This image demonstrates the unspoken standard of beauty that was expected for African American women to achieve in the 1970s in order for them to compete in traditionally white pageants.
The above photo depicts Cheryl Brown, Miss Iowa 1970, who was the first African American Contestant in the Miss America competition. She stands next to Sharon Cannon, Miss Maryland 1970, who is a white woman. They are dressed in identical bathing suits with sashes denoting their state titles. The two women are standing above a crowd of onlookers, with the beach of Atlantic City behind them. The Atlantic City Boardwalk is visible in the upper left corner of the photo. Just below the boardwalk, an American Flag can be seen flying from a light post.
Both women are looking at something out of frame to the right. They are both smiling, while Cheryl Brown points at something in the distance. Sharon Cannon has a coiffed bob, small stud earrings, and a bracelet on her left wrist. Cheryl Brown wears small hoop earrings but otherwise wears minimal jewelry. Cheryl’s hair is long and relaxed, pulled halfway back and secured in a half ponytail. Her natural texture is visible at her hairline, which shows that her hair is not naturally straight but was relaxed to fall in such a soft, straight texture.
Miss Cheryl Brown was the only African American woman competing in the 1970 Miss America competition. It is interesting that this photo shows her next to a white woman, and both are engaged in what seems to be an entertaining conversation. Cheryl Brown appears to be comfortable as the only woman of color and the first woman of color in the competition’s history. Her confidence is contagious and her smile looks genuine.
What is more interesting, perhaps, is Miss Brown’s appearance. She is a slender woman with a slim body type. She does not seem to be particularly curvy, and her figure is very similar to that of Miss Cannon beside her. Her hair is long and straight with a slight wave at the ends. It looks like it has been straightened with heat or chemicals, as what we can assume is her natural texture is apparent at her hairline above her forehead. This was the standard for beauty in pageants of the time. Black women with textured hair were not voted by judges to earn a state title. To date, there has never been an African American Miss America with natural hair. So how did this ideal standard of beauty come to rule the Miss America Pageant? It could certainly be argued that African American women are expected to take on a more traditionally “white” appearance to have a chance at success in the pageants. Contestants of color are considered more likely to win, and therefore more beautiful, if they have smooth, straight hair and thin body types.
At the present, there is a movement for women of color who embrace their natural hair and figures and are not striving to fill the role of assimilated beauty. While there is hope for future pageants, this photo is a reminder of the antiquated expectations that still hold power in modern times.
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Black Miss Iowa 1970. June 4th, 1970. Photograph. Atlantic City. Sunnynash.blogspot.com. Sunny Nash, 19 Aug. 2012. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. <http://sunnynash.blogspot.com/2012/08/jim-crow-beauty-pageants.html>.