I shouldn’t have been surprised when commentators who claim to represent the vanguard of political correctness were quick to denounce the contest as degrading and a negative development in Cuban society. The rationales offered have me slapping my forehead in dismay. They are the same silly, narrow-minded, evangelizing, off-the-mark arguments touted by the naysayers who attack me for my ‘Sensual Havana: A Celebration of Female Beauty’ photo tour and book project.
I’ve known Cuba intimately for three full decades, and I’ve kept my finger on the changing pulse of society. A constant has been the government’s quest to build a “more equitable society”… meaning one in which every individual’s self-worth is fostered by the dignity offered through equal access to education, health care, and opportunity. For all its faults and failings, Cuba has accomplished marvelous things in this regard, and especially in its effort to eradicate racial discrimination.
But that doesn’t mean a bland Soviet-style conformity. And it doesn’t mean stasis. Cuban society is changing in ways that echo the megaton influence of the Internet, Instagram, and Tik-Tok. That includes, for better or worse, a rise in Cuban “influencers” (many focused on promoting themselves through their “sexy” good looks). It also includes some very positive developments, such as a major increase in Cubans’ focus on fitness, and especially body-sculpting. Which brings us back to the ‘Mister Cuba’ contest.
Some of the criticism of ‘Mister Cuba’ has come from sources sympathetic to the official Communist Party ethos, albeit opaquely (e.g. a piece written by Brayan Castillo Freyre in El Caimán Barbudo has been republished in several official Cuban government organs). The arguments echo those you expect to hear from radical feminists and other touts of the latest trend in politically correct consciousness.
“From a sociological perspective, it is crucial to analyze the negative effects that this type of competition can have on our society and on the degradation of our culture,” writes Castillo. “The conduct of beauty pageants, such as Mr. Cuba, raises questions about the direction we are taking as a society. After decades of fighting for equality, social justice, and the promotion of deeper values, it is worrying to see how we allow ourselves to be seduced by events that emphasize the superficiality and objectification of people. We are facing a dilemma, as these pageants promote a narrow vision of beauty and can undermine the progress made in building a more equitable society,” he claims.
Let me dissect this nonsense…
- “One of the most disturbing aspects is the perpetuation of unattainable beauty standards. These competitions, through specific aesthetic criteria, establish an idealized image of beauty that is far removed from our cultural and physical diversity. The imposition of these ideals generates social pressure to conform to an unrealistic mold, negatively affecting self-esteem and contributing to the exclusion of those who do not conform to these pre-established standards,” writes Castillo (citing Berger & Luckmann, 1998).
What tripe! Beauty and bodybuilding pageants no more “perpetuate unattainable beauty standards” than race and track events perpetuate unattainable standards of sporting performance… or spelling bees and Jeopardy! (or, heaven forbid, the BBC’s University Challenge) perpetuate a sense of inferior intelligence and intellectual capacity. (See below for a discussion on the definition of “beauty.”)
Rather than representing an “idealized image of beauty far removed from our cultural and physical diversity,” Mister Cuba represented an entire panchromatic chart of skin tones, fully representative of Cuba’s physically diverse make-up. In fact, the competition was won by 26-year-old Afro-Cuban Damián Cobas Masso. (He resigned the title for “personal problems,” and the title was then awarded to another Afro-Cuban, Alejandro Carrión.) Why no “plus-size” contestants? Or non-muscular? Read on.
BTW: Cuba does not have female beauty contests per se, as in the pre-revolutionary era, although it does have an evolved fashion modeling industry, and a growing corps of competitive female bodybuilders. To my knowledge, the last official Miss Cuba was Laura Marlen, in 1995. I had dinner with Laura around that time. When I asked her how she was selected, she said she was personally chosen by Fidel Castro!
