Can beauty pageants ever be empowering for women?
I’m asking the question, because truly, I don’t know.
My honest answer, before researching this article, would be no.
A beauty pageant—that heavily focuses on, and scores a woman’s physical appearance—can never be feminist or empowering. But that was my opinion before I began to dig deeper into the history of beauty pageants, and what the women who compete in them have to say.
It’s no coincidence that the cosmetics industry in America emerged at the same time as beauty pageants; seamlessly promoting a culture of beauty to girls and women. Beauty pageants were like walking and talking hour-long advertisements, masquerading as art and entertainment.
By the 1930s, beauty pageants could be found everywhere—even in high schools. The aim of this was to make female students more interested and devoted to personal care; with teachers rating students on various physical attributes, including their skin and hair.
Personally, I struggle to see the link between appearance and education. And while this form of scrutiny and judgement no longer exists for girls in school, it has been replaced by shaming and sexualising girls for their physical appearance. Girls are routinely criticised and pulled out of class because that skirt is too short, or your bra is visible through your shirt, and you’ll distract the boys. As if a boy’s education is the only one that matters.
But beauty pageants went much further than imposing just physical beauty standards. Looking pretty wasn’t enough. You had to conform to society’s idea of what a “good” woman was, too. Up until 1999, Miss America had a “purity” rule, which meant all contestants had to never have been divorced, or had an abortion. In 2002, Rebekah Revels (Miss North Carolina) had to turn in her crown after topless photos of her surfaced, taken by her boyfriend. And in 2006, Miss USA Tara Conner was thrust into the spotlight after being seen drinking alcohol, going to clubs, and having a vibrant sex life.
Enjoying sex? A woman? Gosh no, we can’t be having that.
But despite the obvious flaws of beauty pageants, and what they represent and promote, many movies have aimed to show them in a different light. A side which most of us never see, mostly because we don’t know the women competing. We don’t know their stories, their intentions for being there, how they really feel about themselves, or what competing in a pageant means to them.
Movies including Miss Congeniality, Little Miss Sunshine, Beautiful, Dumplin’, and Misbehaviour have all delved deep into the fictional lives of women competing in beauty pageants. Some of them are conventionally beautiful, while others are not. Beautiful—produced by Minnie Driver—is about a woman from a backwater town, obsessed with pageants and winning an elusive crown.
My sister and I produced [Beautiful] primarily because it spoke to an aspect of feminism we are both interested in. That is – women who would like to speak up but have been societally marshalled into believing they can only do so if they ‘look pretty.’ Pageants are horrible but that is from my vantage point as a white, privileged woman who had a really good education. I talked to a lot of women, particularly from the South, before we made the film, and for them, pageants were ‘a way out’.
But for me, knowing a woman sees her looks—her beauty—as her only form of value or worth, is heartbreaking. Why would a beauty pageant be your only way out of a life you didn’t want? What about making sure you do get a great education, even if it’s later in life? What about starting your own business? And what about working hard and climbing the career ladder to get a job you really want?
Speaking as a woman who wanted to be a model at 14, I understand the appeal of entering a seemingly glamorous and lucrative industry, in which your beauty is finally validated. Because I spent my entire teenage years and early twenties struggling to love the brown skin, curved nose, and small breasts that society taught me to hate.
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to walk runways, wear outrageous outfits, or have my photo taken and printed in magazines. In fact, I was actually quite shy, and have never enjoyed being the centre of attention. Looking back, I realise all I really wanted was for the world to tell me I was beautiful, so I would finally believe it. And perhaps this is what many of the young women who enter beauty pageants are also hungry for.
“I don’t know any girl who doesn’t want to be Miss Universe. Why wouldn’t you?” asks Miss Malta & Britain’s Next Top Model Winner, Tiffany Pisani. The optimist in me hopes this isn’t true. But if my own experiences are anything similar to other women’s, then perhaps it might be. And if it is, isn’t that sad?
Pisani asks the question, why wouldn’t you want to be Miss Universe? Which leads me to ask, why would you?
