The Ugliness of Beauty Pageants

“Miss America represents the highest ideals. She is a real combination of beauty, grace, and intelligence, artistic and refined. She is a type which the American Girl might well emulate.”

Let’s take a minute to really look at this statement made by Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce President Frederick Hickman 75 years ago about who Miss America is and what she represents. According to the pageant official website, this sentiment rings true even today. If this in fact is true and believed by our country then we have a serious issue.

The Miss America Pageant has been an annual event present in the U.S. since 1920 and is almost a commonplace institution in our cultural identity. Based on poise, presentation, talent and intelligence one young women is given the task to travel, spread awareness about whatever campaign she chooses and empower the young women of America.

Looking however at the qualifications for Miss America and even the statement above, is this really the standard we hold women to? Does this fit into how women should be viewed if we are attempting to move to an equalized society? What does this say about how we look not just at women but people in general? Essentially, is there a fundamental problem with the idea of a beauty pageant, and does it do more harm than good in terms of shattering the glass ceiling or empowering women?

Professors Bridget Chalk and Natalia Imperatori-Lee, who both are involved with the women and gender studies department on campus, shared their ideas and opinions about Miss America and general beauty pageants and how they shape the mindsets of women…and men.

“In general, I think beauty pageants participate in the ongoing objectification of women and I find it doubly disturbing in the fact that they start from such a young age,” Chalk said. This is especially true looking at other reality programs such as Honey Boo-Boo or “Toddlers in Tiaras,” which instills from childhood, that without makeup, a fake tan and some revealing or skin tight garments, you are considered a second rate ugly woman or even normal.

“I don’t think it is useful to talk about things being against or for feminism. I think it is a red herring because it makes us argue what feminism is, rather the focus staying on the very real problem of sexism,” Imperatori-Lee said. “I am a fan of beauty pageants because I like watching fashion, and looking at dresses, the same way I am a fan of Fashion Week. I am not however uncritically a fan of them. By my enjoying looking at dresses at fashion week, and in pageants, I am participating in the commodification of women’s bodies,” Imperatori-Lee said.

This commodification is a big part of Miss America due to the presence of the eveningwear and swimwear competitions. This makes up half of the segments shown on television on what these women are being judged on.

“I saw a clip of the pageant discussing the winner and the general shot was the line of women in bikinis and just seeing that suggests that there is no way to argue that this is a method of empowerment. This is a competition that requires women to put particular costumes on to display the body, which doesn’t break down any barriers because they are following guidelines instituted by someone else,” Chalk said.

“There is no question that this is objectification. We are watching on a stage in a spotlight what happens to women everywhere they go. They are judged on their appearance, they are judged on their poise, they are judged on their quick responses to questions and it all remains on a superficial level. No one wants to be judged this way, because it sets up impossible standards. In Miss Universe, a lot of those women have plastic surgery to make themselves ‘more beautiful.’ That doesn’t seem like an empowering message,” Imperatori-Lee said.

“I don’t think that Miss America is in any way empowering. I think they say this to get people to watch it, or just make themselves feel better. Ultimately, I think it is a money-making machine like everything that is on television. I don’t think it is any way empowering to women to have them be judged on superficial means. At the same time, so many things on TV are superficial. If “Survivor” or “The Bachelorette” said it was empowering people, we just wouldn’t believe it, so we don’t need to believe it about beauty pageants,” Imperatori-Lee said.

However, many feminists argue that Miss America, while predominantly focused on the exterior, lets women speak out for platforms they believe in, and show that they are more than just a pretty face. Nikki Gloudeman in an article for said, “What do all these women–women any feminist would be proud to support–have in common? They’re all Miss Americas. And here’s the thing: The fact that they participated in a, yes, pretty ridiculous, beauty pageant doesn’t detract from their entirely worthy accomplishments or their right to be an icon for other women.”

This is also something to look at. The women who participate are all smart, educated and passionate about making a positive change on society. It is hard though to be fully on board when looking at the negative entity they are supporting at the same time.

“I think that women can continue the propagation of other women, but women contestants whether they are aware of it or not are performing for the male gaze. It is the same thing as like the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine. It is a publication for women but the women on the front of it are posed seductively, so there is a disconnect there. This highlights an extremely pervasive social dynamic, which is that we all look at women through the male gaze as sexual objects,” Chalk said.

“While there is a focus on education, charity and presentation…. none of them have cellulite so there really is no way one could realistically argue that this is empowering or different from Miss America of the 50s. Again though, it isn’t any worse than any of the other reality TV programs we consume. It is just older so people confuse it with tradition and people are reluctant to get rid of it,” Imperatori-Lee said.

Another interesting aspect to look at, especially if we are looking at the issue of gender equality, is the male role in all of this. Why isn’t there a male equivalent to Miss America? How does a women’s competition whether beauty or otherwise impact the participatory men? How does this contribute to a hierarchical dualism?

“I find that any sort of pageant that judges women against each other for other talents, especially if it isn’t present for men is extremely offensive, because then women seem to be on display as objects. Any sort of competitive pageant in that sense suggests that women need to fit into a certain mold in order to succeed. Actually any sort of competition that is solely gender specific suggests that they can’t compete equally, which is also problematic,” Chalk said.

“Men’s bodies are not products for sale in the way women’s bodies are. Men look a thousand different ways and are protagonists. You can be tall or short, fat or skinny, bald, ugly whatever and still get praise, but that doesn’t exist for women. Women can only be a certain way because that is the kind of product people want. It is not because women aren’t sexually turned on by visuals or men are only this way. Both men and women are capable of being superficially attracted to someone and both men and women are capable of being profoundly attracted to someone that is beyond the physical which is an argument I hear all the time,” Imperatori-Lee said.

Going back to the initial quote from the Miss America website, it seems as if, subconsciously, there is an encouragement for all women to aspire to be one certain image. As long as you are skinny, have shiny hair, can smile nicely, walk in heels without tripping, say a couple intelligent sentences about current events and regardless of race, fit into the Euro-Western idea of beautiful, you are going to do great in life and be successful. “In these sort of competitions there are no different body types, there aren’t enough minority bodies, so it is not empowering at all to the majority of women,” Imperatori-Lee said.

“The notion of a beauty pageant is flawed from the outset. What is beauty? Do you know what is a great beauty pageant? The spelling bee. It is a real triumph of what humans can do. What if we had an anti-beauty pageant for people who defy traditional notions of beauty but never the less are profoundly beautiful. Even the Dove Real Body campaigns are annoying saying ‘Oh, you are so great chubby girl’ is not an empowering message because still your body defines you. There is so much more that goes into being a person,” Imperatori-Lee said.

Looking to the future, is there really any place for Miss America or beauty pageants in general if we indeed want to work towards a society where women and men share equal rights and are looked at in the same way? Pretty sure that the answer is a resounding no, no, no and once again no.