Just as beauty pageants today look beyond appearance and have become far more multidimensional (contestants today are typically judged on multiple aspects of talent, accomplishment, charitable work, erudition, and elegance, in addition to physical beauty), I would also argue that international female beauty pageants have evolved to be racially all-inclusive and offer a level playing field judged by skin tone. In 2019, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, Miss America, and Miss Universe were all African American women. That in itself is hugely inspirational and surely empowering.
With Castillo’s accusation of “superfciality” in mind, it’s important to note that many among beauty pageant contestants combine brains and beauty. Kára McCullough, an African-American radiochemist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, won Miss USA 2017. She went on to found “Science Exploration for Kids” (SE4K) to cultivate a passion for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) among young students. Natalie Glebova was a professional classical pianist when she won Miss Universe 2005. Trinidadian law student Wendy Fitzwilliam became Miss Universe 1998, and graduated as a lawyer two years later. Miss Universe 2002 contestant Iris Mulej, of Slovenia, had an IQ of 156, according to MENSA. Inspirational! Empowering!
It’s a sure bet that many, if not most, among the Mister Cuba contestants are degree-holders with accomplished employment and talents.
Thankfully, women’s IFBB–International Fitness & Bodybuilding Federation–championship pageants are also now fully color blind, with black women taking top prizes with regularity. Of course, there’s a huge distinction between a beauty pageant and a bodybuilding contest. Contestants in the latter have invested vast amounts of time at great sacrifice to achieve musculature and uber-low BFI. The Mister Cuba contestants clearly fit this category too. They have earned their well-deserved acclaim and plaudits.
Meanwhile, the IFBB-style bodybuilding competitions could teach “politically correct” evangelists a thing or two about appreciating physical beauty for its own sake, without getting all bent out of shape about “male fantasy sexualization” by the use of bikinis and high heels, etc. (or even female or gay fantasy sexualization regarding the tiny thongs worn by male bodybuilders.) And BTW, evangelical ladies… if you’ve ever worn high-heels, lingerie, a bikini, or lipstick, you’re being a hypocrite in decrying the “superficiality” and “sexist trivialization” of beauty pageants.
One of the most noticeable and impressive recent developments in Cuba is a surge of fitness fanatics, including the emergence of bodybuilding among both males and females. This laudable fitness craze is both a source and consequence of the emergence of the Mister Cuba competition and of a wealth of private gyms, from rustic to high-tech, (and, less so, government installed public workout stations) that have sprung up around Cuba.
Yes, the Mister Cuba competitors were all beefcakes, as expected. However, far from “generating social pressure to conform to an unrealistic mold, negatively affecting self-esteem,” the exact opposite it true. Beauty, and especially bodybuilding, pageant contestants stand as inspirational role-models. Not necessarily for their physical stature and looks per se, but as much for their confident identities on stage, and as examples of what can be achieved physically through dedication, hard work, and sacrifice.
Pride in becoming toned. Pride in better health. Pride in enhanced self-esteem. Goal-driven. Willingness to dedicate time and great effort for self-improvement. That’s how I see it… Entirely positive!
An increasing cross-section of Cubans of both genders and all ages—especially young adults—are taking to the gym, inspired by the examples of the Mister Cuba competitors and female equivalents such as my friend and Cuban national champion fisicoculturista Barbara Mirelys Cepero. Having photographed Barbara several times, I can vouch that she is inspired and motivated equally by pride in her bodybuilding accomplishment, pride in her female beauty, and pride and joy in expressing her sensuality. Got a problem with that? Then that’s your problem!
In this day and age of appalling obesity (42 percent of US residents are obese, according to the National Institutes of Health, with poor food choices, over-eating, and a sedentary lifestyle the main causes), it is remarkable that beauty contests are accused of “negatively affecting self-esteem.” They should be lauded as an inspiration to improve one’s diet, turn off the TV, get off the couch, and get to the gym or hop on a bicycle!
