Explained: Criticisms against beauty pageants, despite their evolution and attempts to be inclusive
There have been many instances of titles being taken away from former beauty pageant winners when their actions did not fall in line with the beliefs of the organisation that felicitated them.
The Miss Universe contest will be returning just seven months after the last winner was announced. It will be held in Israel in December, Insider reports. The return of the pageant is accompanied by the question of whether beauty pageants still have relevance. A consideration of attempts to be inclusive, as well as the value that such contests hold for their participants, is necessary to answer this question.
To say that beauty pageants are designed to serve the male gaze would be to state the obvious. The need to adhere to a certain body type, or the inclusion of elements such as the swimsuit competition (which is no longer a part of some contests), aren't just ways of measuring and comparing women's beauty (which is problematic in itself); they are a means to put on a display sexualised versions of women for the male gaze, under the guise of "celebrating women's beauty".
In 2015, the Miss Universe pageant made headlines for an unusual and embarrassing reason: Host Steve Harvey named the wrong participant when announcing the winner, during a live telecast. In response to this, Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian, "That Harvey couldn’t distinguish one pretty woman for another is almost poetic, because in pageants like Miss Universe, Miss America and Miss USA, women aren’t individuals anyway. They’re literal symbols – unnamed besides the state or country they’re there to represent. It’s the ultimate display of women as interchangeable, vying for the right to be the shiniest object in the room."
Pageants are also big business for all stakeholders — except participants, who often spend more than the amount they could potentially win, reports International Business Times. From a participation fee to the expenses incurred over hairstyling, makeup, outfits and personal trainers, the services availed by participants alone could constitute an industry, considering how popular pageants continue to be.
The question of inclusivity
Morality featured, and continues to feature, prominently in the qualifications required to participate. For example, until 1999, Miss America reportedly did not allow women who were married, divorced or who had undergone an abortion to take part in the pageant. There have been cases where women have also withheld the truth about being married and having children, in order to participate. It is evident that for very long, these pageants expected participants to perform a very narrow definition of femininity, while belonging to a very narrow section of society, too. There are also age-based restrictions.
Unhealthy and idealistic notions of beauty and physicality have been at the centre of pageants. In 2019, a collage of the finalists of the Miss India contest was criticised because of how similar the women looked — fair skin, long, black hair — a point that is particularly striking in a country where fairness is still coveted, despite the diversity of cultures and communities.
These idealistic conventions of womanhood have been challenged each time a woman who did not fit into the stereotypical image of being conventionally good-looking, cis, heterosexual, and able-bodied has participated, but not without public uproar, harassment and discrimination. As recently as 2021, Miss Nevada who will be participating in Miss America was made to live alone in a room and undergo a health check-up to certify that she is a woman, reports NPR. For women like her, the decision to soldier on is driven by the dream of greater representation: of seeing someone who looks and is like her, winning a pageant. "I had that purpose, and I had that dream. I wanted to achieve it and, for me, the purpose of representing people and representing not just myself but something that is not always represented in our communities and in this time, especially in media," she said.
Progressive — or not?
Those who speak in favour of pageants often do so by terming them as a potential escape from unfavourable living conditions, and a launchpad to pursue one's dreams — especially for those women who find themselves trapped by their circumstances. "We need to be looking at the whole spectrum and stop focusing on beauty pageants as being negative, when in fact it can serve as a stepping stone to something else," said Grenada Jennifer Hosten, a previous Miss World winner, as quoted by the BBC. Other participants have spoken about how pageantry helped them come to terms with their body image issues, and about how the competition appeals to them at an emotional level, beyond just the money or possible career progress.
There have been many instances of the crown being taken away from former winners when their actions did not fall in line with the beliefs of the organisation that felicitated them. As recently as 2016, Zara Holland, Miss Great Britain lost her title when she had sex on the reality show, Love Island. Miss Great Britain reportedly took this decision because Holland, "as an ambassador for Miss Great Britain, simply did not uphold the responsibility expected of the title.”
Some have also praised pageants for evolving beyond focusing on solely beauty and looks and also taking into consideration participants' talents, their support for social causes and intelligence. Many pageants re-branded to showcase the scholarships they offered to winners.
But critics like Valenti say that despite this supposed evolution, beauty pageants do not belong in a world where feminist ideals are gaining greater acceptance; where women are assuming more positions of power; and where the idea that people are worth more than their looks is finally being normalised. As Rebecca Reid puts it in this Grazia article, "But no matter what is changed, the principle remains the same. Women are offering themselves up to be rubber-stamped with the approval that they are beautiful."