Pageant the Pain Away

A couple of weeks ago, a coworker of mine asked me, “Do you think there is any one person that everyone in the world agrees is beautiful?” At first I thought of answering this question in the literal sense – there is no way we could ever know the answer to this question. As I continued to work, however, the question lingered in my mind. Is there truly anyone that we as a human race can agree is “beautiful?” This question came back to me after this week’s readings. In beauty pageants, women, most commonly, represent a geographic region or community. Would all of the residents or members of the communities agree that this one person the judges chose as the winner truly is beautiful? What is it that makes the judges of these competitions the most qualified individuals to make this decision? In the Introduction piece we read this week (Cohen, Will, Stoeltje), the structures of power infiltrate these beauty contests and individuality is essentially taken away and the contestant is supposed to uphold and embody “values of morality, gender, and place” (2). The ideal is conceived by “promoting the illusion that there is, in fact, a beauty standard, that beauty can be measured objectively, and that beauty has a concrete existence apart from the individual… beauty contests narrow notions of diversity, reduce the range of possibilities for individual expression, and allow special interests and small constituencies to speak of the majority… [they] make the social, contextual, and subjective appear biological, universal, and absolute (7).” This lack of individuality is future perpetuated by the fact that these women wear sashes that only display where they are from. They are addressed as Miss Whatever-State-They’re-Representing. People don’t remember the name of the woman who wins, they are objectified and turned into a symbol. In my opinion, it is ridiculous to put national identity and standards onto one human being based on their physical appearance (different from that of their everyday look). It is outrageous to me that because one group of judges decides this one female looks better in a bathing suit than a group of others should represent her country/nation/community as a whole.

I must admit, going into this week’s reading, I wanted to try to look at beauty pageants objectively and not automatically brush them off as an institution that perpetuates beauty ideals unattainable by many individuals and emphasizes physical appearance (mostly) above all else. Part of my inherent skepticism was due to this segment from last weekend’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:

Within the first minute of the segment (0:41 to be exact), host John Oliver says, “Last Sunday was the Miss America Pageant and through it all, the swimsuits, the dance numbers, the inexplicable ventriloquism, it was very difficult not to think – how the fuck is this still happening?”

His examination of the Q&A portion of Miss America is particularly interesting. Oliver highlights how some contestants are asked inexplicably complex questions, such as how the US should respond to ISIS, whether our phones should be tapped for the safety of the nation, whether whistle blowers should be held accountable for their actions,  and a response on the country’s release of Guantanamo inmates for one American soldier held captive in Afghanistan. These women are expected to answer these questions with poise and grace in 20 seconds immediately after they are asked.  This portion of the contest is supposed to add depth to the competition, along with talent, that the contestants are not only judged on their appearance. It is an attempt at depth and show that women can be both beautiful and intelligent, contrary to the stereotype that one can only be smart or beautiful, not both. The audience is absolutely shocked when they answer questions well and immediately mock those who fumble (i.e. Miss Teen USA 2007 – South Carolina).

One of my favorite parts from the segment was the mock beauty pageant at the end.
John Oliver: “What does the continued existence of the Miss America Pageant say about how women are viewed in America? You have 20 seconds. Go.”
Miss First Contestant: “Beginning with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 that spurred First Wave Feminism, the perception of women in America has always been complex and fluid.  While it is theoretically possible that Miss America could evolve into a purely academic organization, at this point in time, the notion that beauty pageants are about anything other than outer beauty is belied both by the continued existence of the swimsuit portion and the fact that I’m expected to answer this question in just 20 seconds.”

Beauty Pageants have a lot more to them that what meets the eye. They aren’t just butt glue, tiaras, glitter, and sashes. These contests hold a lot more weight than we choose to believe. One of the things Afia said today that stuck with me is that beauty pageants are merely an exaggeration of how women are treated and seen in our community. We condemn them as frivolous, but in our everyday lives, we continue to reinforce the gendered stereotypes perpetuated by competitions such as these. Though I personally greatly dislike beauty pageants, I appreciate and respect the academic research of them.

To end the blog post, I leave you with Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” mostly because the music video has a pageant setting and during class I remembered the video and the song has been stuck in my head ever since.  Also, the lyrics are pretty fitting for the topic.  The standards that are broadcasted across the world have an immense impact on the mental state of women of all ages.  Like what was said at the end of class today, beauty practices are used as avenues towards confidence.  The focus is kept more on the result of the practice than on why we feel it will ultimately solve all of our problems and make us happier people.  To tie it all up, I’m going to throw it on over to Bey.

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One thought on “Pageant the Pain Away

  1. I’m also really intrigued by this notion of an objectively beautiful person, namely a woman, that is globally and unanimously considered beautiful. While we do often use Beyonce as a can-do-no-wrong representation of objective attractiveness, even she differs from the normative look of many of these beauty pageant contestants. Why, then, are they viewed as the archetype?

    As you said in your post, they are effectively forgettable: “People don’t remember the name of the woman who wins, they are objectified and turned into a symbol.” Yes, they are fit, well-coiffed, and quite done-up, however, I would argue that the contestants’ lack of vulnerability or imperfection onstage does factor into the way their beauty is perceived. That’s not to say that they don’t posses insecurities or flaws like every other human being, but those factors just aren’t shown onstage. If Beyonce is able to cry and admit that beauty is pain while waking up “flawless” every damn day regardless, then why can’t beauty pageants set forth a similar message that is both realistic and, well, beautiful?

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