By Angela Lindsay
In a social media climate that glorifies eyelash extensions, lace front wigs, claw-like artificial nails and butt implants, a local program is celebrating all-natural beauty and empowering young women to embrace their own.
Founder Vernisha Crawford saw a need for such a program when she realized how much time and money she was spending on her external appearance. Curious if other women were doing the same, she created a small poll online asking more than 50 women of color how much time they spent on their hair each week on average. The result—12 hours per week.
“If you think about it, 12 hours a week is 48 hours a month. That’s a full-time job with eight hours of overtime. And maybe enough time to read five books,” she says. “That’s just time spent on hair, not makeup or anything else we do to get ready. When I realized what I could do with my time and money, I told myself every woman needs to become aware of this.”
Crawford knew she wanted to positively influence young girls, as well as older women. The Miss All Natural Pageant was born from this desire. The program is for female students ages 14-18, with the goal of “shifting the focus of young ladies from external pressures to personal development in (the) hopes (of) increas(ing) interest and opportunities in the STEM, criminal justice and mental health fields.”
The contestants participate in a 12-week program of personal development workshops, rehearsals, community events and other activities designed to build mental capacity, increase self-love and promote collaboration among peers, to bridge the gap between social and emotional health and personal economic success. They discuss topics such as friendships, communication, stress/trauma, goal setting, body image, self-awareness, community advocacy, school issues, adult relationships, public speaking, interview skills, meditation/mental health and other subjects. After each workshop, participants are prepped for the actual pageant, in which they have the option of competing (all naturally, of course), to earn the chance of winning a $2,500 scholarship.
This year, the program started with more than 75 young women. Of those, 11 competed in the pageant and received scores based on a variety of criteria, such as an interview, a platform speech and talent. The contestants were students from West Mecklenburg, Phillip O. Berry and Harding University high schools. The program, Crawford says, gives young women at Title One schools “exposure that extends beyond the capacity of the schools. With restricted budgets and limited capacity (in those schools), Miss All Natural brings community volunteers and community partners to the schools to bring experiences to these young women.
“Charlotte has welcomed this program with open arms,” she says. “Miss All Natural has received support from small businesses, vendors, community leaders and organizations such as the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, Discovery Place, Leading On Opportunity, and more,” Crawford says. “Our community understands the hardships and pressures our young women go through. For years, they have been told to look the part or fake it ‘til you make it, and, unfortunately, those things just don’t work anymore. This program teaches our young women to be authentic, real and of substance.”
Throughout the process, Crawford says, the feeling of a competition among the girls begins to fade, and they start to accept what they look like without all the artificial enhancements.
“It’s a big deal. They begin to see themselves as role models for others, and (are) proud of the confidence they have in their natural state,” she adds.
The program’s aims are clearly having an impact.
“Natural is what you are before the makeup, before the hair and nails,” says Efuru Cole-Brewer, a Harding University High School rising junior and the reigning Miss All Natural queen. “It’s who you are before others’ opinions affect who you are. If you don’t enjoy who and what that is, then you haven’t sat with yourself to collect and understand that part of you.”
It’s a part of the most important lesson Cole-Brewer says she learned from going through the program: “If you accept yourself, it’ll be easier to accept others for who they are.
“I learned that being amazing is OK that showing how bright you shine in your own light is OK,” she adds. “Miss All Natural is an opportunity to explore who you are and express that being in its most raw of forms. Knowing that I have the honor of representing this symbol of self-love is amazing. This means that I was chosen to be one of the voices to convey what this program can do for you, and I appreciate it so much.”