“I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered to be beautiful. And I think that it is time that stops today. I want children to look at me and see my face and I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.”

These are the words of the reigning Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi, who defied the stereotypes of what we usually see when we watch beauty pageants. But lack of diversity is not the only issue surrounding pageants. Let’s start from the beginning.

Where did beauty pageants begin?
The history of beauty pageants is a very complicated one to trace. According to American Experience on Beauty Pageant Origins and Culture, while there was a complicated relationship between beauty and competition for ancient Greeks, there is no historical evidence that they actually held contests for women. They held a ‘contest of physique’ called the Euandria. It was a yearly Athenian festival. The contest was for men.

The first modern beauty contest that involved the display of women’s faces and figures before judges can be traced to one of America’s greatest showmen, Phineas T. Barnum (of circus fame).
While it’s impossible to tell exactly when beauty pageants began, the History Channel claims that they existed in some form or other in the classical world. They were seen as a type of entertainment in ancient Troy, where they were judged by an illustrious jury of artists, philosophers, poets and even warriors.

The first modern beauty contest
The History Channel also claims that 19 September 1888 was the world’s first modern beauty contest. The contest took place in the small Belgian municipality of Spa. A jury selected a shortlist of 21 women to appear in the pageant. The contestants were hidden from the wider public in a secluded wing of a private house and there were closed carriages that took them to and from the main hall. An 18-year-old Creole girl from Guadeloupe named Marthe Soucaret was crowned the “most beautiful girl on the planet.”

The most well-known pageants today are the Miss World Competition, founded by Eric Morley in 1951, Miss Universe founded in 1952, Miss International founded in 1960 and Miss Earth founded in 2001 with environmental awareness as its main concern.

How have pageants changed over time?
According to the Miss Universe website the Miss Universe Organization is a global, inclusive organisation that celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them to realise their goals through experiences that build self-confidence and create opportunities for success.

When you watch pageants nowadays, you start to see that the narrative has changed; the focus is not on physical beauty but rather on the morals and charities that the contestants are supporting.

Miss California USA and Miss Florida USA executive producer Robin Ross Fleming exemplifies the disconnect between society’s perception of pageantry and what those enthralled in the experience want others to understand. She says the sport is evolving with the times as beauty has.

She emphasises the fact that twenty years ago, winning a pageant was based on your outer appearance. She also feels like pageants have evolved and that society hasn’t. “Now, we recognise beauty as the energy inside that informs the outer appearance, which requires a lot more skills than a makeup brush or hairspray. The stereotypes have been shattered, but the messaging to the public hasn’t overcome the stereotypes…YET.”

Beauty pageants in South Africa (MISS SA)
According to the Miss South Africa website, the organisation is a leadership platform for ambitious young South African women. Through a pageantry process, contestants receive world-renowned coaching in addition to advanced networking, business and life skills.

Miss South Africa 2019 Zozibini went all the way to become Miss Universe. Back home it seems people are starting to pay attention to who becomes Miss South Africa 2020. Twitter went to war when it was found out that Bianca Schoombee, who entered the competition, posted alleged racist and body-shaming tweets a few years back. When these came to light Bianca withdrew. She was not the only entrant who came under fire. Oneida Cooper and Zizile Mthembu have also been called out for past tweets.

Beauty pageants have really sparked many conversations over issues like the patriarchy, gender equality and feminism. At its core, beauty pageantry is about beauty but we live in a diverse world where celebrating one type of beauty or woman is no longer acceptable. Women come in all shapes, sizes and colours. We now live in a world where women want to be celebrated for more than just how they look; women want to be respected for what they have to say.

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Tell us: What fact did you find interesting about the history of beauty pageants?