As I am a white Western woman who for the most part meets my society’s beauty standards, it is very easy for me to dismiss beauty pageants as inherently objectifying. But while it is of course important to recognize and emphasize that women do not exist to be merely decorations, sometimes pageants can help to re-value the beauty of women whose appearance has been devalued. Such is the case with the Miss Authentica pageant in Cote d’Ivoire (via). In a country in which seventy-five percent of women use skin-whitening creams, this competition only accepts entrants with untreated skin.
Admittedly, I am uncertain as to how the pageant’s experts determine which skin is “natural” and do have concerns that this process may be problematic, this is only a minor concern compared to the importance of changing the standards of beauty that lead so many women to use skin whiteners. These standards of beauty, after all, are about more than what allows a woman to feel attractive. The history of colonization and the efforts of advertisers have created an association of lighter skin with success and darker skin with generally lower social status. As Manuella Meyer, visiting assistant professor of history and international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, said:
Many women believe that lighter skin is going to bring them certain privileges, whether it is getting the attraction of males, a better job, or a better chance at social opportunities. There have been lots of studies done by anthropologists and sociologists that suggest those beliefs are true to a certain extent. Unfortunately, we still live in a society where people of lighter skin are believed to be quote-unquote ‘more trustworthy or more intelligent.’ I think the individuals who use these products are tapping into some of the ways that society has privileged white skin as a better quality to have than darker skin.
Demonstrating that darker skin can be valued makes a step toward changing this. Adding to the urgency of doing so is the fact that skin whiteners pose a serious hazard to women’s health. Many bleaching products contain hydroquinone, a carcinogen that has been banned in some nations. Others contain mercury and corticosteroids.