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When Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America in 1983, I was fifteen. As a young woman of African heritage, I was supposed to feel validated, but I didn’t. Williams’ wide blue eyes, sandy hair, and middle America girl-next-door looks didn’t do anything to validate my sense of my beauty as a Black girl. She challenged the racial category of the winner, but not the aesthetics of the beauty standards.
Sunday, as many in the nation watched Nina Davuluri crowned as the first South Asian Miss America, I had that usual ambivalence about brown women breaking into sexist institutions.
Beauty pageants embody so many pressures on women that I think are negative and damaging. Women being judged based on their appearance in evening gowns and in bathing suits. I love the “talent” and “interview” portions, as they give the pretense that this is not first and foremost about appearance. If those parts of the competition had any real importance, then women with unconventional beauty could win the overall pageant with mind-blowing talent. Imagine a pre-Weight Watcers Jennifer Hudson as Miss America? Not gonna happen. We know it’s all about looks.
And it’s all about judging. Pageants, and especially televised pageants, are a public spectacle of female competition for attention based on appearance. Everyone, male and female, from poised judges to beer-swilling couch potatoes, gets to participate in the evaluation of young women. No one else’s bodies are scrutinized as publicly, as constantly, as predatorily as young women’s bodies.
Nina Davuluri seems like a sharp young woman. I’m glad young brown women in general and South Asian women in particular have had their beauty validated, but in this context, it’s only bittersweet. What are we celebrating here? Our right to be objectified? Our right to starve and wax and pluck and flatiron like white women? Our right to have frat boys use our photos for rape joke memes about what they’d like to do to us?
Meanwhile, also on the internet, we see the incredible racism that targets the new winner, including calling her a “sand nigger,” calling her a Muslim terrorist, and making allusions to 9/11. As usual, ignorant internet users demonstrate that they don’t know a South Asian from an Arab, a Hindu from a Muslim, and just generally insult everyone brown at the same time.
Nina Davuluri is lovely, intelligent, and she must have worked very hard to win, not to mention very hard as an aspiring doctor. In a world where young women are still categorized in a looks vs. smarts paradigm, it’s great to see a young woman of color with conventional beauty who also has invested heavily in her mind and career. I loved her comment about surgery, “I don’t agree with plastic surgery,” she told NBC. “Be confident in who you are.” In addition to her pageant win, she has a bright future in medicine.
This is far from true for most winners. If you look at the “Where are they now?” for Miss America, you find a mostly unimpressive set of outcomes for these women’s lives. Some become consultants in the pageant circuit, but there are limited opportunities there. Vanessa Williams is a notable exception to a largely mediocre set of life outcomes. I don’t think it’s because the women are not intelligent, rather I think it’s because nothing about swimsuit competitions, and poised walking in a gown actually prepares you for success in today’s world. In reality, Miss America is a big debutante ball where women are being displayed in the old school style to get the attention of marriageable men to secure their futures. But that’s not actually the way the world works now. And even for women who do get snatched up by a wealthy guy based on her alluring youthful beauty, there’s always the risk of a trade-in for a newer trophy wife model later. So the only way that women can actually secure their future is by investing in their minds, careers, and skillsets.
While boys are consistently encouraged to pursue the development of their skills and talents, even in 2013 women are still encouraged to focus on appearance. We are all familiar with the high school cliché of the head cheerleader dating the captain of the football team. These are social power positions for young women and young men in traditional high schools throughout the US. But let’s look at where these pursuits actually lead. The top NFL player makes over 20 million a year. Top cheerleaders make about $5,000 annually. Yes, you read that right. Five. Thousand. A year. While cheerleading does require athletic skill and dance talent, at the end of the day it’s about pretty girls cheering for the boys, the only athletes who really matter. The girls are being tracked to go absolutely nowhere.
At the end of the day, Miss America is really about our society’s ritualized ogling and evaluation of young women’s bodies, with the pretense that it’s about the “total package.” After the scholarship money is spent and her yearlong reign is over, the spotlight moves on. But I’m confident that Davuluri will be okay. She’s a sharp young aspiring doctor. I’m not worried that this win will throw her off her game.