Beauty has always given birth to contradictions and odd juxtapositions. In 1925, the year iconic journalist and activist Ruth First was born, the first unofficial Miss South Africa, Mavis Alexander was crowned.
Thirty-one years later, as Norma Vorster wins the first official Miss South Africa title, Lillian Ngoyi became the first woman elected to the African National Congress’ National Executive Committee.
In 1956, same year that Ms Vorster and her pageant sisters where strutting across the stage, Ms Ngoyi and 20 000 of her sisters were marching to the Union building.
From 1956 to 1993, as with other Apartheid institutions, white females were the only women allowed to compete to be named the most beautiful in the land.
Nearly 60 years after its inception the competition has followed the country’s trajectory and has elevated as winner women of every colour.
If a woman chooses to be CEO, philanthropist, house wife, queen of beauty, writer and yes, even a stripper, that’s her choice
While reality TV has influenced natural selection and the pageant has become diverse, the old principles of beauty first, brains second have remained and if Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct, elevating and celebrating single, competent women with perfect proportions, ideal symmetry and blemish-free skin in a pageant surely makes sense.
A casual analysis of the first-ever modern beauty pageant, held in 1839, seems to reinforce this thinking. This chapter of history fascinates on multiple levels.
The Age of Enlightenment, a period of intellectual and cultural renewal in the late 17th and 18th century, where intellectuals stood up to tradition, was winding down. The global women’s suffragette movement was in full force and whether it is coincidence or not, the women’s fight for a political vote also ushered in a decline in chivalry.
In 1859, a little more than a decade after the crowning of the first Queen of Beauty, Darwin put forward his research in ‘The Origin of Species’, framed neatly as ‘sexual selection’. It related to the aesthetic value of our bodies and how they contribute to us producing more offspring and ultimately, our survival as a species. Only the fittest survive.
Darwin believed, that like the peacock, a human’s attractive features help attract mates thereby enabling reliable and efficient production of offspring. Essentially, the more beautiful the woman, the more offspring that would be produced and more secure your clan will be.
The Enlightenment era put a damper on the romantic idea of beauty. Scientist trampled all over previously held ideals around the colourful and spiritual role of nature, using empirical evidence to advance political perspective and religious agendas.
What followed was the industrial revolution. While productive, when measured against a more delicate tea time culture, the revolution was far too grey for some. Once such man was Archibald Montgomerie, 13th Earl of Eglinton. Missing the colour of romanticism, Eglinton funded the world’s first modern beauty pageant.
Celebrating women’s beauty publicly goes back as far as antiquity. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese and the Romans have all celebrated their most beautiful young women, but the first crowning of beauty was at a Scottish medieval jousting tournament held in 1839, where Georgiana Seymour took home the crown.