Elaborate gowns, long hair teased to sky-scraping heights, spray-tanned skin, and blinding smiles–the traditional pageant queen has been etched in ink into all of our minds. Every year, women get dolled up to compete in high heels and swimsuits, vying for the titles and tiaras that have become synonymous with beauty. But since the introduction of the beauty pageant in the 1850s, American society has become increasingly progressive, rejecting the gender norms of femininity and beauty that have so long imprisoned women. Today many people see beauty pageants as antiquated circuses that objectify and oppress women, mistakes of the past that have no place in our modern present. In a seething 2014 opinion piece, Courtney Martin exclaims, “beauty pageants should go the way of the corset.” Martin makes a strong, decisive statement that seems to expect little pushback, but I had to consider an exception to her claim: because the corset has made a comeback.
As of late, many women have decided to string up their corsets, but not because they feel any societal pressure. While the corset is no longer a standard for the everyday woman, many are finding a place for it in their 2021 closets. To wear a corset has become a choice, and I think we can view the beauty pageant in the same way. I wonder, are beauty pageants inherently wrong? Can they ever fit into our modern idea of feminism? If feminism is grounded in the concepts of inclusivity and equality, why do some people want to exclude certain events like beauty pageants and by extension, the women who participate in them? While many aspects of the beauty pageant might need reconstructing in light of our modern feminist perspective, I don’t believe they should be exiled to the land of abominations. In today’s society, beauty pageants serve a useful purpose as they build confidence, develop professional skills and opportunities, and create a platform for women to advocate for important issues.
For many women, the experience of training and competing in pageants helps boost self-esteem. Some may argue that if a woman feels the need to disguise herself in makeup and parade by a table of judges, it must stem from a place of insecurity. However, most former pageant contestants have revealed that pageants actually help build confidence. Joshen Mantai of UC Santa Barbara was one of these self-affirmed pageant skeptics until she participated in a local contest. Mantai was shocked to discover the newfound self-esteem she gained through her experience, emphasizing that “it wasn’t that I wanted to look better than anyone, but that I felt confident in myself” (Mantai). Showcasing herself in the pageant required a level of courage that she didn’t realize she had. For Mantai, participating in this pageant was ultimately a positive experience that gave her a new pride and confidence.
Now some may question how anyone can gain confidence by being judged on their appearance in a bikini. For many skeptics, the swimsuit portion of the standard beauty pageant crosses it off the list of “empowering” things for women. But Miss Canada 2019, Lauren Howe, would have a rebuttal. In an interview with Byrdie, Howe equated the choice to wear a swimsuit onstage to the choice to post a swimsuit picture on Instagram (Noble). Women aren’t judged if they want to show themselves off on social media or if they’re a model in a magazine, so how is it any different in a beauty pageant? The common thread here is choice. These women are not doing it because they have to, but because they want to. Third-wave feminism advocates for a woman’s ability to have options, weigh their choices, and live their life without judgement–even when these choices play into ideas and institutions that are not accepted by all feminists. In her essay, “Third Wave Feminism and the Defense of Choice,” Dr. Claire Snyder-Hall emphasizes that “third-wave feminism accepts the reality that multiple definitions of feminism exist simultaneously” and rejects the idea that women must give up certain interests and behaviors to be deemed a feminist. Snyder-Hall praises third-wave feminism for being pluralistic and inclusive of all the choices women can make, even choices such as participating in a beauty pageant (Snyder-Hall). If a woman feels empowered by posing in a bikini on stage, who has the right to tell her she’s wrong?
Organizers of beauty pageants have also found new ways to empower women who have not historically been represented. One of the most disappointing aspects of the beauty pageant scene has always been the lack of diversity in most mainstream competitions (such as Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Universe). In order to give women of color a chance to express themselves without the pressure of racial inequities, many newer pageants focus on historically minoritized groups. One such pageant is Miss Black USA, which was founded in 1986 to celebrate Black beauty and to provide African American women with an opportunity to win scholarships and participate in advocacy platforms. The mission of the Miss Black USA organization echoes a sentiment similar to that of the “Black is Beautiful” movement, which has become a global force pushing for the empowerment and appreciation of Black beauty. The Miss Black USA organization has a mission to “empower women to own their power . . . and celebrate the whole women, mind, body and spirit, all shades of brown, hair texture and size” (“Who We Are”). Pageants such as these give women of color a space to embrace their beauty and to show that all women deserve to feel beautiful and empowered.
On a more regional level, a plethora of pageants for women of color has been created with an emphasis on nurturing confidence in their participants. Kiara Jackson, a pageant queen turned Black pageant founder, has “made it her special mission to empower dark-skinned Black girls, whose beauty is still virtually unseen on magazine covers and other media” (Frederick). These beauty pageants empower women of color in ways that are not as commo in the mainstream pageant scene. Participants in these newer pageants can celebrate their cultures and themselves authentically and without prejudice.
In addition to the positive impact beauty pageants can have on women’s confidence, beauty pageants provide women with invaluable skills and opportunities. There’s more to the beauty pageant than the most well-known, appearance-based categories. Megan Olivi, a judge at the Miss Universe competition, explains that the most important part of a woman’s participation in the pageant is her interview (Noble). This conversation is an opportunity for the women to display their intelligence, personal goals, and ideas to better their community–and it makes up 60% of each woman’s total score (Noble). Interview sections and speaking competitions teach women, some from a very young age, powerful skills such as networking and public speaking, which can eventually help them in their future lives and careers (see Figure 1.) Women like Lani Frazer, who started in pageants as a young teen, praise the real-world lessons they learned in pageants. Frazer highlights, “I learned how to ace an interview at the age of sixteen, and face the challenge of giving a speech in front of a full auditorium of listeners” (Frazer). The skills that women learn through pageantry are not limited to smiles and waves; in fact, most have vital real-world applications that participants use far beyond the stage.
