This year, the Philippines is hosting the 65th Miss Universe pageant, and as anticipated, the whole country’s keeping her eyes peeled for daily updates of the contestants. Nobody can deny that Miss Universe Philippines Maxine Medina has been under a lot of scrutiny lately. But as passionate as Filipinos are about beauty pageants, there are also those who view the whole concept as archaic and chauvinistic.
Beauty pageants have been around for decades, and have been the center of heated debates among women—feminists and non-feminists alike—for just as long.
Supporters of pageantry see these competitions as a celebration of women and, in many ways, as a bold refusal to conform to certain cultural and religious norms. For current Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach, it’s an opportunity to get people to finally listen to issues we conveniently put on the back burner: “It gives a platform for women to speak up and raise awareness on certain issues. Kasi nga po, interesado ang mga tao sa beauty pageant, marami po ang nanonood.”
Christi McGarry, who was crowned Binibining Pilipinas Intercontinental 2015, echoed Pia’s sentiments: “[It’s] a chance to show that even though we're beautiful, we can still be empowered and still be intelligent and use our voices to reach the masses and inspire [them.]”
And in that sense, they aren’t wrong. Former Miss World Canada Anastasia Lin used her platform to raise global awareness of the human rights violations in China. Unfortunately, the Miss World competition has deep ties with the Communist country; they tried to keep Anastasia quiet, even going as far as banning her from speaking about human rights (her official platform) and not permitting her to give interviews without a pageant chaperone. Shady AF, you guys.
Many believe that it’s unfair to oversimplify the competition as an event that prioritizes beauty and overlooks the intelligence, accomplishments, and competence of its candidates. 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?
Pro-pageant feminists are against vilifying women who are proud of the way they look, even if how they look falls under the “ideal” standard of beauty. It’s just like how the body positivity movement rejects thin-shaming. Thin women shouldn’t be alienated or excluded from the conversation just because their bodies are socially “acceptable.”
Plus, beauty queens put in a lot of work. Pageant coaches and camps train these women to be excellent public speakers. They develop skills that help them work under pressure, ace interviews, give charismatic speeches—all while smiling through pain, hunger, sleep deprivation and anxiety.
But we can’t talk about pageantry without addressing the other side of this issue. Some pageants have questionable rules that base a woman’s worth on her ability to model “proper femininity.” For example, to compete in the Miss Universe and Miss Earth pageants, candidates must never have been married or pregnant. From a feminist perspective, it looks like a desperate attempt to maintain the illusion that only virgins or “pure” women are worthy of a crown.
What we hear often, in defense of pageantry, is that it’s about beauty and brains, but as Gideon Lasco wrote, “What organizers do not say… is that a certain level of beauty is required to have the opportunity to demonstrate one’s ‘brains,’ in the first place. 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.’”
Yes, we can say that it’s about class and poise, and we even throw in a couple of token questions so the contestants can demonstrate their smarts, but at the end of the day, all these women meet specific height and weight requirements. Short women or plus size women have their moments, but never at major beauty pageants.
As empowering as beauty pageants claim to be, in a way, they reward women for cultivating the most fleeting aspect of their humanity—physical beauty—and for preserving the correct kind of femininity. They praise women for not taking up too much space and for only speaking up when she’s prompted to. And when she makes a “mistake,” as any human should be allowed to do, and destroys that illusion of perfection, she’s quickly stripped of her crown and swept under the rug. For example, in 1973, Miss World Marjorie Wallace was dethroned for dating two men. How that affected her ability to follow through on her responsibilities, we’re not quite sure.
However, the reality is that beauty pageants do exist, so until we're able to come up with a more compelling or inclusive contest or competition that rivals their popularity, the least we can do is avoid villainizing women who are empowered by them.
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