Want to Take a Stand? Use the World of Beauty

161104111342-01-nura-afia-file-1104-exlarge-169

Conversations around beauty have been a source of ugliness and racism this week thanks to the former West Virginia mayor and her disgusting post about our lovely and intelligent first lady.  And we had to weather our share of obnoxious comments about Hillary’s pantsuits for years.  

But this week also shows that beauty dialogue can be a source of amazing, unifying and progressive power.  When society, even government, takes an intolerant, racist stance, sometimes it’s the world of beauty that pushes progress forward.

Just this week, Allure magazine published a thoughtful set of articles about muslim women, including their take on beauty and fashion, and their culture in general. For the first time, a non-white man,  Dwayne Johnson — half Samoan, half- black actor, was named sexiest man of the year by People Magazine. Cover Girl named its first spokeswoman wearing a hijab, Nura Afia; and the transgender community held their first (in-secret) beauty contest in Indonesia.  All of these stories not only affirm these diverse individuals’ beauty, but they empower them and others like them  And, they give us a much-needed view into their worlds, allowing us to better empathize and support them.

There is no question, conversations around and depictions of beauty can be a source of angst, even cruelty.  But the world of beauty can also lead the way.  It can force conversations, provide new perspectives and hopefully, just hopefully, change our views for the better.  And it’s not just me saying it.  At the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women dinner honoring Nicole Kidman this past week, Frances Corner, Head of London College of Fashion, said (which I then tweeted out to the world :)):“We need to use the power of fashion to end violence against women.”

There’s no getting around it: most of us care about what we look like — some more than others.  So instead of ignoring the important role it plays, let’s use it to tell a critical and meaningful story.  Let’s leverage our fascination with beauty to make us more tolerant, accepting and loving.  

So many of us are looking for ways to rebel against the increasing intolerance being spewed since the election…some by the very people in charge of running our government.  There are MANY actions we must take to stop it, e.g., signing petitions, starting dialogues and trying to understand the root of the hatred itself.  But there’s another form of rebellion too.  And that can take the form of embracing beauty of all the lovely, diverse people we have in our country.  Let’s buy more makeup from the brands that embrace diversity, let’s comment on the insightful beauty articles posted about different types of beauty, and let’s compliment others’ unique beauty in front of our children.  These small actions will add up to a big difference.  It’s not the only solution, but it’s a start.  And, it’s fun, so why not?

If you’d like to donate to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women, please go to this link and contribute what you can or Text to Pledge to 56512: UNTF20[space] Pledge Amount [space] Your Name.

Can Technology Be Biased? This Beauty Contest Reveals How Much

 

screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-10-56-08-am

Before I start, allow me to thank you all for your super interesting comments on last week’s post.   I love hearing and learning from all of you!

And now for our regularly scheduled program…:)

For about a year I’ve come across a few stories about beauty contests being judged by robots, that is Artificial Intelligence.   By measuring people’s (let’s face it, women’s) facial structures these robots can accurately determine beauty.  And given the judges are robots versus actual humans, we assume that the judgements are devoid of cultural or ethnic biases.  I’ve read these stories with mild interest.  But this time, a recent story stuck with me…and not in a good way.

I’m sure such a contest raises a whole host of issues for many of you.  First, I imagine many of you oppose such contests — humans or no humans as judges.  How can one judge beauty anyway?  Second, so much of physical beauty emanates from within.  I’m not talking about inner beauty.  That’s a whole other subject.  I’m talking about the energy, the light, the passion that springs forth from someone making then either more or less beautiful.  Can a robot really judge that?

But those issues aside, my biggest concern with this contest is what is conveys about technology as a whole.  The results of these contests showed how actually, how terribly biased A.I. can be!

According to this article in NextWeb, the contest drew over 6,000 applications from across 100 countries. And despite the obvious diversity of beauty that the robots were exposed to, out of the 44 winners, only a few were Asian, one was black, and the rest were white.  None had dark skin.

WTF!

Are the foolproof “complex algorithms” that biased?  I’m afraid so.  How can that be?  Easy.  A human being has designed them that way.  And that’s pretty scary.

I’m not saying the engineers behind the algorithms intentionally developed them to be pro white.  It’s just that bias is going to inevitable when the majority of the brilliant brains behind the development of technology are of a certain gender, ethnic background or culture.  No matter how much we try to rid ourselves of our biases, it’s super, super hard to erase the ones we don’t even know we have.

If technology can be biased when it comes to beauty, could it also be biased when it comes to truly understanding the user and what s/he needs?  Or can it be biased with regards to places on the map or particular destinations?  You get the point.