Actually, life beyond the stage is the largest benefit of participating in pageants. For most girls, beauty pageants are a way to open doors–whether that is through scholarships, professional opportunities, or other education paths. The Miss America organization, for example, gives over $40 million in scholarships alone every year (Baraquio Grey). One former Miss America, Angela Baraquio Grey, paid off her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and teaching credential costs with her $100,000+ scholarship earnings (Baraquio Grey). Pageants can have life-changing effects on women, providing them with invaluable opportunities. The Miss Black USA pageant that I mentioned earlier has evolved into the largest scholarship pageant for African American women. Founder Karen Arrington has seen the impact of these scholarships firsthand. Arrington established the organization because at the time “very few young Black women were getting undergraduate degrees,” but today “80% of the recent [Miss Black USA] winners are in graduate or professional school” (Frederick). Beauty pageants are undeniable resources for women looking to pursue higher education or professional opportunities. These contests become networking events, and many women use them as a platform to create a successful future.
At this point, I think it’s important to entertain the naysayers who still discount the impacts beauty pageants can have because of their seemingly antiquated practices. Courtney Martin, who you may remember from her “corset” remark, went on in that same article to ask, “should women […] have to parade around in bikinis and high heels to win scholarship money from the Miss America Organization?” (Martin). No. No woman should have to compete in a pageant for scholarship opportunities, but every woman should have the chance to do so if she wants. While Martin does raise a valid question, she plays into the stereotype of a “pageant queen” and she misses the main point of these pageants, which is that each participant willingly chooses to sign up. Third-wave feminists would disagree with the idea that a woman cannot enter a beauty pageant and also be a feminist. In the essay I referenced earlier, Dr. Claire Snyder-Hall discusses the pluralism of third-wave feminism. Since this view of feminism rejects the idea that there is only one type of feminism, it is “difficult to judge another woman’s claim to be a feminist because a wide variety of choices–including contradictory ones–could be justified as feminist” (Snyder-Hall). Since there is no cookie-cutter image of a feminist, women are free to make choices, even when the choice seems to go against traditional feminist ideals. It is a woman’s choice to participate in pageants–and for many, it’s a choice that changes their lives. Just because it’s not for everyone doesn’t mean it’s not for anyone.
In addition to the personal benefits of professional development and newfound confidence, pageants also give women an opportunity to advocate for serious issues. In most pageants, each woman must choose a platform that they want to raise awareness for. This advocacy has an impact on the women themselves and on the organizations they choose to support. Robbie Meshell competed in many pageants as a young woman and built her platform on suicide prevention. She was compelled to raise awareness after her mother committed suicide, and Meshell has emphasized that telling her story helped her come to terms with her loss and helped other people heal as well (Goode). If a local pageant can give women this platform, it is even more amazing to think of the impact that participants in larger pageants can have. Winners of competitions are given “a global platform to bring awareness to whatever humanitarian work she chooses,” which has a major impact on the charity at hand (Goode). One of the Miss Universe Organization’s largest partnerships is Best Buddies, a charity program that creates friendship and inclusion programs for individuals with disabilities. Miss Universe participants and winners travel to raise money and awareness for the organization, impacting approximately 700,000 people around the world and raising thousands of dollars (“About”; “Best Buddies x Miss Universe”). It is hard to argue with the undeniable impact pageants can have on humanitarian issues. Even if some want to discredit these women as pretty girls with tiaras, it is obvious that they have aspirations and impacts far beyond the stage.
Beauty pageants also have the power to shape cultural landscapes and influence societal opinions. One of the most interesting stories I learned while researching the history of beauty pageants is that of Bess Myerson, the woman who won the Miss America contest in 1945. The remarkable part of her story is that Myerson was the first Jewish woman to win this pageant, and she did so on the heels of the Nazi regime. In a time filled with anti-Semitism and hate, the crowning of a Jewish woman as the American “ideal” of beauty was a symbol that was not taken lightly. Myerson’s victory felt like a victory for the whole Jewish-American community and pushed back against the horrific prejudice that was so prevalent at the time. Even though Bess Myerson’s reign as Miss America was not without its challenges, her win and the platform she created, called “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate,” changed the cultural conversations happening in the U.S. (Paris). Bess Myerson’s story, like those of countless other trailblazing pageant winners, proves that beauty pageants are often about more than just looks.
Beauty pageants will always be a heavily debated subject. It is understandable that some disagree with the way that pageants might seem to prop up patriarchal values and objectify women. Some feminists may refuse to accept a definition of female empowerment that aligns with beauty pageants and a woman’s choice to participate in them, but I believe this is a very nuanced issue that cannot be resolved that easily. While there are many ways that pageants can be reformed, they still serve a useful role in building women’s confidence, teaching skills, creating opportunities, and providing platforms for philanthropy. While I do not disagree that there are many ways our pageant system can be improved to become more progressive, it is not fair to take away a woman’s opportunity to participate in one if she chooses.