I first competed in Miss Universe Australia when I was eighteen. I didn’t tell anyone at first because I was scared I would be shamed. I didn’t want people to think less of me for participating in a ‘beauty’ pageant. I didn’t want to be misconceived as an air head with no brains who seeks the attention of men through competing.
So why do I compete? Why do I subject myself to such an objectifying activity? Can I still call myself a feminist? I want to take a moment to explore this controversial topic and explain what feminism means to me.
The Swimwear Issue
The swimsuit portion seems to be the biggest criticisms beauty pageants are faced with. How can a competition be empowering when its most famous elimination round seems to objectify contestants based on their bodies? Miss Universe started in 1952 as a “bathing beauty” competition, and it wasn’t until 1960 that the interview portion was introduced. A major concern for many people in regards to pageants is that there isn’t a wide variety of body types. In 2016, Miss Canada Siera Bearchell was fat shamed by people in the public, with many people, including the media, saying that she needed to lose weight. In response to this, Siera said this;
“How does it feel to be so much… larger than the other delegates? I was just asked this question in a press junket by a member of the media. I was left almost speechless. I thought, ‘How does it feel to be myself? How does it feel to be confident in who I am? How does it feel to be a role model for so many young women who struggle to find someone to look up to? How does it feel to redefine beauty?”
So should beauty pageants adapt and evolve to allow a bigger range of diverse bodies? I believe that pageants will eventually evolve to a more diverse standard of beauty as we are already seeing change happen.
It’s important to stress that the Miss Universe candidates are well aware of what they’re getting themselves into and that it is their choice. According to Miss Canada 2017, Lauren Howe, “We have the freedom of choice to take a picture in a swimsuit and put it on our social media. We have a freedom of choice if some girls want to be a model and pose in a magazine in a swimsuit. Why is it any different that we’re on a stage in a swimsuit? That doesn’t change anything, because that doesn’t change who we are as an individual and our beliefs.”
For myself personally, the swimwear segment always terrified me. I was someone who was naturally slender, but I always struggled with self-confidence. I always kept a towel wrapped around me when I was at the beach because I didn’t love myself. But forcing myself to compete forced me to love my body. Since first competing in 2016, I have never been more confident in myself.
But does confidence really need to be shown by wearing a bikini? For contestants it is about showing your confidence and your self-esteem, and not because you want attention from a man. It’s not, ‘Hey look at me I’m in a bikini for some guys to check me out on TV’. It’s ‘Hey, I want you to know that this is what I look like, this is who I am, and I’m happy with it, and you should be happy with yourself too’.
The Modern Title Holder
The modern titleholder is more than just a “beauty queen”. She is an ambassador for important issues. She is a voice for the voiceless and uses her title for philanthropy. These women may be beautiful on the outside… but they are also strong, talented and intelligent. Their inner beauty shines brighter than just the skin-deep kind of beauty that people judge them for. When I competed in Miss Universe Australia, I met some of the smartest young women who inspired me to aim high and work hard. Some professions from last year’s candidates included a cancer researcher, scientist, paediatric speech pathologist, mechanical engineer, gynaecologist, lawyer and a PR advisor just to name a few.
Contestants have been labelled all beauty and no brains in the past with viral videos of contestants trying to answer questions and failing. John Oliver highlights how difficult the questions actually are, and why girls sometimes trip up.
Beauty pageants have greatly evolved over the years. They have created opportunities for women to showcase their intelligence and speak out about important world issues. Yet pageants have been given a bad reputation for being sexist towards women. However, Miss Universe 2015, Pia Wurtzbach has called the superficial aspects of Miss Universe a “bait” to get people to listen to important topics like HIV awareness, violence against women and children, black civil rights, body positivity and racism. Current Miss Universe winner, Demi Nel-Peters fought off kidnappers that inspired her to get involved with organisations that help girls defend themselves. 2017 contestant, Miss Iraq, Sarah Idan, risked her own life when she helped U.S. forces in the early 2000s during the Iraq war. These examples only scratch the surface of the incredible things these women do to make the world a better place and teaches young girls that they too can make the world a better place.
I also believe that pageants have evolved to become racially diverse. Critics argue that it is not good enough that only five black women and ten asian women have won a title. However, these statistics are quite good considering that in America, women of color were only 3.9 percent of executive– or senior-level officials and managers and 0.4 percent of CEOs in those companies in 2015.
Also… what other event annually brings unites women from almost every country?
So why do we compete? Reasons are different for different women. For me personally, I did it to get out of my comfort zone and grow as a person. To become a more confident version of myself and improve my public speaking. For others (especially in third world countries), it’s about the chance to speak up for issues they would otherwise be silenced for.
Miss Universe Pageant 2016So with all this being said…
Are pageants sexist or feminist?
I believe that pageants can be both. They are a platform that can allow women to thrive but it is what we do as a society that changes the nature of the pageant. A woman is no less feminist because she voluntarily participants in pageants. To shame a woman for this is actually perpetuating misogyny. If you police a woman’s choice to express her body on stage because YOU don’t think that fits your definition of feminism… then I’m sorry sweetie but that’s not feminism.
The core of feminism has always been about equality and uplifting women. It is supporting women’s choices, even if it doesn’t coincide with your own. If she feels empowered joining Miss Universe or any other pageant then let her do her. As feminist, Roxane Gay wrote in her book Bad Feminist, “We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.” This idea of different feminisms have caused debate on what empowerment means to us as women. On one hand, those who mobilize women’s choice and agency in aspects of life that are deemed ‘sexualised culture’ by society. And on the other end, empowerment is regarded merely as a frame of wrapping sexual objectification in a shiny post feminist packaging that hides the continued underlying sexism.
From first hand experience I can say right now, we don’t do it for the attention of men. And I will admit that there are girls who go to unhealthy extremes to shed weight. But most of the girls make a commitment to eating healthy and working out. And let’s be real, it’s hard living in a society that bashes you for being unhealthy and overweight, while simultaneously bashing you for striving to be fit.
I will admit that ‘fake empowerment’ is a thing that exists. Empowerment has become commodified to sell beauty products or washing detergent. But I think it’s taking this idea too far to say that pageants are sexist. We do not compete against our will. We want to be here and we feel great about it.
I think it’s unfair to oversimplify pageants as an event that prioritizes beauty and overlooks intelligence and accomplishments. A woman’s physical appearance coupled with her decision to actually enter a pageant should not make her less of an icon, because what’s so wrong about being empowered by beauty? I don’t think it is fair to vilify women who are proud of the way they look, even if it falls under the ‘ideal’ standard of beauty. It’s just like how the body positivity movement rejects thin-shaming.
And so what emerges is a depiction of an idealized woman: one who is smart, and, in Wurtzbach’s words, ‘confidently beautiful with a heart. I hope that my future daughters will grow up in a society where they can freely embrace every aspect of womanhood, whatever that may mean to them. In order for that to happen, we need to stop judging each other for choices we make. How can we ask men to respect us if we do not respect one another? Feminism and femininity can co-exist.