If you feel physically inferior to someone else, then do something about it. Do not put others down. Instead, pull yourself up! While that won’t necessarily make you look like Miss Universe, or Arnie Schwarzenegger–now there’s a role model!–in his prime (although it very well could if you put your mind to it), it is guaranteed to improve your health, muscle tone, and self-esteem. Maybe then you’ll begin to appreciate physical beauty on its own terms without need to attach political baggage.
Meanwhile, plus-size women and underrepresented females who don’t boast a stereotypical svelte form, or who struggle with disabilities, today have their own inclusive pageants, such as Miss Plus America and the phenomenal Miss Amazing, which celebrate all women, no matter their shape, size, or infirmity. Excellent! Seniors, too, get their own pageants, such as Ms. Senior World, while the All American Pageant is open to all ages, sizes, and statuses, neutralizing any accusations of ageism. Meanwhile, here’s an interesting read on the positive role models of beauty pageants (and this read, from the very unlikely Brigham Young University).
- “In addition, beauty pageants encourage the objectification of bodies, treating people as mere display items. Contestants are judged primarily on their physical appearance, leaving aside other qualities and talents they might have. This objectification erodes dignity and promotes the superficial valuation of people, thus limiting our perception of their intrinsic worth,” adds Castillo, citing Fredrickson & Roberts (1997).
I have a short fuse when it comes to proselytes, including in this regard. Castillo & Co. act like evangelicals. It is not for Castillo or anyone else to judge contestants who choose of their own free will to compete in a beauty pageant, regardless of whether or not physical appearance is the sole criteria. If you don’t agree with abortion, don’t get one! If you’re an evangelical, stop passing judgement on women who think differently than yourself and who hold a celebratory regard for physical beauty and sensuality.
How on earth does “objectification” of physical beauty erode dignity? Give me a break!
An aesthetic appreciation of all things beautiful is as old as human society. True, the parameters of what is considered beautiful shift with times and cultures. Beauty is objective… yet I’m sure we all agree that like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart writing that although “hard-core pornography is hard to define, “I know it when I see it.” Thus, just as a Ferrari or Jaguar E-Type can be appreciated for their physical beauty per se, apart from their under-the-hood performance, or likewise Ansel Adams‘ photographs or, better yet, Helmut Newton‘s nudes, for their intrinsic aesthetic appeal, so the “ideal” female and male faces and bodies can be appreciated for their sublime physical beauty per se, without caveat. Including their innate sensuality.
Why can’t physical beauty be celebrated for its own sake, just as we celebrate intelligence and other physical abilities? Again, if you don’t want an abortion, don’t get one! Stop trying to tell other women (or men) how to present themselves and run their lives! Learn to appreciate (and celebrate) physical beauty, just as—hopefully—you can appreciate Usain Bolt’s amazing physical prowess, Einstein’s phenomenal brain, Christopher Hitchens’ intellect, or Helmut Newton’s sensual photography, without claiming a sense of feeling inadequate or belittled in comparison (or, worse, claiming so on others’ behalf).
Here, I should address a critique recently thrown at me, in a literal sense, regarding ‘Sensual Havana: A Celebration of Female Beauty‘: “Still waiting to see some beautiful Cuban women who aren’t young stick figures. I don’t see the point,” complained one detractor. Answer: See my comments regarding Ferrari and Jaguar E-Type, above. That’s why you will never see the car on the right in an automotive beauty parade. Nuff said!
An intrinsic lack of self-worth and/or a sense of feeling competitively disadvantaged (or jealous) because someone else is more muscular, slim, healthy, intellectual, athletic, intelligent, or, yes, physically “beautiful,” etc. and is in the spotlight for any of those reasons, does not mean that that “privileged” person, or any event/photographer/project that shines a spotlight on him/her, is at fault. If you feel less worthy in comparison, seek counseling, sign up for an Anthony Robbins course, or enroll in college and/or a gym… or enter the Miss Plus America or Miss Amazing pageants!
- “By focusing exclusively on physical appearance, we risk neglecting more important aspects of our identity, such as our achievements, skills, and values,” states Cardillo. “This leads to a decrease in self-esteem based on our true essence as individuals and as a collective (Mead, 1934).”
