss USA, Miss America, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe, respectively. It marked the first time that Black women had won four major pageant titles in the same year. “Finally the universe is giving value to black skin,” Leila Lopes, a former Miss Universe, wrote at the time.

For decades, mainstream beauty standards have centered on whiteness, with White women becoming the epitome of “beauty” around the world. Consequently, that narrow definition of beauty has excluded Black women. While Lopes was correct about Black representation increasing at the highest ranks of beauty pageants, anti-Blackness remains ingrained in U.S. and global beauty standards.

Beauty pageants have long been a space for contesting exclusion. In 1968, for example, activists staged protests at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. The pageant had historically excluded women of color and had never featured a Black contestant. Two groups protested: feminists declaring the pageant sexist for objectifying women’s bodies and civil rights activists exposing its racism. The NAACP organized an alternative contest, the Miss Black America pageant, also held in Atlantic City on the same day as Miss America.

At Miss Black America, Black women combated racial discrimination by creating their own space to celebrate Black beauty in an all-Black pageant. The event emerged from a growing movement of Black consciousness, where Black people sought self-determination and empowerment on their own terms. It was a specific attempt to reject what psychologist Huberta Jackson-Lowman describes as globalized Eurocentric standards of beauty where “beauty must adhere to European characteristics in terms of skin color, facial features, hair texture and length, eye color, and physique.” Global industries encouraged, maintained and marketed these White and Eurocentric standards of beauty celebrating thinness, light skin, long hair and other features. Pageants were part of this production.

But the first Miss Black America, Saundra Williams, triumphed with her natural Afro hairstyle and “curvy” figure distinct from what the competition’s sponsors deemed “the White stereotype” of typical pageant winners. In contrast, Williams wore a “bright yellow jumpsuit with bells around her ankles,” portraying a Pan-African and global Black identity with her “Fiji” African-inspired dance. Williams held her title with pride as she stated, “this is better than Miss America.” She articulated Blackness as more than sufficient, with notions of Black Power and Black beauty on display as she suggested, “with my title, I can show Black women that they, too, are beautiful, even though they do have large noses and thick lips.”

In 1970, the Miss America pageant finally featured a Black contestant. Even more consequentially that year, Jennifer Hosten became the first Black winner of Miss World since its creation in 1951. The contest was held in London, and as in the United States in the late 1960s, the British women’s liberation movement protested the pageant over sexism and its objectification of women.

Some women, including Hosten, a Black woman from Grenada, did not view pageants in this light. Hosten explained, “It wasn’t my thought that I was being exploited. If I had thought that, I wouldn’t have taken part.” She said she simply entered pageants to travel, represent her country and possibly make money. By selecting a Black winner, the pageant seemed to signal a shift in beauty standards to be more inclusive and representative.

But the politics of the event were also ambivalent. As the world criticized South Africa for its highly racist and unjust apartheid system, Miss World organizers allowed the country to send two candidates — one White, one Black — to compete on the country’s behalf. Although Pearl Jansen, a Black South African, placed second at the event, the pageant explicitly displayed South African apartheid on a global platform by allowing dual contestants.

Moreover, White media outlets undermined Hosten’s win, with skeptical headlines that asked: “Miss World is Black, and is she the most beautiful girl in the world?” It was difficult for some viewers and commentators to see a Black woman as fully beautiful in light of long-standing Eurocentric beauty standards. As sociologist Maxine Leeds Craig has said, as a pageant like Miss America “established the reigning definition of beauty, it reinforced cultural codes that placed Black women outside of the beauty ideal.”

Contrasting Miss Black America in 1968 and Miss World in 1970 is instructive. Although both selected Black winners, Miss Black America enabled Black women to express disapproval of Eurocentric beauty standards and demonstrate that their beauty did not need White validation. Miss World, by contrast, demonstrated the limitations of a politics of representation, given how the pageant’s gesture at inclusion — inviting two contestants from South Africa — reinforced segregation and masked oppression under a thin veil of diversity.

Steadily, Black representation in pageants has increased. In 1984, Vanessa Williams became the first Black winner of Miss America. The progress continued until Black women won all four major titles for the first time in 2019. In 2021, three Black women won the major competitions of Miss USA (Elle Smith), Miss Earth (Destiny Wagner) and Miss Teen USA (Breanna Myles). Although by some measures this increase in Black representation demonstrates more diverse beauty standards and shifting categories of acceptance, it would be premature to suggest that the world is progressing toward an anti-racist society.

Even in a moment of historic global reckoning with white supremacy and racism through Black Lives Matter protests, it is not clear whether representation can translate to meaningful equality. For example, Abena Appiah, winner of the 2020 Miss Grand International pageant and the first Black woman to represent the United States in that pageant, wore a custom gown that portrayed images of victims of police brutality such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The moment stunned, and Appiah gained access to a global platform. But her win has not translated to broader structural change or attention. Less than two years after Floyd’s killing, the same police department killed another Black man, Amir Locke.

Evidence suggests that the fashion world’s promises to expand diversity in the aftermath of 2020s anti-racist uprisings have gone unfulfilled. And in the beauty industry, whiteness remains big business; the global market for skin whitening is projected to increase to more than $11 billion by 2026.

This suggests that conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion are not enough. When we see strategies touting the importance of “representation” alongside a profound lack of structural change, we can only conclude that it is insufficient, at best, and, at worst, a distraction from other forms of struggle.