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Is (Black) Beauty Still a Feminist Issue?

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Last night I read my friends' tweets about the Miss Universe Pageant. But I didn't watch it. I am an old fashioned feminist when it comes to pageants. They turn my stomach. I find them embarrassing and absurd. But I can't be preachy about my dislike.

After all, I love fashion magazines, the ones filled with fantasies of over-the-top consumption and impossible beauty and I won't apologize for that indulgence, so I have no judgment for pageant watchers. Pageants just aren't for me.

But out of curiosity this morning I looked at the Miss Universe contestants online, inspired by the internet chatter. And lo and behold I was shocked when I realized that Miss Ecuador, Miss Honduras and Miss Nicaragua, were all Latinas of African descent. Only recently have noticeably Indian and African looking women begun to be featured on Latin American television and film, and still in small numbers.

Despite substantial African-descended populations throughout Latin America, they remain even more invisible in U.S. popular culture, notwithstanding the writings of Junot Diaz, Veronica Chambers, and Rosario Ferre, among others, who insightfully depict the fabric of race, history, and culture in Latin American nations.

I must admit, I was excited, to see these brown-skinned contestants, along with those from continental Africa and the Caribbean. That excitement was similar to the thrill I had earlier this year when I encountered the work of fashion photographer, Mario Epanya. Epanya shared his photos in a viral web campaign to have Condé Nast approve an African edition of Vogue Magazine (which they refused). His models have richly colored bodies, full lips, and bright eyes. They are adorned to dramatic effect. They are frankly, stunning.

I don't quite know what to make of my reaction to this brand of Black beauty. What does it mean for me as a feminist? Third and fourth wave feminists have argued that we should reclaim make-up and sexiness, and cast aside the old image of a feminist as a woman with a naked face and hairy legs. Fine, but the reality is that our beauty culture still plays a significant role in women having poor body images, lowered self esteem, and a feeling of intense competitiveness with other women.

I have often found myself wishing that instead of encouraging every woman to feel she is beautiful (which seems to be the central marketing device of most cosmetic companies), that we could find a way to make it such that beauty is not at the center of self-esteem. Who cares if one is beautiful or not? There are so many other ways to be special, of value, attractive, interesting, sexy! As girls, we are sold an idea of an "ideal way to be" that depends far too much on surface and not enough on substance, and we tragically carry that on our shoulders into womanhood.

And yet, I find myself honestly happy about these images of gorgeous women with hair and skin and lips like mine.

As a Black woman, for centuries now, flesh like my flesh has carried the burden of presumed inferiority. Black women have been cast as hypersexual or desexualized, always available yet undesired, ridiculous and often ugly, the mules of the world. Notwithstanding a few beauty icons, public figures, and celebrities, these stereotypic representations are still common. And perhaps this is why the fantasy of a beauty culture that includes Black women has so much allure. Fantastic images of Black women who are desired yet untouchable, pristine, flawless, and admired, lie so contrary to how we have been cast throughout history. And that feels kind of good.

But of course, as enjoyable as those images can be, we must not allow them to distract us from the daily work of feminism and gender liberation. The recent reports of sexual violence in Haiti and the Congo, sexual exploitation and trafficking here in the States, honor killings in the Middle East, are each the tip of a very large iceberg. The iceberg itself is a global culture in which the devaluation of humanity and the denial of fundamental respect are all too common. Feminism is, at it's very best, a call for humanism with a global reach. Pretty is nothing compared to that.

My personal resolution on the beauty issue is this: When images of physical beauty serve to diminish the depth of a woman's personhood, we should reject them. And when they seem to restore an appreciation of that which has been devalued, or to be attached to an open sense of expressiveness, play, and fun, then we should feel free to enjoy them. But in either case, our eyes must always be focused on actual lives, not just screens and pages in a magazine.