So what do we do?  It’s not a new news that we should push harder for diversity our work places.  It makes for diversity of thought and ideas.  But it goes deeper than that.  Diversity ensures that the seemingly “judge-free,” non-biased technologies we create actually hold up to that expectation.  When humans are led by their biases, we forgive them.  Because, well, it’s “human” not to be perfect.  But technology shouldn’t make mistakes, right?  It can’t be biased.  So if technology, or in this case A.I., declares someone fit or beautiful or smart, well then it must be so!    And the result?  People deem the seemingly unbiased robots as arbiters of truth.

I’m not the first person to call for more diversity.  It’s a MUST.  But I’m also calling on all of us to challenge our notions of how “smart” our technology really is.  Believe me, I LOVE technology.  I’m benefiting from it in all aspects of my life, and, most, importantly in my job.  But let’s realize that behind all technology are human beings.  This recognition should mostly strike a sense of admiration in human kind. After all it takes a buttload of brilliance to be creating the amazing technology we have, and will have in the coming years.  But it should also open our eyes to that fact that technology isn’t fool proof, totally unbiased or “right” all the time.

Let’s remember, human beings are the smartest, most elegant and beautiful “machines” that exist.  We are complex, emotional and gorgeous in so many diverse ways.  We don’t need a technology-driven beauty contest to prove that.

From Camels to Geopolitics: Why, Even in 2016, We Care About Pageants & What They Say About Us

99b6f542-f393-4fef-bf61-89fed23cd2ff

Over the past week I noticed a number of stories about beauty contests in my feed.  That’s not unusual.  What WAS weird was the type of stories.  Of course there were a few about the Steve Harvey guffaw at the Miss Universe contest, but there was another about a terrorist threatening to kidnap the recently anointed Miss Iraq and, even more bizarrely, one about a beauty contest for camels!

What gives?  Why are there so many beauty pageants out there.  And more interestingly, why do we care so much that people write stories about them, adapt them for their cultures (and local animals) and even want to kill people associated with them??  It’s 2016 already!  Haven’t we evolved past the old fashioned notion that people’s beauty should be judged?

Some of you reading this may be saying to yourselves: “frankly, I don’t care about pageants, move on.”  I can understand that.  But understanding why some of us care about something seemingly insignificant can open our eyes into what makes us ALL tick.

I could write a whole masters thesis on the pros or cons of beauty contests.  But I won’t.  And I’m not making any judgements here.  I just want to understand why people all over the world create and support such spectacles.  And I’m not the only one who is scratching her head here.  There have been scholarly works (The Why’s of Beauty Contests), books (Beauty Queens and the Global Stage) and a PBS series (Origins of the Beauty Pageant) developed around answering this question.

None of these sources have fully answered the question for me but in reading them all, I think I see some explanation.

Let’s begin by recognizing that beauty matters.  Whether we like it or not, every culture admires, creates and rewards beautiful objects and people.  Of course every culture has a different interpretation of what is beautiful, but in the end, each and every nation has written poems, novels and songs about someone or other’s beauty.

Ok, but why do we have to judge it?  Why should beauty become something we compete over?  To be fair, the human species competes over, well, almost everything.  That’s why we have the Olympics, national sports, Emmy awards, you name it.  Hey, we even compete with ourselves thanks to Fitbit.   Because beauty is one of those things that we care about, it too has become a source of competition.

But then why can’t beauty pageants just remain another harmless form of entertainment?  Why do they matter so much to people?  Based on my research (albeit somewhat limited) I learned that beauty pageants, especially outside of the Western World, are loaded with political, cultural, and social significance.  On the one hand, there is a strong antipathy toward them, as they are a blatant and, for some, immoral import from the West.  (These contests actually started in ancient Greece but took shape in the U.S. thanks to Phineas T. Barnum (yes, as in the circus :))  On the other hand, most cultures take this construct and reshape it to match their cultural values, i.e., judge beauty but their own standards.  In a way, the pageants become a source of cultural pride.  Even in the U.S., some early pageants were a form of rebellion.  I wrote a post last year (The Racial Dimension of Plus Sized Women) about the history of African-American’s elaborate dress code for Sunday church services.  Dressing up hearkens back to the slave era and how Sunday was the one day a week when slaves could dress with dignity and beauty.  Slaves would parade down the streets to show off their beauty and claim ownership of their humanity.

Beauty pageants are clearly fraught with conflicting ideals and a mix of emotions.  That is exactly why they matter to people.  These contests are a response to our innate and global love for beauty.  But they also tap into the debasement that we fear comes along with admiring people for their beauty alone.  They are examples of Western infiltration but a means to rebel against it at the same time.  They tap into our love for competition and our fear of losing.  Whether we support these contests or not, at least we have a better understanding of why so many of us care about them.  And maybe we just have a slightly better understanding of us all.

