BERND FISCHER

By the late 1800s, contests which judged women solely on their physical appearance had begun to emerge as a form of entertainment. Today, numerous competitions of this kind exist all over the world. Perdeby explores whether these beauty pageants are still relevant today or if they merely perpetuate outdated female stereotypes.

Contemporary beauty pageants first surfaced in the USA during the busy summer months as a way to promote businesses. The contest thought to have lead the way for this phenomenon was Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest first held in 1921. The media immediately took notice – those who did not attend the actual beauty pageants could still feel part of the judging process, just as millions of television viewers do today when major contests are broadcast worldwide.

However, this world of beauty queens has its fair share of nightmares. In fact, feminists and other critics of the competitions insist that we would be better off without them. They believe that contests which focus on physical appearance reinforce stereotypical beliefs that a woman’s worth is determined by how physically attractive she is. This puts pressure on women to meet impossible standards of beauty, often leading to desperate and dangerous measures which could harm them. This argument has been around since 1854 when American entertainer and businessman PT Barnum staged the first beauty pageant which was eventually shut down due to public outrage.

By the 1980s, Miss World was labelled “old-fashioned” and “politically incorrect” in Britain (where the pageant originated) leading to a huge drop in television viewing. The Miss South Africa pageant has been received in the same way over the past few years.

Supporters of beauty pageants have continued to fight back against negative opinions. They do not believe these contests focus strictly on beauty, as the name may suggest. They argue that the inclusion of aspects such as personality and talent, as well as an interview section, makes the contests less superficial. These supporters are adamant that beauty pageants serve a collective purpose far beyond the individualistic worship of gorgeous women. Beauty pageants therefore pride themselves in their various “platforms”. That is, the work they do for charities, the community and the environment. This, they say, is witnessed through the “Big Four” – Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Earth and Miss International – the major and most prestigious beauty pageants celebrated internationally. Miss Earth, for example, has attempted to change the stereotypical perception of these events by the use of the slogan “Beauties for a Cause”. The organisation which oversees the pageant ensures that its competitors are educated in environmental affairs before they may compete.

Winners may also attract attention to global affairs. Miss Tibet 2006, Tsering Chungtak, garnered approval from the Dalai Lama for voicing her support to free Tibet. Similarly, as reported by the Daily Mail, the Miss Universe Canada pageant was a catalyst for change in the industry. It faced worldwide criticism when it refused to let transgender woman Jenna Talackova participate, stating that contestants must be “naturally born female”. After much deliberation and pressure to change its rules, the Miss Universe Organisation – co-owned by business magnate Donald Trump and television network NBC – changed its mind. Since this ruling, Miss Singapore Universe has also altered its rules to allow transgender women to participate in its contest.

Those who recognise beauty pageants as a valuable contribution to society also argue that it empowers women instead of objectifying them. The pageants are said to promote confidence in women by developing life skills such as public-speaking.

Still, the backlash from those who oppose these competitions continues to grow. With TV shows such as Toddlers & Tiaras, child beauty contests have caused the biggest uproar. Hilary Levey, a Harvard University student, investigated why mothers enter their children into pageants. “You see this a lot among people on the lower-income and education scales. They want their kids to learn skills that are needed to move up the social scale.”

One mother has no problem admitting to Levey’s findings: “My daughter looks like Barbie. I tell her to exploit it. This is your life. You take what you have and run with it,” she says. Some mothers cite the development of confidence and the making of friends as other reasons for entering their children into pageants. Critics argue that these pageants equate to child abuse and the furthering of the sexualisation of children, and insist that mothers stop entering their children into these pageants to satisfy their own unfulfilled dreams.

According to IOL.co.za, the current South African first princess Remona Moodley still believes that the pageant has relevance today, but agrees that responsibilities have changed. “Back then, all you had to be was a pretty face. But now you have to do something. You have to come as a package,” says Moodley, who has a degree in electrical engineering.

Some may argue that an issue such as this doesn’t deserve attention while others strongly believe it is a matter which society needs to consider critically. Those on the fence may say that perhaps the saying “to each his own” is there for a reason.

Illustration: Simon-Kai Garvie