Can Beauty Pageants Promote Feminist Ideals?

By: Rachel Hess Wachman (Copy Editor)

Each year, scores of females participate in beauty pageants around the world, despite a century’s worth of tensions between feminists and pageant proponents around the perceived objectification of women through these contests.

Modern beauty pageants have evolved to incorporate talent and interview portions, but the swimsuit and evening gown components, both based on the physical beauty and poise of the contestants, still comprise fifteen and twenty percent respectively of the competition’s total score. Today, pageants award scholarship money to the winners, and, in recent years, beauty pageant contestants are using their positions to bring awareness to social and global issues of their choice. Yet in spite of the evolution and modernization of beauty pageants, women are still judged, rated, and compared based on an age-old beauty standard.

“Who decides this standard of beauty? Who decides the winner of beauty, when every talent and beauty is unique to each individual?” said Affinity Magazine writer Joanne Yang in her article Why Beauty Pageants are Anti-Feminist. Yang acknowledges that the interview and talent portions of pageants do allow contestants to prove that they are more than just physically beautiful; however, “if we truly wanted to emphasize the intellectual part of pageants, these women should be actively participating in the world scholar games or quiz bowls, not pageants.”

“There is nothing wrong with being beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with making money out of your beauty,” said writer Rebecca Reid in her article Beauty Pageants Are Sexist and Outdated and Need to Stop. “Being born beautiful is no different from being born clever, they’re both gifts that you can squander or nurture.” But there are other ways to make a career out of being beautiful, says Reid, comparing beauty pageants to “meat shows.”

The first modern beauty pageant was held by P.T. Barnum in 1854 but was shut down due to protests. The Miss America pageant, first held in 1921, set the precedent for beauty pageants as they exist today. Throughout the 1930s, a “Rule 7” stated that contestants must be healthy and “of the white race.” In 1938, the talent portion was introduced into the competition, but at the same time, the rules for entry changed, limiting viable contestants to single, never-married women between the ages of 18 and 28.

“Beauty pageants are a space where women get objectified and sexualized,” said Meg Yarcia, an activist in Manila, in her article A Feminist Perspective on Beauty Pageants. “[Contestants] are told to line up and literally get scored based on how they look. They lose their name, and are assigned with a number, or the country they represent. They are paraded exactly like products at a fair.”

However, according to the Miss Universe Organization, the goal of beauty pageants is to instill confidence in the contestants: “A confident woman has the power to make real change, starting in her local community with the potential to reach a global audience. We encourage every woman to get out of her comfort zone, be herself, and continue to define what it means to be Confidently Beautiful.”

“I had been ridiculed by girls most of my life,” said Lauri Knowler, a former Miss England contestant, in her article I Was A Miss England Contestant – And I Believe Beauty Pageants Are Feminist. “Pageants were the only place that every girl surrounding me helped with a dress that needed pinning or a hair disaster. A great sense of community surrounds it; in competition we do get a bit heated but when a girl has won, we celebrate together.”

Knowler remembers an occasion when feminist activists entered the beauty pageant and began throwing eggs at the contestants. She says the activists screamed that the pageant contestants did nothing but hold women back. “All of my hard work with raising thousands for charity and helping victims of domestic violence find their voice and courage with my words was crashing around me,” said Knowler.

In recent years, pageant contestants have optimized their positions in the public eye as means to bring awareness to various social and global issues. “Because of the reach that these contests have, pageants can also be a great platform to get vocal about women’s rights issues and gender inequality,” said blogger Vaishnavi Pallapothu in her post Beauty Pageants — An Extension of the Patriarchy or the Feminist Movement? Pallapothu mentions a specific pageant last year where Miss Peru contestants “recited statistics and facts about violence against women in their country instead of their bust, waist and hip measurements.”

“I fully believe that pageants have the incredible potential to provide access to education, leadership training, and public relations skills to many young woman,” said Kiara Imani Williams, a former pageant contestant and current attorney, in her article Yes, I Can Compete in Beauty Pageants and Still Call Myself a Feminist. Imani says she knows how to handle herself under pressure and command attention because of her pageant experience. “Having worked internships at MTV, Fox News, and Disney ABC Television since I started competing, I can honestly say that the skills that I have acquired in pageantry have contributed more to my success than any other activity.”

“Self-confidence is the key,” says the Miss Universe Organization in their mission statement. “Every woman should have the confidence to stand up in any situation and declare, ‘I am secure and that’s what makes me beautiful!’”

If she didn’t do pageants, Knowler says, she’d probably be sitting on the sofa watching Netflix. “But [pageants] gave me the drive and motivation to actually do something, and give a voice to those who without my support, wouldn’t be heard.” Knower says that true feminism is women choosing what they want to do, even if that choice is to compete in pageants.

But last year, Zoiey Smale, a twenty-eight year-old, size ten Miss United Kingdom, was told that she needed to lose weight in order to continue competing. Smale was forced to relinquish her crown. “Women should empower each other, and we should feel OK in standing up for what we believe in,” Smale said in an interview with Glamour. “I would love everyone to know it’s OK to walk away and to never be bullied into silence. It doesn’t make you a failure.”

“You don’t need a man with hairy knuckles and a clipboard to give you marks out of 100 and decide whether or not you deserve to be successful,” wrote Rebecca Reid. “You can do it yourself.”

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