Beautiful Protests: Don’t Dismiss Beauty Queens. The Chinese Govt is Downright Scared of Them & for Very Good Reason!

Screen Shot 2015-12-06 at 11.01.08 AM

There’s a lot of different ways to protest.  Unfortunately, we’ve seen some of the worst of them over the past few weeks.  But, for the most part, challenging the status quo, the social wrongs we see, or just plain ol’ anachronistic thinking is an incredibly valuable and innate human behavior.  And, tonight being the first night of Hannukah — a commemoration of the Maccabees’s protest against the repressive Greek regime of their day — it’s only fitting to celebrate it!

The more tyrannical or oppressive the object of our protest, the more crafty, clever and creative we must be in our rebellious acts.  We can’t always march in the street or publish our thinking.  We need to use what we have at our disposal.  And that is exactly what a few feisty beauty queens did as they protested against the Chinese government.  Over the course of the last few days, I saw news story after new story highlighting not just one, but two, beauty pageants that have enraged the Chinese government.

At the Miss Earth beauty pageant, the contestant from Taiwan, Ting Wen-yin, refused to change her sash from “Miss Taiwan ROC” to “Miss Chinese Taipei.”  Her explanation: “I was born in Taiwan, my sash now says Taiwan, I represent Taiwan, and I’m going to use the name of Taiwan in appearing at this pageant.”  She also shared in social media the horrible treatment that all the contestants were subjected to like not being served some meals and forced to attend night clubs to flirt with men.  The result? She was reprimanded, banned from certain activities, and not allowed to be in pictures.  Eventually she was kicked out all together. (For more of the story, read here)

Around the same time, another story hit the news stream about Anastasia Lin, a Chinese-born woman who was crowned Miss Canada.  She has been using the pageant’s platform and the subsequent press coverage to speak against the Chinese government.  She has also created films and written essays to share the corruption and repressive acts of her former government.  And the Chinese leadership was pissed.  Majorly.  They tried to ban her from the Miss Universe pageant.  This, of course, backfired creating an even bigger uproar and heightening her efforts that much more.

Needless to say, the Chinese government is super skittish now when it comes to beauty pageants.

What these stories show us is that the “popular” cultural activities, like beauty pageants (and the people who participate in them) which we may snicker at, can play a powerful role in society.  While I have a hard time endorsing the parading of women around in bathing suits, I also have the seen the power of these “institutions.”  Since the beginning of time and into today, pageants have served as spaces where women could achieve something — whether a way out of poverty or a podium to protest.    I applaud Lin and Wen-yin who not only risked their success to tell their stories, but who realized how to best use the gifts they had and the circumstances they found themselves in, i.e., beauty contests, to do it.  Would they have been listened to if they didn’t use this platform?  Maybe…but, then again, maybe not.

It’s easy for us to look down at people who want to show off and get rewarded for their physical beauty.  But many of us aren’t in the same social, economic and political situations as these people.  Moreover, when beauty contestants use their beauty, and the pageants that showcase their beauty, in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to, how can we NOT admire them?

Lesson here? First, let’s never ever assume that beauty queens are dumb.  Second, we shouldn’t assume that the popular, seemingly frivolous events, like beauty contests, don’t have a potential role for social betterment.  Finally, let’s appreciate the fact that we live in a society where we CAN protest a multitude of ways without fear of reprisal.

 

Weekend Observations: The Last Country You'd Expect Cancels National Beauty Contest

