The Ugly Side of Beauty Contests

Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Recently, in two national beauty contests held on both sides of the Atlantic, the ugly side of beauty reared its racist head as online racist backlash took over the web.  Nina Davuluri, winner of the Miss America Contest, a 24-year-old North American of Indian descent and Flora Coquerel,winner of the Miss France Contest, a 19-year-old whose mother is from the West African state of Benin, both shocked a fraction of humanity as the question was posed:

How did they win when they are not white natives to their countries?

As a mixed race young woman who has grown up in the UK and exhibits the beauty of Jamaican, Ghanaian and Irish ancestry, I found the racist reactions disturbing to say the least. Here are some of the comments that circulated on Twitter:

The United States of America

I am literarily soo mad right now a ARAB won.

More like Miss Terrorist

This is America. Not India

Congratulations Al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you.

Asian or indian are you kiddin this is America omg


I am sure all the monkeys in the zoo applauded the new Miss France 2014.

The mixed race is the cancer of the white race. 

If Beninese people were represented by a Scottish or a Chinese, they would feel similar discomfort.

Photo Credit @FredericLavisa
Photo Credit @FredericLavisa

First of all, these contests are open to any female citizen of any race, background or religion of the countries hence Nina and Flora had every right to win. Secondly, I just have to say this – being Indian DOES NOT make you an Arab! Finally, jury just in – the monkeys in the zoo applauded, along with the elephants, giraffes, kangaroos, most of the French population and myself of course (NOT). The hateful ridiculousness of these comments is toxic and the ignorance embedded within each racist comment is overwhelming.

What I think is most worrying is the fact that these comments were posted in a public domain for the entire world to see. The stupidity of the racists who posted the comments is highlighted in their naivety to not expect attention or to be called out for being prejudice and discriminatory. However, I think this draws our attention to an even bigger problem:

How do we combat racism in the ever growing multicultural societies that exist today?

I have thought about this in great depth and I believe that the solution lies within the question. We must continue to grow multicultural societies and tolerance. As societies diversify, people interact with one another and learn that maybe, just maybe, we’re not that different after all. United States Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. put it perfectly when he said,

We often hate each other because we fear each other; we fear each other because we don’t know each other; we don’t know each other because we cannot communicate; we cannot communicate because we are separated.”

He was speaking during the time of apartheid in the American South and during a time of great injustice for all African Americans. There is a lot to be learnt from the history of humanity and it is clear that, in order to prevent racism,we must communicate – to do so, we have to come together.

Let’s teach tolerance and understanding. Let’s educate our children to accept one another and embrace our differences. It is alarming to think that young girls watch these beauty pageants and then hear and see such racism. What message are we sending out to girls like my 11 year old mixed race niece Kya?

This brings to my mind the words one of the world’s greatest leaders, the late Nelson Madiba Mandela:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Finally, I would just like to congratulate both Nina and Flora for their victories, the message they send out is loud and clear.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Women in Prison Face Injustice Too

Institutional review boards (IRBs) are ethics committees responsible for monitoring research studies involving humans, and they have specific rules to follow to keep human subjects safe. According to the IRB Guidebook developed by the US Department of Health & Human Services, vulnerable populations must be treated with special consideration when part of a research study. Prisoners are included on the list of vulnerable populations.

A Georgetown University report, “Vulnerability, Vulnerable Populations, and Policy” includes the statement:

“Poor health and diminished sense of dignity suffered by vulnerable populations are the results of unjust public policies and practices.”

Women in prison do not often have a voice and are frequently characterized by “poor health and a diminished sense of dignity”.  It is important to create awareness about this population that is typically ignored, but faces injustice due to the corrections systems’  and other government policies.

A recent CBC News article reported that self-injuries among women in Canadian prisons have “soared” in the last 5 years. From 2007-2008 there were 54 reports of self-injury among incarcerated women. From 2012-2013, however, there were 323 reports of self-injury. The article attributes the increase to an ill-equipped system that is not capable of dealing with the mental health issues of prisoners appropriately.

Image by ImageBrokerRM, from

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website includes further information about injustices women in the US prison system face today. Some topics include, pregnancy, women’s health, rape and sexual assault, youth, and loss of parental rights while in prison. Additionally, the ACLU website includes current media coverage of issues involving incarcerated women.

Guidelines for research using human subjects have been developed based on numerous accounts of unethical research practices in the past. Prisoners have made the list of vulnerable populations for research because they had been terribly abused in research historically, and because of their precarious position in society and diminished freedoms. Prisoners might be persuaded to do something they don’t want to do or agree to participating in a research study if it would mean gaining any type of freedom in return. Prisoners might also be forced to do something because they are at the hands of those guarding them. If this is true of research studies, what does this mean for the general prison population? They can be exploited too.

