Beauty Pageants: The Tenacity Behind the Tiara
by Joshen Mantai
Beauty pageants like Miss Universe are surrounded by controversy, hated by many yet watched by millions. How could the makeup, expensive dresses, spray tans, and swimsuit contests be setting a good example for young girls watching at home? Countless people argue that they teach young girls that they have to aspire to arbitrary beauty standards.
I myself used to be skeptical of the message beauty pageants send to young women. Despite my doubts, I would watch Miss Universe every year and see women who looked seemingly perfect. Like many, I wondered if I could be them one day.
Traditionally, beauty pageants revolved around the judgement of physical attributes, but since have evolved to include personality and talent. The talent competition, contestant profile and numerous question and answer portions illustrate this very point. They now strive to be more inclusive of all races, the intent of the Miss Universe pageant being “a way to celebrate women and diversity.” Additionally, the first transgender contestant competed in the Miss Universe 2018 competition. While this may seem like a step in the right direction, the overwhelming public opinion says otherwise, arguing that beauty pageants are sexist because of the burdensome expectations they impose on women to be “gorgeous, intelligent, and poised.” These critics often target the evening gown and swimsuit competition as the basis of their claims, as those parts of the competition are based solely on physical appearance. Miss America has responded to this enduring criticism by cutting the infamous swimsuit and evening gown competitions, instead aiming to focus on “honoring talent and scholarship.”
My view of beauty pageants changed from skepticism to hope after competing in one myself and being positively impacted by the experience. I was mostly piqued by curiosity and wanting to try something new, especially since it’s such a popular tradition in the South. There are many societal expectations of women associated with the notion of “Southern hospitality” that pervade the South; high importance is placed on appearing charming, beautiful, and poised. This is a direct link to the traditional archetype of Southern beauty and femininity.
In high school, I did not fit the description of a stereotypical girl who would be interested in competing in beauty pageants. I was focused on my studies, my friends and my involvement in extracurriculars — not winning a beauty competition. My friend group, who were focused on similar things, surprisingly did not question my newfound curiosity. Some even showed up to watch and support me on the night of the pageant.
I first met girls in rehearsal who had been vying for the crown since they were toddlers, competing in numerous local and regional beauty contests to work their way up. I learned that the acquisition of one crown improved your pageant resume, in a sense, even if our high school competition was open to anyone in our school. Competing in our pageant also served as a valuable opportunity to practice poise, talent, etc. in preparation for later pageants. This, however, increased my skepticism upon entering the competition. Being the inexperienced outsider that I was, and lacking the shared intention to continue competing, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat excluded.
Despite both my skepticism and my expectations that all my competitors would have elitist attitudes, I unexpectedly made multiple friends during the process. Rehearsal was grueling and started uncharacteristically early for a two-hour pageant. We would practice the opening number and our exits and entrances over and over again until I was sure that the directors in charge were taking the event way too seriously. We would laugh after rehearsal at the ridiculousness of the dance moves we had to memorize and the “walks” we had to perfect before the final day, which made me feel at ease. Although these girls had more experience than I did, they didn’t have the snobby attitudes I expected.
On the morning of the pageant, the interview (which I didn’t prepare for) was the most telling part of the event. Every girl wore heels and bright dresses, with their makeup and hair already done. I didn’t have as much motivation to wake up early and get all of that done ahead of the 9 a.m. interview, and ended up dressing professionally with minimal makeup. Having done many academic and extracurricular interviews before, I believed I would nail it. However, the questions asked by the judges seemed almost too serious, like they were searching for the perfect answer. They asked questions like “how do you handle cliques at school?” with facial expressions that read, “I’m not looking for an answer about real personal experience, but one that’s been rehearsed.” Despite not doing as well as I’d expected, I still had hope for the merit of the pageant.
After a long day of preparation, the night of the pageant was still nerve-wracking, primarily because most of the girls were worried they would trip on stage or misspeak in front of the audience. When I used to watch the evening gown competition on TV, I imagined girls backstage gawking at each other, internally comparing who looked best in their dress. Instead, we all offered each other words of encouragement and praise before we individually took the stage. When the winners were announced at the end, we were happy for each other and grateful we got to develop friendships during the experience (I know, shocker!).
Aside from the supportive female community, I discovered that the most positive impact of pageantry was the newfound confidence it gave me. I didn’t realize until the end, when I found that I wasn’t as nervous onstage as I’d thought I’d be. It wasn’t that I wanted to look better than anyone, but that I felt confident in myself. But this wasn’t even the most rewarding aspect of participating. It was the moment when my mom came up to me afterwards with tears in her eyes, telling me how proud she was. To go on stage alone and walk in front of a crowd of people — many of whom attended my high school — with no prior experience as a beauty queen, was no easy feat. I didn’t care about what the judges or the audience thought of me, only about what I thought of myself, and I felt good.
Joshen Mantai wants people to know the positive impacts beauty pageants can have on women.
