Would Miss America Win A Beauty Pageant in Mauritania? Challenging Western Ideals of Beauty




Last night Ms. Kira Kazantsev became the 88th Miss America.  Congratulations to her and the State of New York.  Interestingly I ask, would our ideals of beauty stand up in other countries among other cultures? To answer that question let’s take a look back over time and across the globe.

The Miss America pageant  started in 1921 in Atlantic city as a way to promote businesses in the city.   According to the Miss America website quoting an early organizer Miss America represents the highest ideals. She is a real combination of beauty, grace, and intelligence, artistic and refined. She is a type which the American Girl might well emulate”.  The pageant has come a long way with its ideals of beauty. In the 1930’s one of the requirements for entry as a contestant was possession of good health and being of the white race.  Fortunately things did change, though slowly.  The first Native American contestant was crowned in 1941, the first Latina contestant in 1948, the first African American contestant in 1984. It was not until last year that the first Indian American Miss American was crowned.

Despite having a more diverse set of competitors for Miss America pageants in recent years, the Western standard beauty is still widely valued in these contests. According to PBS, in the 1960’s the average height and weight of Miss America was 5’6 and 120 lbs, about 10 lbs below the weight of the average of American women at the time. Although contestants have to be smart and also a good spokeswoman, a  viewer poll conducted by the Miss America Organization in 2000 indicated that the most important qualification was beauty. In that same poll, 50% of people indicated that they would refuse to watch the pageant if the swimsuit contest were eliminated.


The image of a tall and thin woman in a swimsuit was not always the way beauty was perceived.  Western aesthetic ideals have changed quite a bit over time. In the Renaissance period, having a heavier frame was considered a good thing.  Full figured women were objects of beauty imitated in famous works of art. It was not until the Victorian age that the thin waist became a valuable commodity. Although the hourglass figure made a comeback with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Mansfield in the mid- 20th century, with the 60’s came Twiggy and thin has been in ever since.

Just as they have changed over time, cultural perceptions of beauty are also vastly different around the world.  What we may view as beautiful in the West is not what members of a remote tribe in Saharan Africa value.  Here are 5 noteworthy examples of beauty from around the world that challenge our traditional perceptions of the Western aesthetic (although some of the methods to achieve this beauty are controversial).

In Mauritania (first picture shown above) weight is considered a blessing. Big butts, thick arms and large legs in a woman symbolize a husband’s wealth. As a girl comes of age, she may be force fed to gain large amounts of weight fast as part of a beatification process (which is a pretty inhumane way to put on weight).


The Mursi tribe of Ethiopia, which I had the honor of visiting about 10 years ago, value large lips, in some cases stretching them with plates.  Other groups in various parts of the world, such as certain Amazonian tribes in Brazil, similarly value this trait.


 Members of the Kayan tribe bordering Burma and Thailand, judge a woman’s beauty by the length of her neck.  Women elongate their necks with brass rings starting at a very young age, often wearing several pounds of brass necklaces at any one time for this purpose.

 BBC Human Planet : Wodaabe Gerewol , Niger , Africa


 While bikini clad female models may be what comes to mind when we think of beauty pageant, men of the Wodaabe tribe of Niger compete in such competitions judged by women.  A tall, athletic build, nice teeth and good dancing skills are just a few of the characteristics that may help a man win.  From these festivities, women may select their future mates.


 Although we often go to great lengths to obtain clear perfect skin in the United States, the Maori of New Zealand use tattoos on their lips and chins as a means of beatification. Women with the bluest lips are considered particularly stunning.

These cultural perceptions of beauty might be just as difficult (or even more difficult) to achieve as those valued here in the West.  However understanding and embracing these different images of beauty is important and enlightening.  Next time you look in the mirror no matter what your ethnicity, race, size or age-remember you are beautiful.

References/Further Reading

Beauty Around the World. http://www.oprah.com/style/Beauty-Around-the-World/5

A Timeline of Sexy Defined Through the Ages.  http://www.stylecaster.com/timeline-sexy-defined-through-ages/

Different Ideas of Beauty around the World.  http://allwomenstalk.com/8-different-ideas-of-beauty-around-the-world/8/

Forced to Be Fat.  http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/news/forcefeeding-in-mauritania

Miss America: American Experience http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/missamerica/peopleevents/e_body.html

Miss America Organization. http://www.missamerica.org/our-miss-americas/miss-america-history.aspx



Good Reads/Watches

American Experience | Miss America

Cool Ted Talks

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