Up Next

Commentary

Zozibini Tunzi’s win as Miss Universe may signal a change in how we see feminine beauty

The crowning of four black women in major pageants defies the legacy that privileges European standards of beauty in the pageant industry

For the first time in our collective history, four black women have been crowned in each of the major beauty pageant titles: Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen America, and now, Miss Universe. The crowning of these women has defied the long standing legacy that privileges European standards of beauty in the pageant industry.

In 1977, more than 40 years ago, Miss Trinidad and Tobago Janelle Penny Commissiong was declared the most beautiful woman in the world when she was crowned the first black Miss Universe, but I didn’t know it. I was too short to reach the television knob, and too young to stay up for prime-time television, so I was unaware of Commissiong and the way she shattered the glass ceiling of universal beauty standards.

Two years later, I found myself in the play area for girls in kindergarten. I met a best friend who looks like a brunette Barbie doll. Barbie is the drugstore pop-culture beauty I know. The best friend’s name is Carrie. And because my mother does not do the cooking in our house, my imagination has a hard time imagining my body in an apron or the role of homemaker like Barbie. Soon after I came to realize that I must have resembled a “Christie,” the black Barbie doll with skin the shade of a chocolate ribbon.

These memories of kindergarten kicked up like dust when Zozibini Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe on Dec. 8 in Atlanta. She is African. Her skin is black. It collects all the colors of the rainbow and confronts the legacy of colonies in our world. Tunzi’s hair is not a mask of femininity, but a crown that frames her regalness. Her very existence and her role as Miss Universe are personified as anti-colonial – she defies the scripts of what is normal and subverts the suggested hierarchies of ideal femininity.

During her win, she stated, “may every little girl see their faces reflected in mine.”

“I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin [dark] and my kind of hair [short and tightly coiled], was never considered beautiful,” Tunzi said.

These memories of kindergarten kicked up like dust when Zozibini Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe on Dec. 8 in Atlanta. She is African. Her skin is black. It collects all the colors of the rainbow and confronts the legacy of colonies in our world.

The Miss Universe 2019 pageant is another example of how popular culture is expanding ideas about beauty beyond industry norms and the legacy of empires.

My kindergarten self wished I knew of Tunzi sooner.

For generations, traditional references to universal beauty standards have privileged European standards that are often associated with race and a history of European countries occupying and claiming other countries as their property, privileging lighter skin, blond hair, longer hair, small noses and thin body frames.

Considering that the Miss Universe corporation described Tunzi as “a proud advocate for natural beauty,” I am not sure if the pageant industry plans to be more open to standards of beauty that are inclusive of the global majority. Hopefully, Tunzi’s win is not an exception to the pageant industry’s commitment to expanding beauty norms. Still, her crowning is a clear indication that the pageant industry will interrogate its long-standing commitment to celebrating beauty standards that mirror a Eurocentric standard of beauty.

A change may be near.

DaMaris B. Hill is the author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing: The Incarceration of African American Women from Harriet Tubman to Sandra Bland, The Fluid Boundaries of Suffrage and Jim Crow: Staking Claims in the American Heartland, \Vi-zə-bəl\ \Teks-chərs\(Visible Textures). Similar to her creative process, Hill’s scholarly research is interdisciplinary. Hill is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Kentucky. The paperback of A Bound Woman Is A Dangerous Thing will be released on January 14, 2020.