Visitors traveling to Bell County, Kentucky, are greeted with an official road sign marking it as the home of the winner of the 2011 Miss Petite Princess Pageant as does neighboring Knox County, which honors its local 2010 Tiny Miss Kentucky winner. Beauty pageants are also especially popular on both black and white Kentucky college campuses and have been used to market not only their universities but also their localities’ contributions to coal, chicken, tobacco, and cotton. The southern states, in general, sponsor more local beauty competitions, on and off campus, that contribute to national beauty pageants such as the Miss America Pageant. Indeed, the westernized beauty contest prototype of individuated competition has been surprisingly durable and elastic, molded to fit an array of historical, [End Page 775] regional/national, economic, and cultural contexts, especially in the U.S. South.
Throughout their long history, beauty pageants have been altered continuously in response to shifting idealizations of gendered, racialized, and class-based beauty, virtue, and respectability. They have been used to promote tourism, industry, civic and cultural pride; to resist stereotypes of racial and cultural backwardness; and to sell crops and commodities. Constructing values and norms for women’s bodies and behaviors through beauty pageantry has been a popular strategy to evaluate and showcase gendered, ethnic, racial, and class distinction; cultural citizenship; nationalism; and racial and regional identities. The popularity of southern beauty queens as regional icons of progress and economic modernization has resulted in many writers who label the region as the U.S. “pageant belt.” Blain Roberts’s book helps us understand the historical roots of the notion of the “pageant belt” South and how beauty practices have served as barometers of race, gender, segregation and integration, consumerism, rural/urban migration, and economic modernization throughout the U.S. South.
Roberts defines beauty as an “expansive category that encompasses ideals, practices, rituals, labor, and even spaces,” and her work seeks “to show that the pursuit of beauty encompassed a range of activities, large and small, intimate and public,” including cosmetics, beauty and body contests, and hairdressing (p. 9). She argues that southern beauty politics are deeply racialized since “pursuing beauty became the way for white and black women to signify their commitment to their race, to literally embody it” (p. 11). She states that the South was regionally distinctive and thus probes how “southern beauty practices resulted from a fraught relationship between a conservative, largely rural region and the rest of the nation.”
Although many scholars have written about race, beauty pageants, black colleges and respectability, hairdressing, and cosmetics, Roberts furthers this conversation in her innovative account of the roles of home demonstration agents and agricultural trade boards in furthering “indigenous rural practices into forums for the evaluation [End Page 776] of women’s bodies,” when “a market economy transformed the South into a region of profit-oriented commercial farming” (p. 106). She shows how the growing acceptance of the public evaluation of women’s bodies—and the importance of cultivating habits based on not only economy and thrift but also fashion, respectability, and the emergent aesthetics of urban cosmopolitanism in dress and deportment—augmented southern beauty rituals. She highlights the role of baby shows, health pageants, 4-H clubs, dress revues, sewing classes, “crop beauty competitions,” and agricultural fairs as the latter shifted its emphasis from “growing better tomatoes to growing better bodies” in the transformation of not only beauty practices but the economic and cultural modernization of the South (p. 119). Roberts additionally analyzes how the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and civil rights culture were expressed in southern women’s beauty practices, including the differing political investments and complexities that middle-class and rural black women faced in their beauty practices and the use of cosmetics to champion black capabilities, assert middle-class black aesthetics, build racial solidarities, and battle white racism.
Despite her claim, Roberts is not the first scholar to look at regional differences in beauty pageants, the connectedness...