What must be done to make sure there is competent and effective oversight to ensure the human rights of all of those incarcerated? If we simply forget about those millions of individuals who are incarcerated, abuses will continue.

The ALCU website includes a list of ways to ameliorate injustice for women in the overburdened US prison system.  Here are some ways you can help! Some ideas include tutoring or mentoring an at-risk girl, volunteering with an organization for court-involved families, volunteering with GEMS (an organization featured in previous Girls’ Globe articles, one by myself and another by Sally Pope), supporting local after-school programs, or writing to your legislator in support of policies prohibiting incarceration of prostitution by individuals under age 18. Please see the full list of more ways to help here.

As we have seen, it is sometimes easy to forget that prisoners have rights, too. Our work towards a gender equitable world must include all women and girls – including female prisoners.

Women in a Post-Conflict Society: South Korea Part II

South Korea’s traumatic history tells us that there is a need for healing in the country. The poor mental health status of the population, disproportionately poor among women, and the disparity in women’s economic status and political participation, are both connected to its tumultuous and war-torn history.

Quantifying the health and well being of Korean women in relation to the rest of the world, the World Economic Forum‘s Global Gender Gap Report 2012 ranks South Korea number 108 out of 135 countries. The Global Gender Gap Report includes “Four Pillars” of gender equality which are economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Although Korea has leapt from 117th to 108th in two years, Guatemala, Fiji, and Nepal are the only countries outside Africa and the Middle East that rank lower than South Korea. In some ways, Korea’s economic boom has left most of its women out.

Dr. Anne Hilty discusses the relationship between trauma and recovery and women’s empowerment in a paper she presented at the 7th Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity. Dr. Hilty shared statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) that found “a gender wage gap in South Korea more than twice that of the OECD average, only 8% of women held supervisory roles, 1 female to every 4 male university graduates are hired, less than 5% female corporate executives, and one of the lowest female employment rates of OECD nations in 2011.” South Korea has continually been told by the OECD to address its gender inequity, especially in the economic and political arenas. Dr. Hilty remarks how important gender equity is for social justice, strengthening the workforce, and poverty reduction. When investments are made to improve women’s health and economic opportunity, other societal developments are made easier.

Dr. Hilty mentions that despite Korea’s OECD rank, “there are several recent indicators of progress”. An ideological shift toward “healing” in South Korea is not only noticeable in its marketing trends, but visible in the country’s recognition of gender inequity and its actions taken toward gender equality and mental health.

Dr. Hilty’s paper outlines development strategies taken by South Korea to combat gender inequality.

South korea farm cabbage
Photo Credit: globalpost

In 2001, Korea implemented the Support of Female Farmers and Fishers Act “to advance the rights of rural women and improve their quality of life” including affirmative action, expanding leadership roles, and vocational and leadership training.

Since 2004, the South Korean Ministry of Gender Equality & Family (MOGEF) has conducted a Gender Impact Assessment annually.

In 2010, the Gender Equality Index was implemented in the country.

“Dynamic Women 2010” set goals for gender equality in South Korea including “46 measures for improved social environment”. This undertaking has created “81 employment support centers for women, 77 new employment centers, and 90 women’s re-employment centers”. “Dynamic Women Korea 2015” is ongoing.

Last year, Kim Sook, the Korean ambassador to the UN was named president of the executive board for UN Women.
Photo Credit: UN Women

The Jeju Women Governance Forum was additionally founded last year. Its 133 members represent a wide array of professions responsible for conducting research and educational initiatives to inform “gender-sensitive” policy-making on the Island.

More than 30 cities in South Korea have been named “Women Friendly Cities.”

In May of next year the International Federation of Business and Professional Women (BPW) will be hosting their 28th International Congress on Jeju Island, South Korea. The president of BPW will be announcing a new program that will influence Korean businesses to sign on to the seven UN Women’s Empowerment Principles.

This year, four South Korean women have earned a ranking on Forbes List of Asia’s 50 Power Businesswomen.

At the same time gender equity advancements have been underway in South Korea, Dr. Hilty has witnessed an increase in Korean individuals seeking mental health treatment for themselves and their children. Additionally, the South Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare has instituted mandatory mental health check ups that will begin this year.

Although progress is slow moving, the steps Korea has taken in the last decade and the focus on “healing” can be a model for other countries aiming to reduce the gender gap. As initiatives toward gender equity are implemented, secondary effects on quality of life of the population simultaneously occur!

Women's Mental Health in Post-Conflict Society: South Korea PART I

As the 2013 Miss Korea contestant photos made way through the Internet, my immersion into the Korean culture had also just begun.

