Since the universal standard of beauty is founded on the Western European aesthetic—typically defined by what are considered caucasian features and morphology—the rest of us measure up in terms of how many deviation points away from that aesthetic we find ourselves. Everyone seems to agree that Africans and their Middle Passage descendants deviate most from this norm. The beauty chosen as Miss Ivory Coast will go on to represent her country in the 2013 Miss Universe contest.
Exotic doesn't exist anymore, thanks to globalization made possible through huge leaps in technology. We've seen it all, if not in person then on the internet via Youtube or streaming programs of all manner including broadcasts from the far corners of the world. Exotic is out.
Ethnic is in. We deviants have a chance then, don't we? Today, I mean?
When I was a girl of ten visiting an aunt in Houston with my family, I and two of my girl cousins walked into a neighborhood store to buy chewing gum. It was a white owned establishment. On the countertop were these applications—yes, this really happened—for the Miss America contest. All three of us, dark brown children of the earth, fingered the slips of paper with what must have been a wistful look because the proprietress smiled through a corner of her mouth and said, "Go 'head. Y'all go on an' apply". She laughed at us. We knew where she was coming from. We didn't have a chance in hell. There had never been a Miss America who was not white. We knew because we sat glued to our television sets when the pomp and pageantry was aired every year, picking our winners and being disappointed when they didn't come through for us or thrilled when they did as if it were a personal victory. Beautiful by proxy. It would be another twenty-seven years before Vanessa Williams, African American, would take the title in 1983. That was in America thirty years ago.
But Ivorians do not agree on what aesthetic the future Miss Ivory Coast should represent. There are, seemingly, two camps—the 'lalas' (the name the young Ivorian singer Princesse Amour uses in her latest song to refer to slim, small-breasted women like herself), and the 'lolos', "...word used to describe voluptuous women by Ivorian musical heavyweight Meiway in his 2000 hit "Miss Lolo", according to an article published by France 24.com's International News website (click here). The article seems to trivialize the subject matter by referring to the differing opinions as a "war of words". But Ivory Coast's more voluptuous beauties claim to be slighted in favor of the more European look which, they claim, is not typically what African women naturally look like, some of whom participated in the resurrected Awoulaba beauty contest for voluptuous women. Victor Yapobi, president of the organizing committee for Miss Ivory Coast, apparently feels that they should aim for "compliance with national standards", and makes the claim that (African) women are becoming more and more slim. Really? And why? For the same reasons they almost all straighten their hair? And some to go so far as to lighten their skin?
The article signals another artist, Augustin Kassi, who has turned his devotion to painting what he feels is the typical African woman aesthetic—voluptuousness or "fat" women that Africans typically see as being healthiest, happiest, and most beautiful. Click here for a sample of his artwork in a video presented on the BBC website.
Long before globalization the exotic look was sought after, for objectification or exploitation of some sort. Currency was often the bottom line, and it remains so. Just as prostitution is generally considered to be an age-old institution that will always claim its own niche in society, the trading of one's appearance for gain, a more acceptable profession if not always respected, will likely never go away. Attractive looks translate into currency and a huge chunk of the economy depends on their marketability. Institutions, organizations and corporations such as department stores, fitness gyms, runways and beauty pageants, will continue to thrive in the interest of benefitting from their share of the market.
In Paris, France, about seventeen years following the mom-and-pop store incident in Houston, I was approached more than once with an offer to become a fashion model. I was both flattered and insulted since I was there doing research for my dissertation at the Bibliothèque Nationale. I was a brain—or so I thought—not an "empty-headed" beauty (not a uniquely "egghead" perspective in those days). Now, decades later, it is one of several independent contracting gigs I do to earn extra income during my retirement years. My agent makes money off me. I make money off the client, as does the production team, and the client makes money off their customers—sometimes you and me. Advertisers and retailers of all sorts get in on the take as well. It's a food chain, and a sustainable one. It's an industry with its own peculiar genome that will live on.
Princesse Amour is hoping to have a big hit with her song. Meiwey's current "Wiggle Your Bottom" in celebration of big booties will no doubt up the ante enough to keep the dialogue between lolo and lala going at least for a while.
And who will be crowned Miss Universe? The clone in black, white, red, yellow, green, or blue?