Beauty Pageants and Their Impact on Images of Feminine “Beauty and “Perfection”
by Ruby Warnock
The beauty pageant is an industry that has greatly impacted the way society defines beauty, especially in women. Since the first Miss America Pageant in 1921, the scrutiny that women have had to face has been amplified, as they are now judged on their appearance, even though many in favor of pageants argue that over time, pageants have incorporated more intellectually stimulating rounds. But the definition of female beauty has been gradually shaped through pageant scandals, pageants for women who are not white (or do not appear white) and the introduction of the child pageant.
This essay will focus on the exclusion of certain types of women, such as black women, and how this has had an impact on the definition of feminine beauty. It will discuss how the beauty pageant has infiltrated the lives of girls as young as two weeks old, and brainwashed them into thinking that beauty only comes in certain shapes and sizes. As well as this, I will argue that while many do see and support the good in beauty pageants, such as the promotion of health, many more are interested in the beauty pageant because of the opportunity to see the socially constructed definition of feminine beauty being paraded around on stage.
What It Takes to Be Miss America
The qualifications that originally allowed or prevented women from entering the Miss America pageant are an aspect that has contributed to definitions of beauty. For example, when Lenora Slaughter entered the pageant world in 1941 and transformed the event into a more modern institution, she decided that contestants must be “of good health” and managed to slip in that they should also be “of the white race.” While this was abolished in 1950, there were no African American contestants until 20 years later, in 1970, with Cheryl Brown (Miss Iowa). Moreover, the first African American woman to win Miss America, was Vanessa Williams (Miss New York), but only after thirteen more years, in 1983.
While there were indeed Native American, Latina, and Asian-American contestants, the lack of African American contestants was very poignant. Vanessa Williams was a turning point for the definition of beauty because she ‘signified the truth that black womanhood’ was able to ‘represent the national identity of America.’ However, when it was revealed that Penthouse magazine was going to publish her nude photographs from years before without her permission, she lost her title, with only two months remaining until she would have passed it down to the next Miss America winner. There are several questions that should be posed about this scandal: Why was the magazine able to publish these photographs when they were unauthorized to do so? Would she have lost her title if she were white? Would the photos have been published if she were white? As the first African American winner, it seemed as though the press and others were almost out to get Williams, in an attempt to reaffirm the notion that only white is beautiful, and to maintain ‘black women’s assumed symbolic linkage to sexuality.’ It was a widely believed stereotype that while white women were classy, virginal, and conservative, black women were promiscuous, lacking moral character, and inferior to white women, as well as men.
The identity of Miss America contestants was, and still is, idolized by teenage girls all around the world, as they see slim, white, blonde or brunette women walking down a catwalk, with a beaming smile that has led them to national success. In Julia Alvarez’s chapter, “I Want to Be Miss America,” from her book, Something to Declare, she discusses how she and her sisters were desperate to swap their small height, larger figures, and frizzy hair for the complete opposite image they obsessed over on their television screen once a year.  Alvarez and her sisters would ‘painstakingly’ roll and iron their hair to achieve the gloss and shine of the contestants. This is a perfect example of how girls who did not emulate the ‘all-American girl’ image were made to feel as though they were not good enough for society and would not succeed in their endeavors as much as their white counterparts would.
“All Those Girls Are Ugly! I’m Cute!”
The issue of young girls and their connection to the beauty pageant has taken on a whole new meaning through the child beauty pageants, which began to take off in the 1960s. With girls as young as two weeks old being judged on their appearance and ability to perform a dance routine, the child beauty pageant has become a way to fuel the sexualization of children. In a bid to win the competition, pre-pubescent girls must wear ‘revealing costumes’ and remove items of clothing while winking at judges, as well as flirt and ‘exploit their nascent sexuality in order to win.’ Girls are performing nearly explicit dance routines while wearing very little clothing.
When TLC’s show, Toddlers & Tiaras hit the television screen, it not only informed people of this industry, but satisfied the pedophilic need for many, who were able to justify their secret fetish by arguing that the girls’ parents are present and it is simply a fun activity for young girls to take part in in order to develop their confidence. The show gives an insight into the high-pressured, exaggerated world of child beauty pageants in which parents use ‘appearance-altering techniques to mask their little girls’ flaws and imperfections,’ such as wigs, heavy makeup, false eyelashes, and fake teeth. The show has included girls dressed up as Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts’s prostitute character from Pretty Woman), built-in breasts to perform a Dolly Parton routine, and even one child smoking a fake cigarette to embody Sandy from Grease. These performances teach children from a young age that to be a desirable and successful woman, one must exhibit promiscuous poses, show a lot of skin, and wear heavyset makeup to enhance some features, and hide other flaws.
