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What do beauty pageant contestants and political candidates have in common? According to author Lindsay Cross, their appearance is important, emotions must be strategic and they must always be prepared to discuss any topic (Cross, 2012). Beauty pageants are slowly changing with time by becoming less appearance based and more politically engaged. Originally, women who competed in beauty pageants were judged solely on the beauty of their face and figure while in gowns and swimsuits (Lettman, 1961). More recently, contestants have been judged on talent, personality and the ability to answer tough questions.
Even today, beauty pageants are still evolving due to the increasing amount of women who are well-educated, activists and aspiring politicians who are entering to compete. These women are eager to end the stigma against beauty contestants, regain power in pageants and to use their platform in hopes of encouraging active discussion among the larger audience, which is something organizers should focus on further incorporating into beauty pageants.
As times have progressed, the larger, particularly female audience, has come to realize that criticizing and ranking women solely based on their physical characteristics was objectifying, demeaning and harmful to the health of young women: mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Traditionally, beauty pageants focus on judging contestant’s physical attributes. Judges also take into consideration the “posture, poise,” and compliance of contestants and women had to be virtually perfect in America’s standards (Lettman, 1961). It is worth noting that many “ladylike” behaviors encourage conformity and silence, similar to the roles of contestants. Women were expected to be tall, smiling, beautiful, sweet, elegant and composed.
Critics of beauty pageants, many feminist, suggest that these contest send the wrong message to women around the world. They argue that it, “it teaches women that their worth is measured by their looks and reiterates the wrong idea that women must be beautiful to earn status and power.” This needs to be addressed thoroughly and rethought because women have far more to offer than their looks. Both judges and competition organizers need to reassess the true value of their pageants. Instead of fixating on women’s outward physical appearance, organizers need to come to the realization that these women are smart, focused and compete with greater intention than winning the crown but rather to speak with purpose. The controversy surrounding pageant’s central focus on physical appearance has been troublesome for decades and women are trying to change the status quo.
Changing the structure of beauty pageants would not only encourage women to be change makers but they have full potential to empower young women. It would promote young women watching to strive to be more than just pretty, it would motivate them to be intellectual, forward-thinking and politically engaged. Young girl are particularly impressionable and often look up to strong, beautiful women which is why reevaluating pageants purpose could potentially change the face of politics in future generation. Having knowledge of politics and being politically engaged gives women the ability to analyze and respond critically to the world they live in. Take Sarah Palin for example. In her run for vice presidency, Palin boasted about her time in pageantry, using her credentials to convince the nation that she was fit for the job and that through pageantry, she learned skills that benefit her decades later. This goes to show that pageants have long term importance for inspiring women to break the glass ceiling and pushing them to be get advocates.
Society needs to reconsider the way they view beauty pageants and the women who complete in them. Not only are these women beautiful, they’re educated, forward thinking, engaged in their communities, future politicians and changemakers. Alyssa Gum, former Miss Teen Ohio 2014, stated that “for many pageants, including Miss U.S. and Miss America, having a platform is a part of the competition. I’ve met girls who have platforms that range from pediatric cancer to domestic violence to helping the homeless” (Gum, 2014). The former beauty queen tells a very different story of the average contestant which in no way aligns with the pressing stereotypes that surround beauty pageants. We need to encourage more educated and passionate women to enter into these contest because they could really change the meaning behind beauty pageants. Beauty pageants build strong women who are ready for practically anything coming their way. It’s time we look at these pageants in a different light and support those who try to use their platform. Not all beauty contestants make it their priority to take initiative to present social issues to the public but this has become increasingly common, and as a result, the paradigm has been shifted to focus on how to highlight these woman’s strengths, not point out there weaknesses.
All of the women participating in pageants have such great potential to make change, be leaders and shift the values surrounding contest. Since organizers fail to acknowledge the flaws in their system and have not changed the structure of the contest to empower women in a more apparent manner, women may need to take this issue into their own hands. In 1988, Michelle Anderson, aged 21 at the time, participated in a pageant only to use the crowning ceremony to advise the larger audience that pageants hurt women in a discussion about the dangers of anorexia (Patrice, 2016). At such a young age, she knew the dangers that pageants projected onto their audience, yet still she still took part in order to physically use her platform to speak on issues she deemed as important. In 2016, she became the Law Dean at CUNY and was named President of Brooklyn College. This is a great example of how women can find meaning through pageants. In the 21st century, there are now a handful of women who are breaking the stereotype of beauty pageant contestants and transforming the stage into their political podium.
Some may argue that beauty pageants exploit women, but these queens are changing the game. A number of women are actually taking initiative to educate the larger audience about issues of their choice and therefore they are using the contest to their own advantage. It’s common that when a beauty pageant contestant does make a clear statement on their social and political values, it is spread through social media like wildfire whether people agree or disagree. In 2018, Miss Michigan’s introduction shook the nation and twitter world when she opened up with, “from the state with 84 percent of the U.S. freshwater but none for its residents to drink, I am Miss Michigan” (Daalder, 2018). In a statement given after the pageant, she told reporters that she felt personally responsible, given her visibility, to vocally address the ongoing and extreme problems in Michigan. Realistically, these women are working to defeat patriarchal and unjust power dynamics from within the system, which may not be well known. “For other women wanting to make a difference in whatever cause is important to them, pageants are such an incredible megaphone” (Gum, 2017). She revealed that after the pageant, the winners of the contest are typically provided with the resources to continue working on causes they find important. This allows women to genuinely work to make a tangible difference on a problematic issue in society, which then gives a voice to the woman rather than exploit them.
