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Women and Deafness: Double Visions

Brenda Jo Brueggemann
and Susan Burch, Editors

“Beautiful, though Deaf”
The Deaf American Beauty Pageant

Susan Burch

The rise and continued popularity of beauty contests in the Deaf world reflect the differing notions of cultural deafness and beauty, both within the Deaf world and in mainstream society.1 These pageants have primarily emphasized the physicality of women, while often downplaying or denying their Deaf cultural identity. At the same time, Deaf male spectators herald cultural deafness at these competitions, and with their Deaf female peers they challenge the prevalent notion of “the perfect body” exhibited by mainstream beauty contests. Although certain aspects of displaying cultural Deafness in such pageants have changed since the Deaf President Now! Movement (DPN) and the greater politicization of the community in the 1990s, gendered Deafness has remained relatively static in significant ways.2

Several scholars have elegantly shown that the mainstream beauty pageants of the twentieth century responded to the rise of eugenics and social-scientific constructions of physical fitness and normalcy.3 In one such provocative work, The Black Stork, historian Martin Pernick demonstrated that eugenics promised to make humanity not just strong and smart but beautiful as well. Being hereditarily fit included being visually attractive. Ugliness, according to these scientists, was a hereditary disease. Good grooming was commonly linked to good breeding.4

Articles in Deaf newspapers reflected a similar notion. A 1925 Silent Worker article noted, for example, that “good health is so radiant an attribute that mere ‘irregular fatures’[sic] are almost, if not entirely, unnoticed in their possessor. . . . is it not logical, therefore, that . . . the entire body can be developed to that physical perfection which is genuine beauty?”5 A 1927 article in the same paper, entitled “Beauty Is Health Deep,” claimed that “no one can be truly handsome unless she [sic] is truly healthy.”6 The article goes on to describe the discipline needed to maintain an appropriate regimen to show women’s inner beauty by perfecting their outer beauty.

Deaf people have long accepted the hierarchy of “handicaps” expressed by early eugenicists and have rejected such negative classifications for only their own population. Deaf leaders and advocates consistently focused on their “normal” intelligence and ability to work—their “able-bodiness”—in public relations campaigns and in expressions to each other.7 Yet mainstream society commonly perceived deaf people as similar to if not identical with “defectives” like feebleminded people, undercutting community members’ citizenship status. As eugenic ideology intensified during the twentieth century, Deaf activists sought to preserve and protect their society by distancing themselves from other disabled people and emphasizing their commonality with mainstream, middle-class society.8 Deaf beauty contests exemplify this strategy. Women’s beauty, as projected by the Deaf media and pageants, enforced the notion of normalcy in two ways: the sense of commonality with (able-bodied) others, and the sense that beauty specifically suggests healthiness and vitality. The issues of “passing” (as able bodied), normalcy, and beauty strongly inform the popularity of Deaf beauty pageants.9

Deaf beauty pageants are ubiquitous. Since the 1920s, they have flourished at the local, state, and national level. Inspired in part by the early Miss America competitions, local, state, and national Deaf organizations began sponsoring Deaf beauty pageants in the 1920s.10 Deaf newspapers, films, and eventually television programs frequently celebrated such victors, usually with greater frequency than other groups or types of women.

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