A Brief History of Race and the Beauty Pageant

By Neena Arndt

In School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, the teenage characters pine to win the Miss Global Universe Pageant, 1986. In the midst of their youth and enthusiasm, these Ghanaian young women aren’t yet aware that they are entering into a system rigged against them. The beauty pageant, as we know it, was born out of the idea that being beautiful required white skin. 

The first Miss America contest–billed as a “bathing beauty” competition–was held on the beaches of Atlantic City in September 1921. Though 19th century festivals, including May Day and Mardi Gras celebrations, had often featured the crowning of a “queen,” the standalone beauty pageant emerged as American women gained more access to the public sphere, including the right to vote, and the Victorian constraints around decorum and sexuality began to relax – but whether the pageant embraced that newfound independence or aimed to preserve Victorian ideals of femininity is up for debate. What is certain is that the pageant’s organizers aimed to celebrate and idealize only white women. All eight of the bathing beauties who graced the beach in 1921 were white; 16-year-old Margaret Gorman won the competition and was praised for her sweetness, short stature and flowing tresses. Two years later, in 1923, African American women made their first appearance in the event—but not as competitors. Instead, they played enslaved people in a musical number. For nearly half a century, the pageant’s bylaws restricted participation to “members of the white race” and until the 1940s, entrants were required to catalogue their genealogy. 

As the century progressed and beauty pageants gained popularity worldwide, women of color found success in pageants outside of America—though international pageants still favored women with light skin. It was not until after the Civil Rights Movement that a Black woman competed in the Miss America Pageant and not until 1983 that a Black woman won. That woman, Vanessa Williams (who would eventually be stripped of her title after Penthouse published nude photos of her without her permission) later spoke of the many reactions to her victory. “There were a lot of people,” she noted in 2010, “that did not want me to be representative of the United States and Miss America.” In 1989, six years after Williams’ win, Black journalist Monte R. Young wrote in the Chicago Tribune about his complex interpretations of watching a mixed-race woman represent Black Americans. “It had to do with her cat-green eyes, and the golden brown shoulder-length hair flowing in waves over her light mocha skin,” he writes. “It had to do with the way she looked. With the white man’s stereotype of Black beauty.” He goes on to note that when Williams nailed the talent portion of the competition, it was with her rendition of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” in which she “sounded more like Barbara Streisand than Aretha Franklin.” Even when a Black woman won, Young implies, she did so because of her proximity to whiteness. 

Although many Black women have been crowned beauty queens since the 1980s—in 2019 the winners of Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe were all Black— the question remains whether pageants celebrate Black beauty and culture, or merely reward women who fit into their narrowly prescribed notions of attractiveness and talent. 
The young characters in School Girls, coming of age in Ghana in the 1980s, long to grow into their power and beauty. But who has the power to define beauty? 

Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg at Goodman Theatre.