Beauty Pageants: Only Skin Deep
by Emily Hickingbottom
In our current political and social climate, beauty pageants in the United States have become targets of widespread, controversial criticism. While competing in these competitions may seem innocent enough when girls are young, as years pass, competitions become increasingly focused on unrealistic physical beauty standards that can damage a girl’s self-image and confidence. Instead of teaching girls to strive for career focused and academic success, these competitions perpetuate the idea that “beauty” is a woman’s most important characteristic when determining her overall worth.
Though certain people (*cough cough* Trump) and recent events in the media might suggest otherwise, generally speaking, I’d like to think that we are living in a time where gender equality is the norm — particularly in the United States (though this isn’t always the reality). But, there is a startling disparity between the focus on male versus female sexuality in entertainment, specifically on television. There is a great deal of attention given to the Miss America Pageant and other pageants like it. These pageants champion a very specific “type” of woman, and, in doing so, they invalidate and demean the majority of other women who don’t meet these requirements. The ideal candidate is many things: She is tall, but not too tall; thin, but not too thin; curvy, but in only the “right” places. Always smiling, always put together, always on cue. Women’s beauty and self-worth extend far beyond these superficial standards of attractiveness. Qualities involving attraction and beauty are not measured by the size of a woman’s waist or by the symmetry of her face. These measurements are shallow and speak volumes when evaluating what the Miss America competition and similar pageants represent.
By allowing pageants to determine beauty or value based almost entirely on surface level characteristics, we are projecting harmful images about a woman’s “place” and purporting normative expectations of appearance, thus slowing our advancement into a more progressive society. With ever-changing definitions of femininity and beauty developing in America, competitions like Miss America, and the narrow beauty ideals they promote, are becoming increasingly outdated and are in dire need of greater scrutiny.
The danger of beauty pageants is evidenced in the name itself. They evaluate participants based solely upon physical “beauty” and reduce these women’s unique and individually remarkable features to nothing more than a series of numbers on a scale.
Some might disagree because of the question and answer portions included in some beauty pageants. While I grant that this gives the contestant an opportunity to showcase themselves outside the physical realm, there exists a long-standing expectation of fumbling failure amid this segment of the competition, held by viewers and judges alike. Contestants are called to answer what is typically a controversial, multifaceted question, who are then expected to respond eloquently, despite the pressure and lack of preparation for the question. It almost seems as if judges are waiting for contestants to fail, especially considering the judges’ and media’s reactions to incidents like Miss Utah’s fumbled answers during her run for Miss USA in 2012.
Building further on this point, we must also consider the corporate sponsorships and owners of these supposedly harmless, good-natured competitions. Of course, these large corporations would not want to promote an idea of beauty which gives women — particularly female viewers of the pageant — the idea that intellect and personal values are more important than living up to a rigid set of impossible beauty standards. If us women collectively came to that conclusion, we might not buy as much makeup, or shop as often or regularly allow men to determine our worth. We might argue more to receive equal pay or, worse yet, start speaking up for ourselves in situations where we don’t believe our interests are being equally represented. This is not to say that all businesses and corporations have these intentions, but when we stop to consider who is at the head of some of the major national pageants, it becomes apparent that their respective owners do not actively endorse gender equality, or even respect women, for that matter.
So, who owns them? Who has vested interests in the pageant’s success? In the case of Miss America, the owner and individual responsible for their continued success in 2015 was none other than Donald Trump. I think it’s safe to say that, given our current political climate and Donald Trump’s infamy in the United States, we are fully aware that his version of respecting women is far from acceptable.
With that in mind, I imagine watching my future daughter up on stage, competing in a Miss California or Miss USA pageant and, immediately, I am overcome with anger. In a time when gender equality and sexual freedom are at a peak in our current society, I would hope that women don’t need validation from a select group of biased judges with predisposed preferences for a narrow set of characteristics, predetermined by heterosexual, white, male owners and sponsors of the competitions. I think the idea that beauty can be defined by physical characteristics is, in and of itself, a toxic concept. If we could define beauty by a specific set of physical characteristics, then we could, theoretically, define what characteristics make an individual unattractive as well. When considering things from the reversed perspective, the thought that we can identify beauty purely based on appearance seems absolutely absurd.
The continued occurrence of these toxic competitions only serves to convince men and women alike that physical beauty is an acceptable measurement of a woman’s worth. Generations of young women, including the young women on this campus, are presently growing up in the shadow of a misogynistic president and his anti-feminist ideals. And unfortunately, despite my belief that pageantry might have the capability to change into a valuable experience for young women under the right leadership and reform, the overwhelmingly powerful presence of men like Trump in this arena makes it extremely difficult to separate the positives from the negatives.
We are all beautiful, each of us in our own unique ways, both physically and mentally. No two people are the same and no two people perceive beauty in the same way. So trust me when I tell you, regardless of what pageant judges or Trump might say, every single one of you is gorgeous. Your worth and beauty extends far beyond what any competition can possibly attempt to decide.
Emily Hickingbottom wants women to know that their beauty runs much deeper than the surface.
Joshen Mantai currently serves as Social Media Manager. She enjoys Twitter memes, listening to Taylor Swift/Ariana Grande, fantasizing about having a cat, and roasting others daily.