On May 14, Kára McCullough was named the winner at Miss USA 2017. Representing the District of Columbia, McCullough was crowned the queen — but this year, there was something that made the crowning particularly magical.
When the new Miss USA is crowned, custom dictates that Miss USA from the prior year be the one to crown the new queen. McCullough was crowned by Miss USA 2016 Deshauna Barber — and for that magic moment, both of them wore their hair in all of its natural glory. No straighteners, no relaxers: Just beautiful curls. As a black woman, it was impossible to watch and not feel like something stirring within me. It was, as they say, black girl magic — and it was simply because both of them embraced their natural hair.
As it turns out, I wasn't the only one who felt that way. Below are nine women of color, all of whom shared their thoughts on what it was like to see one black beauty queen with natural curls crowning another. Their words are a powerful reminder of why representation is so important, no matter what the occasion.
Terra commented that the moment was an important reminder that what society accepts as beautiful is changing.
"I struggled for words but I am beside myself in happiness," she writes in an email to Bustle. "The black and little brown girls have been told forever our hair is ugly and nappy. Black women are told we're unprofessional. But THIS continues to reinforce we are beautiful and our hair is magical. #RepresentationMatters"
For Ashley, the occasion was more emotional than anything else.
"For someone who spent years and thousands of dollars 'fixing' my hair so it could be considered beautiful," she tells Bustle, "It brings tears to my eyes to watch someone embrace their natural curly hair on such a large stage. It shows the world that curly and natural hair is beautiful and should be accepted as mainstream. Honestly, the moment is beyond words."
"I think it's amazing to see women of color, black women coming to the forefront of historically white spaces," writes 27-year-old Theresa. "We've been told for centuries that we are less than and had to acquiesce to white standards of beauty in order to be deemed acceptable or get ahead. Now we have two black women on a national stage supporting one another and being themselves which is both necessary and empowering. It highlights that in fact there isn't anything bad about the natural hair that grows from our heads. It's gorgeous, it's versatile, and it highlights how truly multifaceted we are."
For Jasmine, the moment between McCullough and Barber was something she could truly relate to.
"I grew up doing child beauty pageants in the early '90s," she writes in an email to Bustle. "Despite earning local titles, I suffered losses at the state level. I didn't look like the more seasoned competitors — I had dark skin and curly hair, while they were all in the JonBenet Ramsey mold of pageant competitor. It was hard to feel like I wasn't good enough due to my heritage. I wish eight-year-old Jasmine could have seen this photo. She would have felt like it was OK to be herself. It's an amazing moment."
"I grew up believing natural hair had to be tamed through heat treatments and chemical straightening simply to be deemed socially acceptable," writes Desiree. "Over the years, I've grown to embrace my curls, and I'm thrilled to see natural hair not only become more mainstream, but appreciated and celebrated. Kára winning the most recent Miss USA pageant serves as validation that natural hair is beautiful too. It is a message to women and girls of color that they have a place in society just as they are."
"This is so deep and profound on so many levels," Sylvonna wrote in a comment on Facebook. "Generations of black and brown girls watched these pageants and barely ever saw themselves or someone who looked even remotely close to them, represented on that stage — let alone winning! And the symbolism of one black woman giving up her crown to another black woman is so absolutely moving. So proud of both of them."
"Wow. I remember growing up and watching these pageants and thinking that I could never win because I didn't have blonde hair and blue eyes," Sharita writes. "It's amazing that people of color are being represented and shown as beautiful, intelligent, and capable. My girls don't just have to hear from me that they can do and be anything. They can see it for themselves."
"All too often we're given the idea that our hair isn't professional or pretty enough unless it fits the status quo," writes Vanessa. "So we treat, damage, and/or change our hair at the cost of our natural hair's beauty. It's so incredible and uplifting to see a woman on a national stage not afraid to rock her natural hair and even go on to win it all."
"This victory is for every Black girl that never knew what her natural hair texture was because her hair was chemically straightened since before she could read," writes Kristan. "This win is for every Black woman whose weaves, fros, locs, and braids have been poked, prodded, grabbed, and deemed too unprofessional, too "ghetto", too Black. This moment is about #blackgirlmagic and #blacklivesmatter, for taking up space, for cracking Western standards of beauty wide open without hesitation nor apology. I'm so here for this right now."
These nine women all have different backgrounds and life experiences, but there was a common thread throughout their responses: Seeing women who don't fit European beauty standards celebrated and adored by millions is a powerful thing. The representation at Miss USA 2017 has set an example for people — especially women of color — all over the world, and hopefully, this is just the beginning.