Beauty pageants are something I’ve always looked at with disdain, but they do play a significant role in shifting beauty standards and have historically fallen very short by way of representation. So when a white Miss South Africa becomes Miss Universe in 2017, I am left grappling with a few things:
She’s not representative of the majority of South Africans. But does this mean we as South Africans should not feel proud of Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters? No. We can feel proud of her whether we feel a sense of nationalism or even a sense of frustration as part of a larger movement. We can feel pride, while viewing the larger stakes at play, and while asking bigger questions. Miss South Africa’s history – as a pageant – was marred pre-1994. We have to ask: has it recovered? Have we?
The logic of ‘rooting for everybody black’
In Refinery29‘s article on Miss Universe, the writer references Issa Rae’s comment at the Emmys: ‘I’m rooting for everybody black.’ Miss Jamaica was a runner-up at this year’s Miss Universe. The contestant wore her natural afro, and Miss Jamaica’s presence means a lot for representation and had a host Twitter users claiming her as their real Miss Universe. As the writer points out:
‘Black people threw their weight behind one of their own because it’s not often that other people will. Until the playing field for people of colour is more level in institutions like Miss Universe, we will continue to root for everybody black.’
Beauty pageants have traditionally celebrated Western standards of beauty. We also know that historically (particularly in South Africa) these spaces have been non-black. The support and love for Miss Jamaica coming as far as she has makes sense, because it is groundbreaking.
On wanting representation
When you come from an underrepresented demographic, rooting for your own is warranted. At my first glance of Demi-Leigh, I had hoped she was coloured. She’s not (just a little tanned). This inclination comes from not seeing ourselves in winning spaces enough, because until recently, we haven’t been afforded the platform. I felt this way about Wayde van Niekerk. A similar sense of pride recently about Paxton Fielies. For centuries, we weren’t permitted a chance. And so the excitement is understandable when we’ve only just started seeing ourselves represented on screen, on stage or on the track – not only participating, but winning.
Is this divisive? Can it give way to divisive thinking and behaviour? Clinging too dogmatically to almost any ideological leaning without sufficient context can run this risk. But right now, the context is relevant. Wanting to see black and brown bodies in spaces that have been negating them is simply this: representation, excitement around its arrival, and demanding that it stays.