by Ian Walcott
Less than 48 hours after Shannon Harris was crowned Miss Universe Barbados 2016, the Facebook post of Barbados TODAY congratulating this young beautiful Barbadian lass turned into a national debate on race, colour, privilege, class, beauty standards, culture and fairness (to mention a few of the sub-themes). The post now has a reach of over 200,000, close to 100,000 views and ongoing commentary at the time of writing.
First of all, I wish to congratulate all 14 delegates for their courage to even think about entering such a show in Barbados. And, of course, I congratulate our winner Shannon on her achievement. I must admit that I did not want to be publicly drawn into this debate but I felt compelled to give my two cents worth having worked closely with this ‘industry’ on a few occasions in varying capacities, mainly as a stage manager and background coordinator.
Having said that, I must also admit that when I looked at the photos and the hype leading up to the show, I too (like the judges) placed all my bets on Shannon. Similarly, when I was living in the pageant-loving country of Venezuela in 1998, I placed my bets on Wendy Fitzwilliam from Trinidad and Tobago who eventually won the Miss Universe show that year.
As you can see, Shannon is a white Barbadian and Wendy is a black Trinidadian. (For my readers outside of these two countries, Barbados has a white population of four per cent and Trinidad and Tobago has a black population of 37.5 per cent). The following year, 1999, Miss Universe was held in Trinidad and, for the first time in its history, young women of African descent won the show in two consecutive years as Wendy handed over her crown to Mpule Kwelagobe of Botswana.
Now back to Barbados. Shannon certainly is not the first white Barbadian to represent our country at these shows and, hopefully, she will not be the last. So the question is what is so different this time around? Many are asking why are we still having this furore on race in 2016. Rather than venture to answer this complex question in an overly simplistic way, I will dare say that there were similar uproars in the world of international pageantry when racial or ethnic minorities were selected to represent their country of birth or residence.
There are now several examples of this. Venezuela had a similar reaction and uproar when they selected their first black Miss Venezuela, Carolina Indriago in 1999. So did Italy, Holland, France and more recently Japan.Trying very hard to stay on topic and not veer off into race and politics or race and sports, here is the real underlying question.
Whether or not a country picks a girl from a minority group or a majority one, there seems to be a standard look, a default position that we have all come to accept as beauty and this is what ultimately must be interrogated. What are some of the prerequisites of this globalized standard of beauty? From a very basic observation point, there seems to be a demand for tall slim women under 130 pounds regardless of race. There seems also to be a demand for long hair and some degree of facial symmetry (whatever that is).
In fact, in the pageant world, it is rumoured that the famous and controversial Cuban-born queen-maker of Venezuela, Osmel Sousa, once said that Miss Universe is not a show about natural beauty but one of “perfect beauty”.Therefore, let’s examine this so-called concept of perfect beauty. Who sets these standards? Are these standards racially biased?
Had we chosen a black girl on Saturday night, what standards of beauty would she have fitted into? Would she be under 130 pounds, tall, with symmetrical features and long hair or would she have looked like the typical Afro-Caribbean girl next door? Do these beauty queens ever look like the typical girl next door? Does a Japanese beauty queen ever look like a typical Japanese girl?
We can go on and on and ask this question for any country. Furthermore, do we really want our beauty queens to be truly representative of who we are? And who are we? This is where we need to be honest with ourselves in this hushed national debate. Who are we?
Certainly growing up in Barbados, I can vividly remember our black womenfolk spending long hours in hair salons straightening their hair with harsh chemicals. I also remember them ‘pressing’ their hair with hot irons to make it straight as they are now wearing long hair weaves that are not naturally theirs. This, I might add, became very much an ingrained normalized behavior. It is only in the last 20 years or so that we saw the emergence of what is now known as a “natural hair salon”.
Therefore, these are deep-rooted issues that need to be addressed in our post-colonial existence and minds. So this brings me back to why I chose Shannon to be this year’s winner and Wendy to be the winner of Miss Universe in 1998. From the naked eye, they both seem to fit the same mould and that same standard mentioned above (be they Black, White, Asian, Indian, mixed or other).
I will end with questions rather than answers. Are we programmed? Are we programmed by mass media, pop culture and a hegemonic worldview that dictate for us what is beauty? When we pick the ‘winner’, what are we programmed to see? These are the real questions that need to be answered and I truly think that it goes beyond black and white.
Something deep down inside tells me that behind this programming, there are multi-billion dollar industries that benefit from their capitalist agenda, creating and pushing beauty products, magazines, TV shows, movies, music and fashion all geared towards an aspirational ideal that can never be reached by the vast majority of humankind.
Yet, the billions who will watch these shows on TV (and now on their mobile phones) will aspire, in one form or another, to be just like the beauty queens, models, sports and/or movie stars. They will want to wear similar clothing or drive similar cars. But again I’m going off topic.
Let’s all plead guilty to being programmed by this capitalist agenda. We cannot hide from it. It’s in our faces – the car ads, the movies, the Internet. Who’s pulling the strings and who is programming our minds to fall in line? As the late Professor Susan Strange taught us to boldly and critically ask in International Political Economy in her powerful writings such as Casino Capitalism and States and Markets, who is setting the agenda of this globalized economy? Who is really pulling the strings? Who controls what?
I can only now say best of luck to you Shannon, and I hope this controversy catapults you into the top five as it did for so many others who suffered a similar fate of such negative public outcry from their own countrymen and women.