The impact of these expectations on the young girls who take part in pageants can cause ‘severe social and psychological consequences.’ The intense setting of child beauty pageants with parents demanding perfect performances of their daughters, and girls fighting for the spotlight, can lead to depression and eating disorders that add to the overt body dysmorphia that prevails in this industry. But as long as the contestant is able to perform her routine with a smile on her face – and win the prize – no one is going to acknowledge that there are underlying problems surrounding the young girl’s view of the world. The reason this problem has not been attempted to be rectified on an organizational level is because coordinators are reluctant to set regulations because ‘the more outlandish the pageants, the more profit they receive.’ Here, one can see the absurdity of this industry, as people are willing to put a child’s wellbeing on the line, for money, a practice exercised throughout history.
A contradiction to this criticism of child beauty pageants comes in the form of Toddlers & Tiaras’ Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, a contestant who does not seem to be fazed by the scrutiny she faces on the stage. In her introductory montage, Alana grabs her ‘belly’, saying, “This is what I show to the judges,” and later, when she does not win, says “They don’t know a good thing [her belly] when they see it.” Zaborskis sees ‘Alana’s literal embrace of her body’ as an ‘unawareness of or disregard for cultural attitudes toward female bodies.’ Alana sees her body as an advantage in competitions, not, as many do, as the reason she does not win a competition. Alana is a key example for people in favor of pageants to show how beauty pageants are beneficial in celebrating the female body, not criticizing it.
A further example of the positive outcome of the beauty pageant can be seen in Rebecca Ruiz’s article, “In Defense of the Pageant,” in which K. Lee Graham talks about her positive experiences in the beauty pageant world. What Graham says she realised through pageantry is that no matter how much she looked the part, if she did not have the ‘intangible quality’ of ‘radiating joy that came from self-acceptance,’ then she would not win. The implementation of “the Platform” section of the Miss America pageant is a way for contestants to show their passion for a national or international problem that they would like to help to overcome, should they win. This maneuver has given the contestants more of a voice, meaning more respect, as they can now show that they are more than airheads whose main talent is being able to walk in heels. Graham describes this pleasure she gets from a ‘newfound sense of civic duty’ that she feels gives her purpose and confidence.
Furthermore, Graham defends the infamous, and widely controversial, Swimsuit round. While many argue that the Swimsuit round is degrading, as it is just an excuse for men to ogle the scantily-clad women, Graham rejects this, instead arguing that it promotes fitness, and a healthy lifestyle. But how can one tell how strong the correlation between health and slenderness actually is? There are larger women, who eat a nutritious diet but are not as easily accepted into the pageant as the slender figure, even if her diet consists of only a celery stick here, and a cube of cheese there. According to Graham, the slim builds that walk down the catwalk promote good health, but since the audience does not know what is going on inside their bodies, it truly does come down to how one looks on the outside as a judgment of health and wellbeing. While Graham’s argument emphasizes concerns for health, as America deals with the serious issue of obesity, it is the less common reason given for people watching this round of the competition. Laura Mulvey’s feminist analysis of the male gaze, reworked from concepts by Jacques Lacan, comes into play as the whole pageant is viewed mainly through the eyes of men such as the longest-reigning Miss America presenter, Bert Parks, male judges and coordinators (such as Donald Trump and Miss USA/Miss Universe), as well as the viewers themselves. It is through this view that the parading of women is sexualized because the male gaze chooses to view women as objects to be admired and pleasured.
To further support Graham’s defense case is the most recent Miss Peru beauty pageant, in which contestants introduced themselves, and then proceeded to provide statistics about violence against women in place of their measurements. Instead of her measurements, contestant Camila Canicoba stated her measurements as “2,202 cases of feminicide reported in the last nine years.” The pageant’s director, Jessica Newton, commented that many women think they are alone in their violating experiences, when in fact there are many others like them, and that ‘it’s time to raise their voices.’ This inclusion of real world problems, other than the compulsory “Platform,” symbolizes the awareness that pageants do have about the problems that women must face every day. It also stands in sharp contrast to the beauty pageants of the 1950s, in which women used the question-and-answer round to say that they plan to finish university and then settle down as a housewife while their husband goes to work.
“Plastic Smiles and Denial Can Only Take You So Far”
There are many forms of protest against the beauty pageant and its wider connection to the scrutiny of women’s appearance. For example, Beyoncé Knowles’s music video for her 2013 song, “Pretty Hurts,” depicts the singer as a contestant in a local pageant, including the behind the scenes action of eating cotton wool in order to lose weight, bulimia, fighting, and the pressure to lower measurements. Beyoncé’s aim here is to highlight perfection as ‘the disease of a nation’, suggesting that the world is obsessed with the ‘ideal woman’, when there is in fact no such thing and appearance does not correlate with success. Her lyrics are incredibly poignant as she sings lines such as, ‘what you wear is all that matters,’ ‘pageant the pain away,’ and ‘it’s the soul that needs the surgery.’ These lines encompass the pressure on women to look a certain way: blonde or brunette, straightened hair, an hourglass figure with Barbie-like proportions, and a smile that does not break. Beyoncé shows the lengths that girls will go in order to win a title that they feel will show the world that they are ‘beautiful’ and ‘perfect’, and more so than other women. The fact that Beyoncé has dedicated time to a song that highlights the insecurities many women have, suggests that even one of the most influential and empowered women in western society is just as self-conscious as every woman who listens to her music.
