Beauty pageants, where — in most cases — young women must compete to be the most ‘beautiful’, have enjoyed continual success almost worldwide, sparking contests such as Miss World, Miss Universe, and endless national and regional pageants. But do these contests — now startlingly prevalent in our culture — damage both the women who compete and a woman’s place in wider society?
Any contest where people are pitted against each other and rated for their bodies is inherently backwards and wrong. Beauty contests objectify and demean women, reducing them to numbers on a scoreboard. While many maintain that pageants can inspire women to claim their sexuality confidently, Miss Great Britain 2016 was stripped of her title after having sex on a reality TV show. The message was clear, and the hypocrisy striking: her sexuality was not her own, but something that could only be judged as far out of her control. Beauty contests encourage women to be passive objects of sexual desire, but not individual beings who can make their own choices.
Empowerment that comes only with a tiara and a score sheet, for only certain women, is never empowerment but oppression in a different outfit. Women are judged by a subjective standard of physical beauty often on a score out of ten that says nothing about their personalities, interests or passions, and a lot more about what they look like from behind. A woman who needs such a clinical calculation of her superficial worth needs a therapist, not a number out of ten. In today’s society, we cannot continue to accept the narrow beauty standards of competitions where beauty is all too often blonde, thin and completely unrepresentative.
Even in competitions where personality, charity or skill are taken into account, these qualities remain only secondary to physical beauty. In the ‘Beauty of Form and Figure’ round of Miss Earth 2017, contestants had to cover their faces with a white lace cloth and wear matching bikinis while they were judged on their body proportions. Is that empowerment? Is that progress? Because if so, a truly free and equal society should have nothing more to do with it. Moreover, any charitable work or other achievements that might result from beauty contests could have easily happened without them. The idea that beauty contests somehow give young women a ‘platform’ with new opportunities implies that not only would success be impossible without beauty, but — since only the most beautiful women are showered with scholarships, funds, and attention — it would be undeserved.
After female prime ministers, Nobel prize winners, innovators, and all the other brave and fantastic women who make up our world, do we really believe that women cannot achieve great things without the promise of a shiny tiara at the end of it?
The underlying message of all beauty competitions, no matter how many charity rounds they have, or how ‘empowered’ their contestants are, is that a woman’s value is intrinsically linked to her aesthetic worth. This is the most dangerous idea facing young girls today — essentially, no matter how funny, kind, or intelligent you are, this is irrelevant unless you are beautiful. The stereotypically shallow woman who cares only for her looks is not truly so superficial, but has instead realised the tragic truth that no matter how smart or funny or kind you are, this is often irrelevant unless you are beautiful. Beauty contests only encourage this idea — that a woman’s bra size overrides the vibrancy of her mind; that the way she walks up and down the runway will always be more important than her passions and unique talents. Beauty pageants create a culture where women are ogled first and listened to second.
This objectification, represented in the extreme in beauty contests, is also common in wider society. Beauty contests tell young women that despite the #MeToo movement, despite the freedom the world constantly tells them they can have, their real value comes from their looks and the abstract measurements — measurements as irrelevant to a woman’s value and purpose as her zodiac sign, or what she ate for breakfast.
We cannot move forward, continuing to speak of equality and emancipation, while we still rank women on beauty before we have heard what they have to say. Beauty contests are the residue of misogyny that is finally leaving; we must not let them continue any longer.