For an ego or confidence or self-esteem boost? For validation? Fame? Money? Because those of us who have fame and money quickly recognise that material success alone can never make us happy. And those of us who have tried to derive confidence and self-worth from other people’s opinions, know that it never works. Not in the long run. Because it’s an inside job, and there’s no quick fix.
However, some former beauty pageant contestants have spoken out on how empowering the process can be. A group of strong women coming together. Bringing awareness to charitable causes. Speaking their mind. And empowering the next generation of women to come.
The more you look into it, you see the strong women who are representing their countries, and it’s really about putting yourself out there. I’m a human rights master’s degree student, and so I see myself having such a platform to raise so much awareness to various, not just charities, but causes. We’re all so privileged. There are 92 of us with incredible platforms. We can share throwing a pebble into the sea and watching the ripples; and because we have such platforms we’re kind of making waves. Especially being a woman now, it’s kind of just empowering women. Paying it forward, you know, we’re empowered so we want to empower the next person, and she can empower the next person. And that’s how you make change.
—Miss Great Britain, Anna Burdzy
And this might be a true picture of what a beauty pageant is like on the inside; to the women competing backstage. No doubt, many women have gone on to use their platform to do great things. But does that translate to all the girls and women watching from the sidelines at home?
Do we feel empowered when we see a group of incredibly beautiful, young women parading a stage in their swimsuits?
Do we feel empowered as we watch those women being objectified, then scored for how well they’ve presented themselves?
And do we feel empowered when we can’t see ourselves represented in the women on that stage?
At the end of 2019, South Africa’s Zozibini Tunzi was crowned Miss Universe. This also marked the year where, for the first time ever, all five major pageant crowns were held by black women. In her closing remarks, she said:
I grew up in a world where a woman who looks like me, with my kind of skin and my kind of hair, was never considered to be beautiful … and I think it is time that stops today … I want children to look at me and see my face and I want them to see their faces reflected in mine.
As a woman of colour, I understand what she’s saying. As a world, we still deem white, western looking women to be the most beautiful. Other cultures continue to aspire to this aesthetic—through hair weaves, skin bleaching, and plastic surgery—often at the risk of their own health.
The trouble is, Tunzi is still beautiful in a conventional sense. She is tall, thin, and perfectly fills out a swimsuit. So although some young girls will see themselves in her, many still won’t. While ethnic diversity is something to be welcomed (although, where the hell has it been all this time anyway?) all other forms of diversity are still being blatantly ignored.
Miss Universe judge Megan Olivi declared that “the judging has nothing to do with judging the physical body and how it looks; the official criteria is all about how a girl’s confidence shines through.” But what I want to know is, why are we putting young women in the position to be publicly judged and critiqued about anything? And why, as women, are we continuing to step forward to be judged?
I would like to believe that an evolutionary path exists where women and the perceived ranking of their beauty ceases to exist, [and] where beauty pageants are turned into educational tournaments. If we are to value girls and women more – to give them the same opportunities and pay as their male counterparts – we have to stop representing them as objects.
The winner of Miss Universe wins a global platform to bring awareness to any humanitarian work of her choice; in addition to a New York apartment, and a year’s salary. Other pageants claim to be a source of college scholarships for women, although this has since turned out to be untrue. The potential exposure, status and opportunities are clear and appealing to young women.
No doubt they appealed to the younger me, too. Because that version of me didn’t know any better. That version of me, had been heavily influenced by a world in which I was taught that a woman’s beauty equates to her perceived value. And for a long time, I believed that.
I wonder if women realised what they are actually signing up to by entering a beauty pageant—a patriarchal game designed to reinforce women’s role as a sexual object for the pleasure of men—would they still choose to do it?
Is it that several millenniums of patriarchal rule, and subtle oppression of women, has created a gender that now subconsciously believes they are unequal (and inferior) to men? And therefore continues to live a stereotypical role where women exist and aspire to look pretty, and little more?
Can beauty pageants ever be empowering for women?
I can’t say no, because I can’t speak for other women and their own experiences.
But personally, I’m struggling to see who is left empowered, aside from the “winners.” And can they truly be called winners, for coming first in a competition that wanted to see how good, sorry, how confident they look in a bikini?