Mirror, mirror on the wall . . .
Carolyn Cooper, Contributor
I'd decided to stay out of the kas-kas over this year's beauty contests. But last week, one of my friends who'd been bugging me about the Miss Jamaica World contest started up again when she saw the Miss Jamaica Universe winner: "Yu mean to seh yu not going to write about it?" What difference would it make? It's the same old tired story. The judges and the audience never seem to agree on who should be the winner of our rather ugly beauty contests.
Here's the headline of Janet Silvera's Gleaner report on the finals of the Miss Jamaica World contest: 'Laurie-Ann Chin crowned Miss Jamaica World 2014 despite crowd's dissatisfaction' (July 14, 2014). This is not news. If you follow these beauty contests, it's easy to predict the outcome. The light-skinned girl is almost always going to win.
The top-three winners of this year's Miss Jamaica Universe contest are even more uniformly light-skinned than their Miss Jamaica World counterparts. I don't know why the audience keeps on expecting miracles. I suppose hope springs eternal in the human breast. Especially here in Jamaica where the breast of the vast majority of women is dark-skinned!
Five years ago, I wrote a column 'Everybody's Miss Jamaica', which was published on September 20, 2009. I mischievously suggested that we forget about old-style beauty contests and promote a new model. This is how I put it: "So every year we ask ourselves this very loaded question: 'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?' And we all know the usual answer: 'the fairest.' But in an 'out-of-many-one' society it's simply not fair that it's only one type of beauty that is almost always privileged as the winner.
So why don't we just agree to judge beauty in clearly distinct racial categories? I suggest five types: 'African,' 'Indian,' 'Chinese,' 'European' and 'Out of Many, One.' And I use the quotation marks to suggest the fact that these terms are quite arbitrary. There's not going to be universal agreement on who exactly fits which type".
LAPSE INTO LUNACY
Of course, nobody took me seriously. It was satire after all. And we're still fighting over who should win these beauty contests. As Janet Silvera reports, "Those shocked by the decision spoke loudly at the coronation show, raising their voices emphatically, as they cried 'no, no', booing the announcement." But why were they "shocked"? They should know the score by now.
In the 1960s, one of my friends entered the Miss Jamaica beauty contest. I hope she won't be vexed with me for reminding her of that lapse into lunacy. Or so it seemed. In the 1960s, Miss Jamaica looked just like Miss Jamaica today. You know exactly what I mean. My aspiring friend was not a Miss Jamaica lookalike. So I couldn't understand why she would willingly subject herself to public humiliation.
Earlier on, when she'd asked me what I thought about her entering the contest I hadn't been able to resist the temptation to tell her the truth as I saw it: "You entering Miss Jamaica? You must be mad!" Words to that effect. I guess I could have been much more diplomatic. I could have said, "Well, if they change the rules of the contest you might stand a chance."
My friend did admit that she appreciated my honesty. Other people were pretending that her behaviour was normal. She was eliminated in the very first round. To give my friend her due, I think she had entered the contest to make a political statement. The politics of beauty! It's really all about power. Judges assume the right to decide who is ugly and who is beautiful. Who gives them that power? The contestants? The audience? The owners of the competition?
'SHE UGLY EEH!'
More than two decades ago, I was in a local bookshop and overheard two young women discussing a photo spread of the supermodel Althea Laing in Essence Magazine. One of them said, "She ugly eeh! Wa she a do inna magazine?" Well me an dem! "What wrong wid her? Unu no see how she beautiful?" Under pressure, they grudgingly conceded that maybe she was 'attractive'. After all, she had attracted their attention. She had the look. But it was hard for these young women to appreciate the model's beauty.
In a newspaper interview, Althea Laing wickedly describes the supermodel 'look' in this way: "The 'look' is when people can't figure out whether you are ugly or pretty. You know you have the 'look' when people can't figure that out." I suppose the exclamation of that young woman in the bookshop was half question, half statement. She couldn't figure out exactly what Althea Laing was doing in that magazine. Simply being attractively beautiful!
Then I was intrigued to see that the prizes for this year's Miss Jamaica World contest included the following: "10 university scholarships valued at $6 million, of which nine are from the University College of the Caribbean, in collaboration with partner universities such as Florida International University, London University, Kursk University; a $1 million master's degree scholarship in Logistics from the CMI". I only hope all of the degree programmes on offer are accredited by the University Council of Jamaica! Or it won't be pretty.
Carolyn Cooper is a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Visit her bilingual blog at http://carolynjoycooper.wordpress.com. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.