We can credit PT Barnum for the first beauty pageant, held in 1854. You probably know him better as the man who invented the circus. Having already held pageants for dogs, babies and birds, parading women was next on his list. Women, unsurprisingly did not want to take part, and there were lots of public protests.
In 1920, women in the US were given the right to vote. But it was that same decade that saw the growth of beauty pageants, and the launch of the Miss America pageant in 1921. Then called the “Inter-city pageant”, the swimsuit competition took place as a draw for tourists in Atlantic City.
Next week will mark the 100th anniversary of the event. A century later, the world ought to put an end to these bizarre competitions. After all, if they didn’t already exist, would any compassionate person invent them today? I asked my six-year-old what she thought of lining women up and deciding who was the most beautiful. Her initial responses were “that’s weird” and “why would anyone do that?”. But she also correctly pointed out: “How would you decide anyway, because there are so many ways to be beautiful?”
With the needle being pushed forwards through voting, rights, pay, #MeToo, maternity rights, public safety, health and in so many other domains, why do pageants continue? The time to parade women on the stage and judge a winner based on a narrow beauty ideal, as a symbol of womanhood is now over. It’s time to say goodbye.
And this isn’t a wishful goodbye to a particular pageant. It is a clarion call to put an end to all of them.
Over the years, pageants like Miss America have tried to show that they are progressive, but mostly they are just shape shifting to justify their existence by pointing to apparently empowering initiatives. Scholarships have been introduced. Women of colour have occasionally won. Talent rounds have been introduced. And this year it is all about “wellness” and “empowerment”.
These are all mere cosmetics over the essential DNA of competitions to judge women on their bodies, and by extension to remind women and society that ultimately what really matters about a woman is her physical appearance.
In a review of the history of pageants, it’s tempting to stitch together the mind-boggling answers that some candidates have given over the years. And I will admit, they make for a good laugh. But that would just underscore the notion that beauty means you can’t (or shouldn’t?) have brains.
The fact that more and more smart, accomplished women are being co-opted into such competitions isn’t a sign of pageants being progressive. It shows the opposite, that it doesn’t matter how successful you are, it’s your looks that count – the key that unlocks success. And of course, in doing so, it even more effectively props up our society’s architecture that a woman’s most important asset is her looks. It mocks women by saying that you can get an education, be financially independent, live life on your own terms. But your validation comes through looks, so don’t think you’re all that, till you’re validated. And perpetuating the same thing to other women.
Sadly, girls internalise all of this from a very young age. And it haunts women forever, inflicting lifelong damage on mental health and self-esteem.
A survey in the UK in 2016 found that more than a third of seven-to-ten-year-old girls agreed that women were rated more on their appearance than their abilities, and 36 per cent said they were made to feel their looks were their most important attribute. More than two thirds of girls aged just seven to eleven felt like they are not good enough. According to a Common Sense Media report in 2015, more than half of girls aged six to eight thought their ideal weight was thinner than their actual size. By age seven, one in four children tried dieting.
Or to put it another way, no matter how accomplished, how socially advanced, how smart or talented, the key to unlocking everything remains looks. That is what girls are learning about the world. And beauty pageants are the most symbolic expression of this.
Even if everything else were valued at 99 per cent, the pageant reinforces that success, acceptance and celebration hinges on looks.
You might think it is an exaggeration; It’s just a small competition right? Wrong. It is not even just an instance of the problem – it’s a celebration of it!
So if we care about women’s body image and mental health, then the time to draw the curtain on such beauty pageants has come. It is time to stop pretending that judging a woman’s looks is a form of empowerment. It is time to stop perpetuating the fact that it doesn’t matter what a woman has accomplished its her looks that really count. But most of all, it is time to stop promoting beauty as a competition. Because there are no winners, only losers.