The Philippines has been described as a 'beauty pageant-crazy country'—and that would be fairly accurate. "Beauty pageants are all over the Philippines; some are for kids, gays, women of all sizes, even pets," notes Patrick Quintos in his ABS-CBN News Online story. He pointed out that Filipino fans 'worship the crown.'
University of the Philippines professor Wendell Capili gave a brief history of pageants in a Channel News Asia article by Aya Lowe. Capili pointed out, "The Americans introduced the popularity of beauty pageants during the early American colonial period. In 1908 we had the Philippine carnivals which [were] supposed to promote products from different regions in the Philippines."
Capili continued, "To help promote the regions, they got women from different provinces to go to Manila and represent their respective regions and provinces."
Beauty pageants have the best intentions. They may be sending mixed messages, however. Because while these pageants supposedly champion female empowerment, they also require women to look and act a certain way in order to win the crown.
There's considerable irony when a beauty queen is told, "Just be yourself." Often, what that really means is this: "Just be yourself—only thinner, more charming, and, please, keep your smile in place even if your feet are already killing you because you've been standing in three-inch heels for five hours."
Beauty queens are subjected to intense scrutiny—especially when it comes to their appearance. In the concluded Miss Universe pageant, Canada's Siera Bearchell was hounded by haters who criticized her for supposedly gaining weight. In fact, she was even asked the most insensitive question ever during a press junket: "How does it feel to be so much larger than the other delegates?"
It's worth noting that the 23-year-old Bearchell is a law student and athlete who happens to have a great figure. Yet, she was still subjected to body-shaming attacks. Fortunately, Bearchell brushed off the attacks with a clear message about being body positive.
Bearchell got a lot of praise for her message—but we all know that the body shaming will continue. It's sure to affect the participants who are already under a lot of pressure to look good at all times.
As much as its organizers and aficionados insist that beauty pageants aren't political, they are political by default. After all, they are high-profile events that may be used to shine the spotlight on the burning issues of the moment.
It may be recalled that in October last year, a group of women—among them Gemma Cruz Araneta (Miss International 1964) and Aurora Pijuan (Miss International 1970)—asked the Miss Universe Organization not to hold the pageant in the country. The women pointed out that the country was under a lot of political turmoil in addition to the "demeaning sexist attitude demonstrated by the newly elected leaders of our country."
Then, earlier this month, Women's group Gabriela released a statement saying, "The Miss Universe pageant is an expensive exercise to lull the people and the international audience into a false sense of well-being and celebration."
Despite these issues, the latest installment of the Miss Universe pageant pushed through in the Philippines, culminating in the coronation event held on January 30 at the SM Mall of Asia Arena.
As the Department of Tourism had stated, it respected the opinions of petitioners and other groups opposing the event. But it asserted that hosting the pageant would be "a great honor."
The debates over the pros and cons of beauty pageants will continue as long as pageants are around. There two distinct sides of this story.
One tags beauty pageants as avenues of exploitation. The Guardian's Jessica Valenti writes, "In pageants...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. The contests are an antiquated reminder of exactly what we don't want for women, and they should have no place in our future."
Valenti likewise pointed out: "Despite the progress women have made over the years, there are still plenty of reminders of how far we still have to go. And feminists are still fighting against some of the same big issues—like the wage gap and sexual violence—that they were decades ago."
On the flip side, there's the argument that tags beauty pageants as just any other show. In her opinion piece in The Huffington Post, lawyer and author Kiara Imani Williams, who has participated in beauty pageants, acknowledged, "After two years of competing in various pageant systems, I am well aware that they are problematic in many ways. They glorify a European standard of beauty. I can admit that walking across a stage in a two-piece is not necessarily indicative of one’s commitment to living a healthy lifestyle."
So, why does Williams continue to compete? Her answer is one that's worthy of a crown: "I compete in pageants because I like them. I like to dress up, I like makeup, and I like to perform. I have fun choosing my evening gown. I like challenging myself to eat healthy meals and remain physically fit. I enjoy speaking at local schools and making other public appearances. I have fun meeting different women across the state who enjoy the same types of things I do. I like being put in a position where I can mentor young girls and talk about the importance of education."
For our part, this is our takeaway: Beauty pageants can be a good thing—as long as we're aware that there's a bigger world for women to conquer. We have so many more demons to slay in our quest to be truly empowered.