Pop-Culture | Posted by Caitlin L. on 06/23/2014

Why the Entertainment Industry Defining Beautiful Women as Young and White Has to Stop

Does the entertainment industry actually have that much power to teach girls what is beautiful? Certainly, words are impactful but how much do simple images really matter? Are girls really absorbing and comparing themselves to images of women in the media or are we selling girls’ intelligence short by assuming that they don’t understand that these images are not representative of reality?

Thinking about these questions led me to search for an as-yet unexplored historic root of the entertainment industry in actively defining beauty — one that especially validates the outcry against the lack of diversity of representation of women in the media. Examining the history of the display of women to ease social anxiety against whiteness in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is useful for understanding the necessity of the entertainment industry to change what is currently communicated to women about the acceptability of their bodies.

The use of publicly displaying female bodies to instruct Americans on what is acceptable and beautiful began in earnest in 1840 with the rise of freak shows, popularized by a man named P.T. Barnum. While a proper woman – read: white and affluent – would never be seen publicly, freak shows openly displayed the “others” of society.  Differences between the way these types of people were displayed was highly racialized: people of exotic cultures were mocked, but people with strange physicalities were usually white and actually displayed to enhance their beauty and worthiness. For example, the famous midget Lavinia Warren, lauded by critics as a perfectly ladylike beauty, was displayed wearing jewels and finery and even given a very public wedding and even a fake child to communicate her desirability. The contrast of shame that came with “ethnic” display and the glorification that came with the display of white women taught Americans that there was only one kind of beautiful and one kind of acceptable that American women could be.

Human display took a more self-conscious role in defining beauty and reproducibility when we discover the origins of Toddlers and Tiaras: Barnum also popularized baby beauty contests, which awarded children for attributes like being the biggest or tiniest. These contests were adapted by famously racist eugenicists, who were interested in human race improvement through controlling inherited traits, and women interested in increasing the health of American babies in Better Baby Contests, established in the 1910s. Babies were evaluated by physicians for their health and awarded prizes for being the fittest; like freak shows, the contests were popular entertainment for average Americans at state and county fairs. Contest creators soon realized the competitions were useless after the babies were born: Americans would not become stronger unless adults were evaluated for reproductive fitness to encourage those with the best traits to reproduce. Fitter Family Contests were created for this purpose. Women became the center of attention through the evolution of these pageants: they accompanied their children onstage in beauty contests, Better Baby Contests, and were finally numerically evaluated in Fitter Family Contests. Because the goal of these contests was to find the best members of society – those worthy of reproduction – they made it acceptable for respectable women to enter the public eye.

In 1921, the idea that respectable women could publicly represent the best of the nation was emphasized by the founding of the Miss America Pageant. It came out of a decades-old tradition of small beauty contests, once again initiated by P.T. Barnum in 1854. In the 1921 contest, young women – the first winner was only sixteen – competed for a crown in Atlantic City to represent the best that America had to offer. The first decade of winners were all youthful, innocuous, and white. They taught the American public that there was only one kind of beauty, only one kind of woman who was worth representing the nation. This was not the only public forum in which white women were lauded for their beauty – magazines like Godey’s Lady’s Book had been doing it for decades with images of white women in the latest fashions – but the specific connection to the struggle to define American fitness gave the pageant a special edge of instruction that this kind of woman was the most, even only, desirable one.

It is this history, in which the American entertainment industry took an active responsibility in defining who was beautiful and who was acceptable, that allows us to understand the entertainment industry ‘s potential to do the same today. In fact, in response to the three unconventional contestants of the 2013 Miss America Pageant – winner Nina Davuluri, who was Indian-American and received racist backlash at her crowning; Nicole Kelly, who was born with one arm; and Theresa Vail, who had tattoos, Washington Post reporter Maura Judkis observed, “all the pre-pageant buzz was like an old-timey sideshow, devoted to the proudly tattooed Miss Kansas and the one-armed Miss Iowa — but [Davuluri] went on to charm the judges with her grace, and then America with her post-controversy graciousness.”

This historic knowledge validates criticism of the entertainment industry as playing a critical role in defining who and what is beautiful. It is time for Americans to understand these origins and take active steps to change who is featured in modern, mainstream media. Even if the psychological impact of media images is not as bad as critics accuse, these racist origins means the media must take a stand to rectify these mistakes and acknowledge the beauty of all women.

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