Is Beauty Only Skin Deep?

Beauty pageants? A sexist reminder of the past? An anachronism in a more tolerant, equal society? Or a rallying call to ‘sisterhood?’ With the aim of ‘celebrating black beauty’ Miss Black France, a controversial new beauty pageant took place in Paris last Saturday, coming at a time when issues of race and multiculturalism are particularly sensitive in France.

Created by journalist Frederic Royer and the organisers of Miss France, 18 contestants (aged between 18 to 28 years-old) battled it out on stage in front of a celebrity panel assembled from the world of fashion and music. All of African-Caribbean origin, the contest has divided opinion in France with the ceremony being picketed by protesters. In spite of the controversy, it was all-smiles and glitter inside the Salle Wagram as Mbathio Beye, a 21 year-old Senegalese marketing student was crowned winner.

Organisers of the event hoped to highlight the beauty of black women stating that ‘black women are not often seen in the media’ and maintained that if a white woman wanted to enter a future contest, she would not be refused entrance.

Royer continues “For some time I have noticed that the election of Miss France is not representative of today’s population. There are very few Blacks and if there are, they often come from the ‘departements d’outre-mer’ (France’s overseas territories in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean). They are rarely of African origin.  Although highly controversial Miss Black France is not the only competition of this type, others include Miss Black Beauty, Miss Afro Ethnic and Miss Senegal France.

With some far-right protesters demanding the creation of a Miss White France, many feel that the competition is indeed retrogressive and can only lead to the ‘ghettoisation’ of some ethnic minorities. Other more liberal commentators believe that the contest is as valid an event as Gay Pride.

CRAN (le Conseil representatif des associations noirs) – the Representative Council of Black Associations has backed the event as “it aims to promote black people…and highlights the presence of these young women, often ignored in France”. Its president Louis-Georges Tin goes on to say “The problem is not ghettoisation, but discrimination on the catwalks” and questions how and why these competitions can be organised in other countries without causing any problems.

Brenda a young woman of mixed heritage who entered the competition explained to the jury that black beauty is not appreciated in conventional beauty pageants.  Equally Dialika, a young woman of Senegalese origin, feels that Miss Black France is not just a beauty contest but also an act of ‘aesthetic activism’ in an age where black women with darker skin and natural hair are underrepresented.

Created in 1920 Miss France has only seen 5 black women crowned with the title (Veronique de Cruz-1993, Sonia Rolland-2000, Corinne Coman-2003, Cindy Fabre-2005 and Chloé Mortaud-2009).

Former president of the Miss France committee Genevieve de Fontenay defends the competition’s statistics. “We have always had black candidates”, adding that “given the competition is based on regional winners of places such as Miss Alsace, Miss Lorraine or Miss Brittany, it is not to be expected that half the contestants are black.” Unperturbed by the presence of Miss Black France, she sees it as ‘friendly competition’ and feels that any form of ethnic isolation is symptomatic of society, rather than the contest.

In the wake of Marine Le Pen’s recent success in the French presidential race (gaining 18% of French votes), the competition’s timing is particularly apt. As ethnic minorities fight to establish themselves in France’s current climate, events like Miss Black France seek to remind the establishment of their existence and right to remain ‘different’; a way of combatting against political indifference. However what place does ‘difference’ have in a society that espouses the virtues of ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’; where secularism is written into the constitution and multiculturalism is taboo? Equally, can one really celebrate society’s acceptance of such competitions when the victory may well be double-edged? Although they can empower groups that are marginalised from the mainstream, they also only allow dialogue or give agency as a parallel ‘voice’ – forever trapped in the periphery.  As society becomes more global and means of communication allow for greater dialogue, is it not more important to celebrate the diversity of France and encourage and engender a more pluralistic view? Participants in the contest should not be made to feel ‘black’ in a French society but encouraged to feel ‘French’ – whatever their origins.

Whilst equality between the sexes continues to be fought in both the professional and domestic realm, we equally ought to question why we are still being subjected to such an outdated form of ‘entertainment.’ In previous centuries ‘beauty’ was one of the strongest attributes of a woman’s arsenal. Almost one hundred years after women received suffrage in the US, just how far have perceptions changed of viewing women as objects?

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~ by cinemalicious on May 3, 2012.

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