Recently, the #MeToo movement has sparked intense discussion about women’s rights and the sexual assault and harassment that women disproportionately experience. This platform gives these women the ability and opportunity to make a difference by speaking out for oppressed communities and neglected social issues. In 2017, the contestants of Miss Peru stated gender-violence statistics instead of their body measurements (Bryant, 2017). These women used their visibility during Miss Peru to protest the brutal violence against women in their country known as femicide. “My name is Camila Canicoba and I represent the department of Lima. My measurements are: 2,202 cases of femicide reported in the last nine years in my country.” This break with traditional pageantry is just beginning of a large change I believe we will see adopted in many other pageants following. Women are using the attention typically given to their physical features as a way to give social and political issues the attention the need.
There is more that organizers of beauty pageants could do in order to make these pageants more meaningful and less objectifying. Instead of giving women 20 seconds to digest and respond to important political questions, they should dedicate more time to letting these women discuss important issues of their interest. In the 2018 Miss America pageant, women were asked about the following topics: whether Trump colluded with Russian in the 2016 elections, if Charlottesville’s was a neo-Nazi attack, the Paris Agreement, controversial statue removals, and even asked about how we should handle ISIS as a nation (Yahr, 2017). These are not topics someone can fully digest and respond to in an educated manner in 20 seconds.
Although organizers have the right idea getting the conversation started, they need to really restructure it’s competition to allow these women to thoughtfully respond. These women are incredibly intelligent and passionate about change. Pageants should take that into consideration and structure more discussion into pageants. We’re living in an age when it’s not really acceptable to gawk and judge women based on their appearance, so as the times and ideals change, so should these contests.
In the past, contestants were encouraged to give non-partisan answers to avoid a political uproar but modern day beauty contestants couldn’t care less about the controversy that may strike from their answers. Women today are more inclined to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe in. Deshauna Barber, who was during her time of pageantry an officer of the Army Reserve, is now the Captain. She won in Miss USA 2016, being the first active member in the military to be crowned as Miss USA. She was asked in short about her thoughts on the
Pentagon’s decision to open up all jobs to women and if political correctness is compromising the military’s ability to perform at the highest level. Barber graciously thanked and acknowledged the government for allowing women into every branch of the military and crushed any doubt by stating that ‘we are just as tough as men. As a commander of my unit I am powerful, I am dedicated and it’s important to recognize that gender does not limit us in the United States Army” (Kelly, 2016). Within 22 seconds, Barber confidently shutdown misogynist backlash, promoted gender equality and gave thanks to the government for progress within the military. Women should not feel the need to be neutral when asked important questions in pageants, rather they should feel empowered by the right to answer truthfully from their own perspective.
The YouTube blog, 80twelve, reported that the 2015 Miss America attained more than 39,700 impressions on twitter according to the Nielsen Twitter Ratings of 2015. This is when people interact with the tweet, whether it is clicking on it to look, quote, retweet or like. To put things in perspective, the popular show “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” attained a mere
10,285 impressions in this same time frame, compared to Miss America (80Twelve, 2016). Point being, twitter is the 5th most popular social network and over 40% of people aged 17-29 actively use twitter, demonstrating how technology makes it incredibly easy to share information. It’s common that when a beauty pageant contestant does make a clear statement on their social and political values, it is spread through social media like wildfire whether people agree or disagree. A large number of women participate in beauty pageants annually. If more women were to use their platform for the worthy purpose of educating the larger public about issues at hand, this would reach millions around the globe and bring attention to long neglected communities and issues.
It is evident that the values in pageantry are positively changing but slowly due to lack of acknowledgment from organizers. Hilary Friedman, a beauty pageant expert and sociologist, explained that the competition is shifting to encourage more thoughtfulness and to inspire participation of socially active women who hope to run for a position in office some time after the pageant (Woolf, 2014). These platforms tend to serve as an avenue for women who seek to be in a political power and who desire to continue advocating for women and ignored communities around the world. By encouraging women to be politically and socially active, beauty pageants will begin to be judged more based on intelligence and community engagement rather than surface level appearance. Today, there is an increasing number of women who are entering beauty pageants that have varying interests in politics, social activism and want to use their platform to promote issues of their choosing, changing the status quo of beauty pageants. These women are very capable of enacting change through pageantry will continue to fight to transform the narrative surrounding beauty contest.
Women competing in beauty pageants have such a high potential to bring important issues to light if they choose to use their platform in that manner. Although this isn’t the traditional path beauty contestants take, if more women were to advocate for a change in beauty pageants, I believe there’s high potential in today’s political climate to restructure these contest. Traditional elements of these contests are outdated, and we should encourage women to be changemakers who demonstrate their intelligence. The organizers have the opportunity to structure the contest in ways that focus on selecting women who have beauty, brains and compassion. Diversity in race and ethnicity among contestants has made beauty pageants more inclusive, but diversity in thought and the ability to critical analysis situations could give beauty pageants a new meaning. I hope to see more beauty contestants disrupting the status quo of pageants and in larger society in hopes of changing the world.
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