A new photo exhibition explores black beauty contests in the 60s and 70s, which challenged white aesthetic standards and celebrated a range of body shapes
Sybil McLean’s face is pressed between two beauty pageant rivals. Her spontaneous joy, the symmetry of the twin afros framing her face, and the affectionate way her arms encircle her friends can’t fail to raise a smile. The photograph, capturing the winner of the 1972 Miss Black and Beautiful pageant, is part of an exhibition of the work of Raphael Albert, a promoter and photographer of black beauty pageants in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Today, beauty pageants feel tawdry and anachronistic, but Albert’s pictures highlight another side. As curator Renee Mussai puts it: “There is a sense of laughter and solidarity that appears genuine and playful.” It’s not the only difference. While the women are still young, beautiful and slim, they are far from being identikit contestants. Sybil is as pretty and elegant as the stereotypical beauty queen, but her closely cropped hair is unusual, as are her competitors’ afros. Other photos show a range of skin tones, as well as curvaceous figures among the tall and slender shapes in mainstream competitions.