Miss Italy bikini ban
Usually I share observations from my personal life in our Weekend Observations column.  But today I’m deviating.
I’ve written about beauty contests a lot.  One reason?  There’s a ton of ’em out there so they are bound to stir up some interesting stories.  Also, they happen to be a source of a lot of strong opinions.  While many women view these parades as a way to progress, i.e., win a scholarship, get exposure, attract a successful mate; many others view them as degrading to women.  And I’ve sympathized with both sides of the argument.
So, I was struck by the news that Italy’s national beauty contest, Miss Italia, was taken off of the national TV’s schedule.  First of all, this contest launched some of Italy’s biggest female stars, like Sophia Loren.  Also, it’s not like Italy ranks high when it comes to women’s equality in professional and domestic spheres.  Finally, Italy is a country with a strong heritage of beauty and aestheticism, so to cancel the biggest  beauty contest in the country seems out of character.
The reason for the cancellation? Sexism.  Anna Maria Tarantola, president of the state TV station, RAI, calls the contest “a sexist anachronism.”  Who can argue with this, right?  These contests basically ask women to parade around in skimpy clothes and beat out others based on their physical beauty.  As you can imagine, there were protests to this.  People claimed that such an event happens all over the world, and has been happening for eons.
But then I heard an argument that was different.  The contest organizer saw this ban as a sign of racism.  She argues: “’It’s really rather interesting to note that the Speaker of the Lower House has closed the door to Miss Italia but thrown it open to Gay Pride. I am not opposed to any show or rally and in fact the more colourful the better but her decision has the air of racism.’ (Daily Mail)
Can you argue that banning a show about pretty people discriminates against, well, pretty people?  Actually, maybe you could.  After all, we have shows about Little People, rich wives, Red Necks — basically all different types.  These shows don’t always portray these folks in the best light, but they give them a voice and a platform.  While I certainly would not be the first person to sign up for a beauty contest (and not just because I wouldn’t want to scare the audience wearing a bikini!), I still question whether banning them is the answer.
 
 
 

Weekend Observations: The Last Country You’d Expect Cancels National Beauty Contest

Miss Italy bikini ban

Usually I share observations from my personal life in our Weekend Observations column.  But today I’m deviating.

I’ve written about beauty contests a lot.  One reason?  There’s a ton of ’em out there so they are bound to stir up some interesting stories.  Also, they happen to be a source of a lot of strong opinions.  While many women view these parades as a way to progress, i.e., win a scholarship, get exposure, attract a successful mate; many others view them as degrading to women.  And I’ve sympathized with both sides of the argument.

So, I was struck by the news that Italy’s national beauty contest, Miss Italia, was taken off of the national TV’s schedule.  First of all, this contest launched some of Italy’s biggest female stars, like Sophia Loren.  Also, it’s not like Italy ranks high when it comes to women’s equality in professional and domestic spheres.  Finally, Italy is a country with a strong heritage of beauty and aestheticism, so to cancel the biggest  beauty contest in the country seems out of character.

The reason for the cancellation? Sexism.  Anna Maria Tarantola, president of the state TV station, RAI, calls the contest “a sexist anachronism.”  Who can argue with this, right?  These contests basically ask women to parade around in skimpy clothes and beat out others based on their physical beauty.  As you can imagine, there were protests to this.  People claimed that such an event happens all over the world, and has been happening for eons.

But then I heard an argument that was different.  The contest organizer saw this ban as a sign of racism.  She argues: “’It’s really rather interesting to note that the Speaker of the Lower House has closed the door to Miss Italia but thrown it open to Gay Pride. I am not opposed to any show or rally and in fact the more colourful the better but her decision has the air of racism.’ (Daily Mail)

Can you argue that banning a show about pretty people discriminates against, well, pretty people?  Actually, maybe you could.  After all, we have shows about Little People, rich wives, Red Necks — basically all different types.  These shows don’t always portray these folks in the best light, but they give them a voice and a platform.  While I certainly would not be the first person to sign up for a beauty contest (and not just because I wouldn’t want to scare the audience wearing a bikini!), I still question whether banning them is the answer.

 

 

 

More to Love: Additions to the Reading List

story-miss-utah-203913
A lot of hoopla about, well, beauty pageants these past few weeks.  Take a look and see why:

  • The beauty pageant and contestant that have made major headlines recently…and for tragic reasons

http://www.wnd.com/2013/06/not-pretty-beauty-contestant-has-brain-glitch/

  • Pageants are an “offensive business.”  See why…do you agree?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sheila-moeschen/beauty-pageants-are-bad-fore-everyone_b_3466575.html

  • Transgender beauty feels legitimized and affirmed by beauty pageant

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2344938/Transgender-model-Dani-St-James-21-set-pageant-success-choosing-live-woman.html

  • Algeria reinstates its beauty contest after a 10 year break

http://english.alarabiya.net/en/life-style/fashion-and-beauty/2013/06/19/Miss-Algeria-contest-resumes-after-10-years.html

Any more stories to add?  Comment or tweet us @Beautyskew

Pic of the Week: First African Miss Universe

Soooooo the winner of Miss Universe is Leila Lopes from Angola!

Wow to have an African Miss Universe is so heartening.  In fact, of the five finalists, none were Western looking e.g., blonde hair, blue-eyed, white skin.  (Countries of origin for top 5 contestants: Angola, China, Philippines, Brazil and Ukraine.)  Don’t want to sound naive but if Miss Universe is any indication of trends, it seems like the world may just be ready to embrace more varied types of beauty.