This is a classic case of conflating disparate aspects to produce a non-sequitur that leaves me scratching my head.
By way of example, as a photographer, I’ve been accused of being “sexist” (namely “objectifying women as sexual objects”) because I offer my annual ‘Sensual Havana: A Celebration of Female Beauty’ photo tour and am expanding this into a coffee-table book project. NB: The Cambridge Dictionary defines “sexist” as: “suggesting that the members of one sex are less able, intelligent, etc. than the members of the other sex, or referring to that sex’s bodies, behavior, or feelings in a negative way.” As I argue above, my regard and treatment of women is the opposite of sexist, by this definition. It is an expression of esteem for female beauty, and for women who hold sufficient self-esteem in their physical beauty to wish to express it in front of a camera (or on stage).
Moreover, the many female models who have asked to participate in ‘Sensual Havana’ include three medical doctors, plus nurses, ballerinas of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, fitness instructors and body-builders, a professional pianist, a professional violinist, a well-known Cuban actress, a Cuban national team boxer, as well as professional and want-to-be fashion models, among others. It also includes Cuban women in their 40s and 50s, not simply “young stick figures.” Fully 60 percent have posed for artistic nudes. They do so with 100-percent intact self-esteem, secure in their beauty and sensuality separate from their self-esteem as skilled achievers in their own respective professional and other fields.
As I write in the introduction to my ‘Sensual Havana’ tour: “A tribute to the female form, our respectful and elegant treatment of the subject pays homage to all that is positive about the Cuban Revolution’s advancement of women’s rights and self-determination, while also honoring their own unashamedly and affirmatively self-confident pride in expressing their sensuality.”
Yet somehow I am considered by evangelicals to be demeaning women. Hogwash! I am celebrating and honoring women, including their integral sensuality, grace, and femininity… And without in any sense detracting from their self-worth as sentient, intellectual, accomplished, motivated, and ambitious human beings in the fullest possible context. Each, in turn, sees and feels herself as a whole human being of which, proudly, their sensuality (and sexuality) is simply one integral and laudable part. (Perhaps here we get to the crux of the distinction between free-spirited, sensual, eroticized Cuban and comparatively uptight US conservative cultures.)
Anyone who believes that this somehow is a zero-sum game in which beauty pageants and sensual modeling diminishes a female’s self-worth and their “true essence as individuals” is suffering synaptic failure.
Most importantly, the only consideration that matters is what the models themselves think. I can tell you what the Cuban models’ universal response would be to any charge of such modeling being demeaning or sexist: “¡Que estupidez!” (what stupidity).
As professional pianist Ingrid Zamora wrote me after posing for ‘Sensual Havana,’ “Thank you, Chris. It was a very beautiful experience!” Ingrid is exquisitely beautiful, physically and in her personality and inner soul. That I could help add “a very beautiful experience” to her life’s joy warms my own soul. It also massively boosted my respect for her as a self-assured, accomplished, and liberal-minded (and liberated) woman and human being… secure (in every sense of the reading) in her own skin.
So stop this nonsense about beauty contests fueling the “degradation of our culture… and exalting superficiality,” in the words of Castillo. Like other overbearing proselytes of misdirected political correctness, he would like such contests to be “eliminated entirely” in favor of “alternatives that promote a more inclusive and diverse vision of beauty and that value people as a whole.” I could make the case that I hope he would, by the same rationale, favor ending all competitive sports activities, as one example. I will simply say, GET A LIFE!
All power to Mister Cuba… to Cuban national champion bodybuilder Barbara Mirelys Cepero… to Dr. Elena Gelpi, Dr. Isia Naomis and Dr. Donaelle Joviale… to pianist Ingrid Zamora… and to all other women (and men) with sufficient self-assurance and self-esteem to compete and even model (nude or otherwise) in celebration of their own physical beauty.