Beauty Pageants: Objectification in Plain Sight?
Beauty pageants are a form of entertainment that has existed for centuries now. They continue to remain as popular as they were back in the 1900s, where the formal notion of beauty pageants was first established. Popular beauty pageants cover all age ranges, from teens to the middle aged demographic, although primarily focused on women, with very few, to almost none for men. Recently, pageants have evolved into competitions to judge character as well as external beauty and physical attributes of the contestants. However, there is criticism that pageants reinforce conventional beauty standards, and force women and girls to believe that their physical features define them. Does the claim that pageants focus on overall development of people actually hold true, or is it just a facade for the sake of an extremely harmful pattern of entertainment that perpetuates stereotypes?
Analysing Pageants: How does a typical pageant take place?
Recently. Hamaaz Kaur Sandhu, an Indian model, was crowned Miss Universe 2021. What
would she have had to do to take this title?
The Miss Universe pageant usually involves participation from multiple nations, who host their own localised beauty pageants and choose a winner to represent the nation in the Miss Universe pageant.
The actual Miss Universe contest consists of several rounds, judging various facets of the participants’ abilities, ranging from swimsuit modelling competitions to social media presence and interviews on the participants’ views on various social issues.
The winners are chosen based on an average score from all the rounds, given to them by a panel of expert judges, usually consisting of experienced models, scouts and people from the entertainment and fashion industries. The title winners must then take on responsibilities such as performing charity work, spreading awareness about social issues and attending press conferences to represent the community.
Upon her crowning as Miss Universe 2021, Harnaaz Sandhu stated, “Beauty pageants aren’t just about beauty. It’s about personality. It’s about having courage to bring changes in society.” However, many have also pointed out the hypocrisy in her words. Most of the questions asked by pageant judges and stances on social issues are from a privileged class of citizens, and is seemingly just performative activism.
Although the judges and organisers of the pageant claim that “inner beauty” is equally as important as physical attractiveness to win the title, it is an unquestionable fact that Miss Universe and most pageants which follow this mould, are deeply rooted in patriarchal ideas and promote the objectification of women and wants to confine participants to a box, which society deems acceptable enough.
Misogyny & Racism in Pageant Culture
The idea that pageants empower women and encourage young girls to speak out on issues that affect them the most is an enticing concept. However, most of these are progressive just in name, not in practice. Pageants have been depicted as having the primary purpose of promoting women to be dynamic and bold, but that is mostly a fantasy created to prevent increasing backlash from the rising second wave feminism movement during the golden era of beauty pageants. In reality, most of these pageants were started for either marketing purposes, or plainly for the sake of the enjoyment people receive from scrutinising the young participants.
A prime example of this is the fact that today’s Miss Universe pageant evolved from Miss America, which was started in the 1950s by Catalina, a swimwear company. The company soon stopped running the pageant, after a participant refused to be forced to model swimwear.
In addition to this, the Miss Universe Organisation was co-owned by Donald Trump for nearly twenty years, where there were several allegations of him harassing the participants and catcalling them. He had also remarked that when he bought Miss USA, he “made the heels higher and the swimsuits smaller”. Yet another black mark in the history of pageant circuits, Trump’s behaviour just goes to prove how these pageants promoted toxic ideas, such as sexual objectification and gave disturbing powers to officials that allowed them to control the way these young women carried themselves, contrary to empowering them to be themselves and speak their minds, comfortably.
Many have also argued that the basis of beauty pageants are Eurocentric beauty standards. The ratio of white women to women of any other race in these contests is huge, but not surprising, considering that Eurocentric standards demand slim, tall, white women with straight blonde hair and well defined facial features. Many women have stated they feel the need to conform to these standards in order to “fit in” or be eligible to take part in pageants.
Inclusivity over the Years
Although the pageant circuits still majorly consist of slim, conventionally pretty, white women, in the recent years there has been a lot of positive change in regard to this aspect. Many women of colour have begun to participate over the years and have won major titles. In 2019, the three major title holders—Miss Universe, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA—were all Black women, for the first time in history. 2018 saw the first openly transgender participant, Ángela Ponce from Spain, in Miss Universe history.
There has been great progress in the way pageants are conducted as of today, but is this really enough? The primary focus still remains on the physical appearance of the contestants, and is the main appeal of the show, with most of the contestants still falling under the category of conventionally attractive people.
Putting Self Worth in Numbers
Gabriela Taveras, the first Black woman to win the Miss Massachusetts pageant stated that Black women often had a very difficult time fitting into the crowd at pageants. She said, one of the hardest choices for her during the contest, seemed to be a trivial one, yet challenged her. She could not decide how to wear her hair.
The above instance shows the immense pressure put on women to conform to beauty standards. This is not limited to just beauty queens and pageant contestants. The system used by judges to score contestants on a numeric scale also creates a negative influence on viewers. Beauty pageants create insecurities and encourage extremely unhealthy habits like dieting to the point of harming themselves.
Many young girls and women develop mental health disorders on viewing such content as well. Studies show that Body Dysmorphic Disorder and eating disorders have been associated with the consumption of such content. A common idea is that, apart from promoting the objectification of women, pageant culture also promotes self-objectification. Women, especially young and impressionable girls often tend to internalise what they see on media, the traditional notions of beauty, and translate this into anxiety, depression and negative attitudes towards a sense of self.
Beauty pageants are, in essence, just another product of deep rooted patriarchal ideas in society. Only individuals with the most marketable features are given a stage to display their intelligence, talent and thoughts. Rich men profit off of conditioning the world to follow the stereotypical male gaze, which they created themselves as well.
It is truly moving to experience the evolution of beauty pageants from shows of display and objectification into a space for women to showcase their talents and gain opportunities for themselves. However, it would still be a far cry to say that pageant culture is completely unproblematic and in the best interests of all women.
It is indeed ironic how the competition claims to promote being yourself yet confines you to a set of standards. Who decides what is considered attractive anyway? A person’s worth cannot be quantified or judged in a competition setting.
~ Kavyaa Kannan