Photo Credit:

Korea is quickly earning global repute for a sense of superficiality, not to mention its rank as the country with the highest per capita rate of plastic surgery. It makes sense that a booming economy, growing cities, and our globalized world would spawn more westernization, but this doesn’t explain the uniqueness of South Korea’s plastic surgery habits.

During my first months living in South Korea, it has been difficult not to notice the phenomenon. Girls (and guys) walk down the street, sit in coffee shops and restaurants, while looking in mirrors, combing dyed blonde hairstyles, and re-applying makeup. “Before & After” photographs litter business entrance ways, and it is apparent that actors, news casters, teachers, and cellphone salesmen are sporting new eyelids.

To shed light on this issue, I spoke with Dr. Anne Hilty, a cultural health psychologist who has been living and working in South Korea for 8 years. She practiced psychology in New York prior to her move across the globe. One of her research areas is women’s empowerment. What I learned from her about Korea, is also one of the reasons she decided to move her life and work here. Korea is unique, and its uniqueness holds a special significance for the mental health status of Korean people. Dr. Hilty suggests that the preoccupation with beauty in South Korea has various roots, most notably in Korea’s long history of war and trauma.

Prior to 1400, Korean society was egalitarian. Afterward, in the 500-year long Joseon period and with the re-introduction of Confucianism, the belief system redefined gender roles, undermining the status of women. This historical rendering of women as “second class” citizens provided the impetus for the country’s traumatic history to affect women to a greater extent than men. 

After the fall of the Joseon dynasty in 1897, Japan occupied the country, during which time Koreans were made to conform to Japanese traditions, speak Japanese, and take Japanese names, a form of cultural violence.

Under a United States interim government set up after WWII, one tenth of the Korean population was massacred, in the name of fighting against communism, as the United States and Russia positioned themselves for control of the country.

In the years after the Korean War, President Park Chung-hee, father of the current president, Park Geun-hye, began the New Village Movement or Saemaul Undong, as a way to reestablish the economy. Saemaul Undong consolidated rural villages into large cities, emphasized modernization, and forced the population to change their customs. Tradition was labeled superstition. Dr. Hilty explained that too swift an economic development is also a type of cultural trauma, and that “Korea’s economic miracle is astounding. Their rate of development within a 30-year period was unprecedented in all the world. No one has developed from where they were to where they became within such a short period of time.”

By the 1970s the sense of economic stability allowed for a popular movement toward democracy. In response, the Korean government launched various massacres against its own people in the 1980s, including taking up arms against a student led protest, killing about 200 individuals, in my current city, Gwangju.

Dr. Hilty explained that it takes a society about 5 generations to fully recover from the trauma of major conflicts, and Korea has had “an entire century of multi-layered trauma.”

Dr. Hilty cited a recent survey that reported 70% of the workforce in South Korea having some version of depression. Additionally, Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world and increasing divorce rates. An Asia Society report on the status of women found that quality of life, education, and health rank very highly for South Korean women; however, the status of women in business and politics is relatively low. When nations develop, usually all four of the categories improve simultaneously, but there is a disparity in Korea based on its distinct culture and history.

Dr. Hilty confirms that there is an “emphasis on appearance (in Korea), and often it’s appearance over substance.” She explained that “part of that would be true of traumatized people…because if you go more deeply that’s where the pain lies…it’s a lot easier to stay on the surface and make the surface look pretty…you can pretend that the pain isn’t there”.

However, the preoccupation with beauty is compounded in South Korea. People were starving 40 years ago and now, Korea is generally wealthy. Dr. Hilty said “new money doesn’t bring with it the reassurance that it will stay.” People subconsciously “flash it around.”  The lack of a peace treaty with the North additionally removes confidence that peace and economic stability will last.

Finally, an important consideration is Korea’s 1600-year tradition of Confucianism. Confucius said, “the outer appearance reflects the state of the inner person”, a statement not meant in a superficial way, but might be translating into society that way today.

korean stars makeup and cosmetic wonder 07
Photo Credit:

All is not lost! Dr. Hilty explains that in the last six months a trend in marketing for various South Korean products has shifted from an emphasis on “well-being,” which “assumes a baseline of health,” to an emphasis on “healing,” which “implies something needs to be fixed.” She suggests that this is a subconscious change in ideology, a realization of pain has occurred, and that the healing process is beginning.

We can’t forget that what Dr. Hilty is describing is a population level and cultural effect of trauma. We know that this explanation does not hold for everyone. Most importantly, we need to recognize the opinion of the South Korean women who do get plastic surgery. It is a modern trend that is not viewed as shameful in Korea, and not necessarily used to look western. Many of the women say they want to enhance themselves because they can.

I hope understanding Korea’s past can help eradicate negative views about Korean women. Korea should be known for its resiliency, and the very many strong women who do characterize the country. Part II will explain the various ways Korean Women have and continue to empower themselves!