Could Beauty Pageants Be a Testing Ground for Radical Inclusion?

Rather than pitting ourselves against beauty queens and mocking the industry, we could talk about how pageants may represent a great opportunity for public relations, outreach, and social change.
Publish date:
June 20, 2013
Beauty Pageants, body diversity, lady babes, subvert the dominant paradigm

I’ve got beauty pageants on the brain today. First, I read about the “Miss You Can Do It” pageant for disabled beauty queens, and then Emily sent me a link to Jessica Wakeman’s piece on The Frisky about the “American Beauties Plus Pageant.” Both pageants have been the subject of documentaries recently, which is why they’re in the news; they’re the sort of thing that most people would probably view as a niche otherwise.

After all, pageants are for pretty girls embodying the very spirit of perfectionism, and we all know that excludes disabled women and fat women, right?

Like Wakeman, I’ve always kind of hated the idea of beauty pageants. It bothers me to think of a bunch of women being paraded across a stage for judgment on their looks, a short interview, a brief display of talent. It’s like a dog and pony show, broadcast for an eager audience that waits for the women to trip up -- maybe with a weird fumble on the interview, or a fall during the evening gown section, say.

Especially since many women start in the pageant industry early, as “Toddlers and Tiaras” demonstrates, which makes me worry about how much autonomy and choice they’re really exercising. Women who start pageants as teens and adults have more ability to control their surroundings and decide on their own whether they want to pursue pageant competitions, for whatever reason. But little girls?

If you’re forced to do something by your parents, can you ever really make a conscious choice? Do little girls really know what they’re getting into if they express an interest in pageants, baton twirling, and related activities? The same might be said, though, of other things society generally finds acceptable and doesn’t sneer at, like gymnastics and ballet, both of which typically start training women very young. In fact, if you don’t start training young, you’re unlikely to ever be a member of the elite.

So you're an empty-headed ninny if you like pageants, but an accomplished athlete or artist if you do gymnastics or ballet?

Is my distaste for pageants more about what I think they stand for, or concerntrolling for women involved in them?

Doesn’t that kind of deny participants their own autonomy?

Reading Wakeman’s piece made me ultimately rethink my stance on pageants, just as considering the issue shifted her view as well. She says: “'There She Is' got me to question whether pushing for inclusivity at pageants, rather than abolishing them entirely, might be a better option.”

And I would argue that Wakeman is on to something here. In the last few years, we’ve seen a change in the makeup of pageant contestants, including trans women competing in major pageants, disabled women joining competitions, lesbian women strutting the catwalk, and more. Some of these women have even won, notes Wakeman.

Historically, such women were barred from competing at all by a system that narrowly defined who was acceptable. In order to be good pageant material, you not only had to look a certain way, but you had to be a certain kind of woman. To see that changing is an indicator that our social attitudes about who is the “ideal woman” may also be changing, which I can’t see as anything but a good sign.

Do I still think that pageants are objectifying? Do they make me uncomfortable and unsettle me? Well, yes. Pageants do leave me with an unpleasant feeling -- but they’re also a very mainstream, widely discussed and consumed social phenomenon. And that makes them very important not just because they’re not going away, but because they represent something extremely large.

They represent how society and culture thinks about itself and about women. And if we invested energy in pushing for full inclusion at pageants, rather than trying to shut them down, it might be a better use of our time. Rather than pitting ourselves against beauty queens and mocking the industry, we could talk about how pageants may represent a great opportunity for public relations, outreach, and social change.

Because, really, a pageant should feature a diversity of contestants. I want to see wheelchair users on stage with everyone else, I want to hear smart, angry feminists answering questions, I want to see all sorts of women represented in an event that supposedly captures the best of women in society. Maybe inclusion will lead to a shift in pageant culture, one that moves us away from objectifying contestants and truly towards finding some of the best and brightest women in the US, or elsewhere. And maybe that, in turn, will also lead to a shift in culture that makes us value all women.

It’s not that odd to search for talented, passionate women in other ways: through writing contests, through science fairs, through myriad other means. Pageants may have troubling roots that linger today, but that doesn’t mean they always have to be that way.

Thus it is that I find myself, oddly, arguing in defense of beauty pageants, something I never thought I would find myself doing. Which just goes to show you that social change can come from surprising quarters, and that it is possible to use the most bizarre instruments to reframe the way society looks at women.