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.
Sexism and other problems
Pageants in the 21st century have taken a beating, with many critics shaming contestants for contributing to sexism. Many argue that beauty pageants lead to the objectification of women because they are judged on their physical appearance.
American feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian:
“The most awkward moment of the Miss Universe pageant this week wasn’t host Steve Harvey naming the wrong winner on live television—it’s that in 2015, a pageant still exists that parades women around in bikinis for the honour of winning a sash and tiara. That’s the true embarrassment.”
Pageants have become a hot topic on whether or not they should still exist in today’s political climate. Recently, the Miss America organisation came under fire for crude comments by the CEO calling past winners “cunts”. This organisation ultimately had to force CEO, Sam Haskell to resign. Another white rich male who ran a pageant was Donald Trump. His involvement in the Miss Universe Pageant was so creepy that a timeline was created to spread awareness of his wrongdoings. There have been numerous allegations of Trump entering the ‘Miss Teen USA changing room where girls as young as 15 were in various stages of undress’. Miss Washington 2013, Cassandra Searles, also accused Trump of ‘grabbing her ass and inviting her to his hotel room’. There have also been numerous accounts of Trump kissing girls on the lips against their will. However in 2015, Trump was forced to sell the pageant to WME. This is because Trump characterized Mexicans as rapists and criminals during his campaign kick-off event. One by one, the pageant hosts, judges, sponsors and broadcasters dropped out. So is this a matter of pageants being sexist or pageants being in the hands of the wrong people?
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 fulfill my dream of representing Canada on the Miss Universe stage? 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. Miss Universe 2015, Pia Wurztbach took to Instagram to praise Mirella Paz Baylon as she was reportedly the first plus size contestant to make it to top 10 of the Miss Peru Pageant. Although she did not win, placing so highly will help make plus size contestants winning a reality.
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.”
According to the judges, advancing past the swimwear segment has less to do with judging the physical body and how it looks, the official criteria is all about how a girl’s confidence shines through. You have women who are naturally skinny and other women who are muscular and athletic and everyone in between on the scale.
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?
In terms of workload… I can tell you right now, these women put serious effort into their craft. We have rigorous workout regimens, healthy diets, runway training, personal development workshops and so much more. Honestly, most people wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of a beauty queen’s life. There is a lot of emotional and mental pressure contestants have to carry, especially if they’re representing their country. So all entrants deserve respect.
Mayette Tabata explains, “A beauty titlist must have the self-abnegation of a saint, the discipline of an athlete, and the mental preparedness of a journalist. Add a politician’s survival instincts, a diplomat’s reservoirs of good will, and a gymnast’s flexibility. All these to become a spectacle, tottering in four-inch heels and posturing before gawkers mentally weighing them as cuts of meat. A beauty princess is resigned to have her past examined, her grammar corrected. Passing all these tests, she accepts that she cannot please everyone in the world/earth/universe.”
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. I could probably write a separate article just on this question alone…
So 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.”
And 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 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.