The scenes portrayed in “Pretty Hurts” depict the struggle of women to achieve ‘beauty’. But their definition is not the only one. In 2012, Jenna Talackova became the first transgender woman to be a contestant at Miss Universe Canada and legally fought for her position in the competition. More recently, Mikayla Holmgren, a 22-year old woman with Down syndrome took part in Miss Minnesota USA in November 2017, receiving two awards. These two examples show that the definition of beauty is wider in variation than the typical beauty pageant contestant.
The Miss America beauty pageant was created in 1921 by a group of Atlanta businessmen who were keen to increase tourism in the area, and therefore profit from it, so decided to hold a pageant. It is interesting how their business venture has developed into an integral part of American culture, and has spread to most countries as a way to judge what the perfect woman should behave and look like. There are many who do indeed view the beauty pageant in the way it is meant to be, which is a place for women to promote fitness, a healthy and balanced lifestyle and to do good for the world.
However, there are many more who see the beauty pageant as an opportunity to sexualize women, and even young girls, as they walk about in heels and a bikini, and wear heavy makeup and hairspray. Some argue that there is nothing wrong with women reveling in their beauty, but the question one must ask is, what about the women who do not have the appearance that the world perceives as beautiful? Where is their chance to embrace their femininity, if they want to? These women are the ones who sat in the pageant audiences or who watched the show on television, wishing so hard to look like the contestants on stage, who have been validated for their appearance as though it were the most and only important criterion for women’s success.
Alvarez, J., “I Want to Be Miss America.” In Alvarez, J., (ed.) Something to Declare Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 1998. Available: http://mrkamermanenglish9.weebly.com/uploads/3/8/6/9/38695419/miss_america.pdf.
BeyoncéVEVO, Beyoncé – Pretty Hurts. April 24, 2014 [Video].
Casey, N. and Abad. S., “In Peru, a Beauty Pageant Shifts Spotlight to Killings of Women”, The New York Times, (November 2, 2017). Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/world/americas/peru-beauty-pageant-feminicide.html.
HoneyBooBooNews, Honey Boo Boo – Toddlers & Tiaras Clip. August 8th, 2012 [Video]. Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0InUDCsMhrY [Accessed 12/4/17].
Kinloch, V. F., “The Rhetoric of Black Bodies: Race, Beauty, and Representation” in (eds.) Watson, E., and Martin, D., “There She Is, Miss America”: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Lieberman, L., “Protecting Pageant Princesses: A Call for Statutory Regulation of Child Beauty Pageants,” Journal of Law and Policy.
Miss America. Available online: https://wiki2.org/en/Miss_America [Accessed 12/3/17].
Ruiz, R., In defense of the pageant: Why some women feel empowered by beauty pageants. Internet edition. Available: http://mashable.com/2015/09/12/beauty-pageant-empowering/#Og6rxJhENPqQ.
Zaborskis, Mary. “Age Drag.” Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1 / 2 (Spring/Summer 2015). Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43958475.
 V. F. Kinloch, “The Rhetoric of Black Bodies: Race, Beauty, and Representation” in (eds.) E. Watson and D. Martin, “There She Is, Miss America”: The Politics of Sex, Beauty, and Race in America’s Most Famous Pageant, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 98
 ibid, 101
 J. Alvarez, “I Want to Be Miss America.” In J. Alvarez (ed.), Something to Declare, (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1998) Available: http://mrkamermanenglish9.weebly.com/uploads/3/8/6/9/38695419/miss_america.pdf
 ibid, 39
 L. Lieberman, “Protecting Pageant Princesses: A Call for Statutory Regulation of Child Beauty Pageants,” Journal of Law and Policy, 745
 ibid, 749
 ibid, 740
 ibid, 751
 R. Ruiz, “In defense of the pageant: Why some women feel empowered by beauty pageants” [2015) Available online: http://mashable.com/2015/09/12/beauty-pageant-empowering/#Og6rxJhENPqQ
 N. Casey and S, Abad. “In Peru, a Beauty Pageant Shifts Spotlight to Killings of Women”, The New York Times, (November 2nd, 2017). Available online: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/world/americas/peru-beauty-pageant-feminicide.html
Ruby Warnock is an American Studies student at the University of Hull in England, and currently on a year abroad at the University at Albany. Her academic interests focus on women throughout American history and she enjoys playing for her university’s British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Netball team.