Many Shades of Beauty

by Hanh Le

The chapter looks at how skin tone matters with Miss Bronze, a black beauty contest that took place between 1961 and 1968 and began in Southern California. “Bronze” suggests both a color and a valuable metal associated with statues. However, this “bronze” did not signify a specific skin color, because during 1960s, black women of a range of shades entered the Miss bronze and won the title.

Color mattered in the Miss Bronze contests, but not the same as it did in earlier black contests in first half of 20th century. In many past contests, winners were chosen on a basis of beauty criteria that excluded dark women. The winners usually had light skin tones, and women with dark skin tones had little or no chance of winning. The Miss Bronze, in contrast, allowed women of a range of shades to enter. During its existence, light -skinned women, browned-skinned women and dark-skinned women wore the Miss Bronze crown.

However, it avoided those women who are too Caucasian in feature. And although skin color varies, it seemed that the fairer she is, the less chance she seems to have of winning. The winner should look like a Negro.

The Miss Bronze judges’ selecting dark-skinned girl to be the winner in 1961 seemed to end the colorist regime.  However, after this beginning, the contest returned to the long-established pattern of crowning light-skinned winners in black beauty contests as we could see from the light-skinned winners of 1962, 1963 and 1964.

So what is the right color to represent Miss Bronze?

By the mid 1960s, beauty’s definition had expanded to include a range of skin tones. Light-skinned women continued to be identified as beauties but “especially light” women were unlikely to be chosen as black beauty queens. Color was still one element of signifier in a system of representing race, gender and class.

Recent beauty contests for black women somewhat showed changes in significance of skin color. Miss Black USA Pageant which began in 1987 was an example. Miss Black USA Pageant was founded to celebrate the talent, beauty and intellect of young women who were often overlooked by mainstream pageants, created opportunities that wouldn’t be available to them before. As Miss Black USA 2012, Watkins said: “The pageant isn’t just a pageant, it’s a movement.”

Throughout the centuries, beauty has so often been linked to “the fair”, automatically implying that there is something foul about being dark. It was only around the decade that Negro girls began winning beauty white-sponsored contests. The trend has changed and Negro girls of all hues are at last, being honored. Such beauty contest as Miss Cannes Film Festival, Miss Universe Contest, Miss Bronze, Miss Black USA…etc to a certain extent, succeeded in penetrating the color curtain. Let me conclude by citing Miss Bronze 1963 – Stephani Swanigan’s answer when asked about her hope for social change: “she hoped for a day when there would not have to be a separate contest for black women”.

For the sake of a society without color–based discrimination, I think that beauty contests should act as pioneers, honoring both black and white women with true beauty of inside and outside, regardless of their skin color.

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