In “Contesting Indigenous, Immigrant, and Black Bodies” Patrizia Gentile discusses the history of beauty contests in Canada, with a focus on the increasing participation of Black and Indigenous women in the mid-twentieth century. The presence of these women in this historically white-centered activity pushed back upon white colonial constructs of beauty. Yet the continued segregation of the contest demonstrates how national attention on “diversity” actually reinforced settler narratives of white supremacy.
Gentile contextualizes this history in Canada’s political landscape at the time, with the institution of multicultural policies in the 1970s. While these policies facilitated a transition toward a “multicultural society,” Gentile explains that in doing so, white settlers attempted to liberate themselves through claims of tolerance while actually reinforcing racial hierarchies and upholding the notion that the white female body was the idealized form of beauty. The beauty contest, and by extension the bodies of the women involved, functioned as a symbolic representation of national ideologies about gender and race.
Gentile's essay brings attention the role of symbols in imagining and defining a community. By unpacking how these beauty contests functioned as cultural products of the image of the white settler nation, she shows how women’s bodies are themselves “cultural artifacts” central to the construction of nations. Her research also reveals how rituals of beauty and constructs of idealized femininity have historically been used to discipline “racialized bodies in white settler nations.” For example, she points out how contests like the Indian Princess Pageant could not escape the way racialization and sexualization of the female body that stemmed from white settler femininity.
This has not just happened in Canada, but in nations around the world that have been colonized by white settlers. By constructing and imposing the idea that ideal beauty is that of the white body, white colonizers developed societies built upon cultures of systemic racism and white supremacy.