Growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, my conservative Christian parents surprisingly allowed my sister and I to watch the Miss Trinidad and Tobago pageant. It was an affair full of glamor, aspiration, and beauty. It wasn’t questioned and certainly not scrutinized for our young minds. I grew up thinking that to be beautiful was to be tall, just the right amount of curvy, flawless, and to possess the startling ability to glide across a stage with a perfect smile.
Over the past few decades, the Miss America pageant has made a big impact. Contestants receive a wide range of scholarship money, there’s a focus on education and giving back to the community, and the competition includes women with a variety of body types, signaling an ever so slight shift away from the idea that thin equals beautiful. And as of 2018, the antiquated swimsuit component was thankfully eliminated with more focus toward the candidates’ talent.
“As a parent of a 2-year-old girl, I’m extra cautious about the messages concerning beauty that are being sent her way.”
However, some of the improvements have been incremental at best, performative at worst. And if you dig deeper, the issues become more obvious. As a parent of a 2-year-old girl who is starting to enjoy all things makeup and jewelry, I’m extra cautious about the messages concerning beauty that are being sent her way.
Here is why I’m not comfortable with my daughter watching the Miss America Pageant on December 16.
As the Miss America website notes, “Miss America has evolved in society as women in society have evolved. This past year, candidates were no longer judged on outward appearance. That meant the elimination of the swimsuit competition and additional time and focus on the candidates’ voices to be heard more often.” Still, it’s surprising that almost all the contestants fall within traditional beauty ideals. It’s not how I want to teach my daughter that beauty lies in the love and gentleness she has for herself, how she treats those around her and the love she gives back to the world. It’s important to me to teach her that how she looks should not define her ability to access opportunities. I want her to see her value that’s not in the flawlessness of her complexion or the shininess of her teeth. I want her to see that women are varied in appearance and that’s incredible. From the pimples and dark under-eye circles to the chin hairs and frizzy hair, my daughter needs to see that what society calls flaws are actually just who we are. And that’s OK.
As the mother of a light-skinned Black girl, I also don’t want my daughter thinking that her features need to be Eurocentric for her to be considered acceptably beautiful by this world. I want her to learn that people with darker skin tones need to be represented more and given opportunities to succeed just as much as those with lighter skin tones or who are white. As a society, our children get messages from all around them that lighter skin is beautiful and that Black people are more beautiful when they’re racially ambiguous. They get this message of colorism from television shows, books, the treatment of students as young as kindergarten age, and, for some, from within their own families.
There are also, what I feel, are unreasonable barriers to entry, specifically, the requirement that all candidates be U.S. citizens (a criteria that, to be fair, is not exclusive to Miss America — and therein lies a big problem). I want my daughter to know that to be American is to live in this country, no matter one’s citizenship status. The process of getting one’s citizenship says absolutely nothing about one’s merit or value but is most times a matter of luck, timing, and circumstances within an unjust system. This system defines rights and privileges based on one’s immigration status, further marginalizing those who are undocumented. Countless undocumented women in this country would greatly benefit from scholarships and a public platform but they cannot in this case, based on their citizenship.
We still exist in a society that tries to dictate to girls that they must look a certain way and act a certain way to gain success, a life partner, a family, and more. I am intentionally raising my daughter to take up space, be loud, get messy and dirty. I want her to be rude if being polite means she can’t challenge the status quo. I’m raising her to walk into spaces with her heart first, not her beauty. I hope she is proud to be strong and powerful and unyielding, even in the face of a society that seeks to judge her first by how she looks, not by the fire that blazes through her veins.