By Siobhan Elizabeth Ball
Elm Staff Writer
Beauty pageants have returned to public discourse following the marriage announcement on Oct. 28 of 2019’s Miss Argentina, Mariana Varela, and 2020’s Miss Puerto Rico, Fabiola Valentin.
The two met at the 2020 Miss Grand International competition in Thailand, where their friendship blossomed into a secret romance. Varela and Valentin made the announcement on Instagram showing a video of their relationship over the past two years with the caption, “after deciding to keep our relationship private, we opened the doors to you on a special day.”
The news of this marriage brought LGBTQ+ issues to light within the pageant industry. The Miss United States of America pageant retains a rule that only “natural born” women are allowed to qualify to compete in the competition and the board are adamant that this rule stands.
Anita Green, a transgender woman, did not take this rule lightly, suing the pageant in 2019 for their rejection of her application due to her gender identity. In 2021, Green issued a statement stating that she believes the Miss United States pageant is “on the wrong side of history” for choosing to discriminate against transgender people.
According to The Washington Post, a federal appellate court decision stated that national beauty pageants have a first amendment right to exclude transgender women from competing because it interferes with the message of pageants, which is “what it means to be a woman.”
The spotlight now shining on beauty pageants not only opened up discussions concerning LGBTQ+ rights, but also issues regarding racial representation.
For centuries, mainstream beauty standards centered whiteness, with the epitome of “beauty” equating to Eurocentric facial features.
According to PBS, under the leadership of Lenora Slaughter, the Miss America rule book stated that, “Contestants must be of good health and of the white race.”
The Miss America pageant historically excluded Black women from competing. However, in 1968, in collaboration with the NAACP, Black women across America staged protests at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey over the pageant’s racist rules. Following these protests, Brenda Cozart and J. Morris Anderson established their own alternative beauty competition, the Miss Black America pageant.
The creation of the Miss Black America pageant was an attempt to reject globalized Eurocentric standards of beauty. According to psychologist Huberta Jackson-Lowman, these standards historically read that, “beauty must adhere to European characteristics in terms of skin color, facial features, hair texture and length, eye color, and physique.”
It was not until 1970 that the Miss America pageant featured a black contestant, Jennifer Hosten, who became the first Black winner of Miss World since its inception back in 1951.
Sociologist Maxine Leeds Craig said that pageants like Miss America “established the reigning definition of beauty” and “reinforced cultural codes that placed Black women outside of the beauty ideal.”
Black women proved these racially discriminatory beauty standards redundant in 2019 when Cheslie Kryst, Nia Imani Franklin, Kaliegh Garris, and Zozibini Tunzi won the titles of Miss USA, Miss America, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe. This marked the first-time Black women had won four major beauty pageant titles in the same year when former Miss Universe Leila Lopes said, “finally the universe is giving value to black skin.”
The marriage of Varela and Valentin shines a light on the inadequacies and discrimination of the beauty pageant business, which must be addressed if the industry wants to stay relevant and garner popular support.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo caption: A photo from the 1948 Miss Montreal beauty pageant, held during a time in which Black women were generally barred from competing in pageants across the globe.