Rachel Visser, Miss NAIDOC Perth 2012

Rachel Visser, Miss NAIDOC Perth 2012 Photo: via Miss NAIDOC Perth

When I was at University for the first time, I remember some bloke telling me on a pub crawl, "You're the best-looking Aboriginal woman I've ever met". I'm not too sure, even to this day, whether he thought this unfortunate line might lead to some groping in a booth later on, but I did know I would never forget it.

Clearly, he thought Aboriginal women were generally unattractive, which is ridiculous and offensive. And additionally, as he so clearly asserted, my alleged attractiveness could only be judged in contrast to that, rather than on its own merits.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. In year 8, I was told by some wonderful classmates that I had been voted the ugliest girl in the year. This, in its own twisted way, gave me some sobering context to the absurd “compliment” this bloke was attempting to make.

Even back then I never paid much heed to looks, so I was also caught off-guard by his comment (hence I didn't formulate a good rebuttal for about a week). Yet by that simple remark, he had objectified me and subjected me to racism, and still today I wonder what the hell he was thinking. Needless to say, if he did receive some pub booth love later on that day, it was not from me.

The thing is, I am not the only Aboriginal woman who has been told this. There was once a Facebook group called, "But you're too pretty to be Aboriginal..." (now defunct), which was full of anecdotes from women who had similar encounters.

As women, our looks are ripe for commentary from strangers from the day we're born. Throw in the "Aboriginal factor", and this becomes significantly heightened. With sad regularity we are judged not only on our general appearance, but also on our "fairness", our "exoticness" or our attractiveness in comparison with other Aboriginal women. There also seems to be a degree of shame attached to what "looking Aboriginal" meant by some of these comments. I know that I have been told that I look Mediterranean/Maori/Native American/Spanish/etc like so many other Aboriginal women, and the inference often seems to be "anything other than Aboriginal" is good.

Despite years of defecting them, I have not become desensitised to comments about my appearance, and I am sure others can relate. I’m therefore not particularly surprised that some people may want to celebrate Indigenous women's youth and beauty as a way of building self-esteem, and eradicating these stupid stereotypes.

Which leads me to the annual Miss NAIDOC awards. Miss NAIDOC is a competition for young women during the annual NAIDOC Week celebrations that has existed in many forms (from a pageant to a simple written application and interview) for a number of years. I’ve long questioned the motives and relevance of such an initiative. In the past, my issue was as simple as the fact that they were using the archaic title "Miss" for the young women’s competition, when the equivalent competition for young men was entitled “Mr NAIDOC”. But lately, Miss NAIDOC has grown as a competition and morphed into a full-blown beauty pageant (in a way that the men’s competition has not).

In this article referring to the event in the NSW North Coast, it notes that, "the girls will be judged on their walk, the way they present themselves and their responses on their application form as to why they should be Miss/Little Miss NAIDOC". Over in Perth, where the competition was resurrected last year after a 15 year gap, it states, "the process for all finalists involves a six week training course on everything from the art of the perfect poise to public speaking". Both these competitions are open to girls between 18-30 years old, and indeed this seems to be the case across the country. Additionally, whilst the competitions have an undeniable focus on community, particularly shown here with Rockhampton region entrants requiring endorsement from Indigenous community organisations, this community focus is linked with competitions such as "Miss Photogenic" and there is special attention drawn to how "absolutely stunning" these girls looked like on the night of the NAIDOC Ball. A fashion show, or at least a great big dolling up session for the NAIDOC Ball, seems to be a big part of the program.

So much of this doesn’t feel right to me, particularly if we are trying to raise the self-esteem of our young women. Firstly, why are we attempting to do it on such "colonial" terms? Why are we reiterating the importance of poise, deportment, and the ability to be photogenic? Are these borrowed values (which have also been challenged for years by the feminist movement) really the values that our community’s young women should aspire to?

I understand the need to celebrate our youth, particularly considering that they represent the majority of our community, but I also question why we should reinforce the notion that attractiveness has an expiry date by setting an upper age limit of 30. Particularly when we are a community that celebrates its elders and consists of so many proud, strong and beautiful women beyond that age bracket? Aren't there other ways that we could celebrate our dynamic young women that don't revolve around how they walk and look in a frock? 

Pageants for our young women can’t be a good thing. Not when we are aware of how our women are already objectified. We should be giving our young people the tools to fight the effects of homogenised notions of “womanhood” and “beauty”, particularly considering that they are already combating societal notions of “Aboriginality” when it comes to their appearance.

I am proud that there are determined young black women who are standing up to represent their community. I am proud that they are already engaged in their communities and that they aspire to make change. I understand that they may enter this competition with open eyes and may walk away from the experience completely empowered. I just wish that there were better ways in which these amazing young women could be celebrated in the context of our national week. Perhaps a young Indigenous women's forum during NAIDOC where they can discuss the issues affecting them as a group and walk away empowered by leadership workshops and sisterhood bonds? I don't pretend to have the answer here, but I don't really think that the answer lies in "Miss NAIDOC".


This post originally appeared at Black Feminist Ranter. Republished with permission.