Body, Race, and Nation: Historical Studies of Beauty Contests in Latin America

AHA Session 215
Conference on Latin American History 64
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Columbia Hall 1 (Washington Hilton)
Natasha Barnes, University of Illinois at Chicago
Natasha Barnes, University of Illinois at Chicago

Session Abstract

Why have ethnic groups, clubs, states, regions, and countries around the world periodically chosen a woman to represent them as their most beautiful or ideal representative?  What is at stake for these groups? What can we learn about societal change, state cultural programs, and historical actors in Latin America by studying its beauty pageants?

In the late 1990s, studies in anthropology and communications began to examine beauty pageants, moving beyond biographical accounts to systematically disentangle how they “showcase values, concepts, and behavior that exist at the center of a group’s sense of itself and exhibit values of morality, gender, and place” (Colleen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power; also, Sarah Banet-Weiser). Over the last decade, several historians have made valuable contributions to studies of beauty pageants in the United States (Maxine Leeds Craig; Elwood Watson and Darcy Martin), Mexico (Rick Lopez), Hawai’i (Christine R. Yano), the Virgin Islands (M. Cynthia Oliver), Canada (Patrizia Gentile), and Panama (Lok Siu), among others.

This panel unites historians who are currently working on studies of beauty, body, race, and nation in Latin America. Participants discuss methods and implications of examining the history of beauty pageants and society and present findings that complicate our understanding of processes of national identity consolidation in twentieth-century Latin America. Presenters analyze pageants in Brazil and Mexico, highlighting their transcultural, transnational, and transracial dimensions. We pay particular attention to tranformations and contestations of racialized and ethnicized standards of beauty and representation of peoples and place.

These presentations seek to tease out the implications of the contests and debates surrounding them, demonstrating connections to trends in the social, economic, and political realm. Rick López, for example, examines the India Bonita contest in post-revolutionary Mexico, juxtaposing a redefinition of the aesthetics of the female indigenous body and associations of nature and nation. Amanda Hartzmark examines the connection between beauty pageants and the sugar industry in the Brazilian Northeast, presenting how regional aesthetics might influence politics. Glen Goodman uses the German-Brazilian pageants to examine the sudden change in the perception of the contributions of German-Brazilians to the Brazilian nation from threatening to desirable. Finally, through an examination of Miss Universe contestants from Northeastern Brazilian states, Courtney J. Campbell demonstrates that regional identity was forged not just through inclusion, but also through exception, as the press judged contestants as regionally and racially representative. This panel benefits from feedback and a discussion led by Natasha Barnes, who studied pageantry and popular culture in her book on race, gender and nation in the Caribbean.

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