Black Women Reign at Beauty Pageants

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When Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa was named Miss Universe on Sunday, her crowning signified a milestone: the first year that four of the major beauty pageants had simultaneously awarded the top prize to a black woman.

Pageants have long been criticized for their antiquated beauty standards and, in many cases, outright racism or gender stereotyping. Last year, the Miss America Organization announced it would scrap both the swimsuit and evening gown portions of the competition. And while black women have been winners in the past — notably Vanessa Williams, who in 1984 was the first black woman to be named Miss America — they have never been as successful as this year.

Supporters of the women — Ms. Tunzi, Cheslie Kryst (this year’s Miss USA), Kaliegh Garris (Miss Teen USA) and Nia Franklin (Miss America) — say the recognition sends a powerful message that today’s beauty standards are evolving beyond Barbie-lite, or an era when contestants were prized solely for smooth hair, light skin color and thin lips.

“Finally the universe is giving value to black skin,” read an Instagram post from Leila Lopes, a former Miss Angola who was crowned Miss Universe in 2011. Oprah also praised Ms. Tunzi for her leadership. But perhaps the new Miss Universe put it best in her closing address on Sunday night.

“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 beautiful,” she told the rapt crowd. “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.”

Hilary Levey Friedman, a visiting professor of education at Brown University who is writing a book about beauty pageants, said a new definition of what it means to be a pageant winner was being embraced in this era when questions of equality and inclusion are increasingly urgent.

“The idea of what we think is beautiful has expanded,” she said. “Skin color. Body type. Curly hair. If you look at all this year’s winners, they look like themselves.”

This is a far cry from 1968, when women protested outside the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. Throwing girdles, bras and false eyelashes, they denounced the fact that the pageant had not had a black finalist since its inception in 1921. That night, black women participated in their own pageant several blocks away.

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