Are Beauty Pageants Feminist?

During the Miss Peru Preliminaries for the Miss Universe competition, a line of sparkling Peruvian woman stood in a formation, with their identical pearly white smiles and perfect beauty. One by one, each contestant sashayed up to the microphone, to give her name, the district she was representing and a list of horrifying statistics of violence against women in her country.

This was one of the many recent acts of feminism shown during a broadcast of a mainstream beauty pageant show. Many women in recent years have made the social media rounds by courageously standing their grounds and speaking up for social justice. This isn’t something new. We thankfully live in a world where we have female activists and women’s rights leaders who do and say these things every day. So why is it that we are more amazed at seeing beauty pageant contestants doing the same? Well, that’s actually an easy answer. Historically, beauty pageants have always been everything a feminist hates – and vice versa.

So this begs the question: are beauty pageants now becoming more feminist?

Feminism by dictionary definition is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” It’s a simple phrase that’s been accompanied by complex practices and theories. During the New Wave feminist movement in the United States, one of the first targets were, of course, beauty pageants.

In hindsight, beauty pageants are degrading for women. The premise of a beauty pageant is for each contestant to showcase their physical beauty and poise. For years, beauty pageants have often been the culprit of promoting beauty standards for women that are much too high. Beauty standards which traditionally cater to men, and only men. Many of the judges in the past, and many of the owners of beauty pageants have primarily been wealthy middle-aged white men. The most infamous being the current President of the United States, Donald Trump, who owned the Miss America and Miss Universe pageants from 1996-2015. In a sense, pageants are designed, manufactured and run by men.

So, if we were to give a black and white answer to this question, it would be a natural no. Beauty pageants are not feminist.

That being said, we must remember that feminism is much more complex. Although pageants go against everything feminism stands for, it would we un-feminist of us to disregard the key element of all pageants: the women.

I’m sure there are contestants who really only want to be part of the pageant simply to flaunt their beauty. Even then, who are we to judge a woman for pursuing her dreams, regardless of what it is? If we as feminists want equal rights amongst all genders, it would be hypocritical of us to look down on our fellow females.

Many women in third world countries rely on competitions like these to escape from their poverty to win their cash prizes and endorsements. Many beauty competitions even provide scholarships for women to attend university. To those women, it’s more than just a beauty show. Like the women in the Miss Peru competition, it can also be an opportunity to provide a platform for serious causes.

Since its early years of walking in a line on stage for the sake of looking pretty, the requirements and standards for a successful contestant have risen beyond the swimsuit segment. Questions during the Q&As have become significantly harder and more complex to answer, from questions regarding global issues to social justice. Not only are these women expected to look unrealistically flawless, but they need to know their shit. Not only do they need to know their shit, but have a personal opinion of said shit.

Sure, if you’re an average woman who is concerned about global issues and social justice, this is pretty straightforward. But I dare you to figure out a solution for the Syrian Refugee epidemic in 6-inch heels, in front of a crowd of 50,000, with over 8 million viewers all over the world. Oh, and you have to answer it in 60 seconds. And best of luck if English is your fourth language.

That being said, this could very well be a marketing ploy to ward off the angry feminists and to save the last remains of beauty pageant culture. Now that feminism has slowly started to spill into mainstream media, it’s no wonder beauty pageants are wanting to hop on the women right’s trend, along with Hollywood and Twitter. Like I said before, it’s just as difficult to call beauty pageants feminist, then it is to say they’re not. In an umbrella that’s primarily controlled by rich white men, there’s only so much we can support. However, as long as we continue to see beauty pageant contestants break out of the pageant norm, and use their platform for the greater good, they deserve our attention.

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