I came across an old article from 2015 titled "Beauty pageants are embarrassing – even if you name the right winner", written by Jessica Valenti, former feminism columnist at the Guardian. It was shared on the Society of Pageant Women's Twitter feed. As a pageant girl myself, just the title of the article outraged me. The article was even worse.
The definition of feminism according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
- : the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
- : organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests
I'm going to pick apart pieces in her article and not only debunk her claims, but also highlight the positive in pageantry.
The notion that beauty pageants are anything more than an opportunity to ogle gorgeous, scantily-clad women and pit them against each has long been debunked.
Has it really been debunked? That's where she's wrong. The majority of pageant audience members are family and friends of the contestants, pageant titleholders from any system, and media. I highly doubt that a father is in attendance to "ogle" his "scantily-clad" daughter. In fact, I guarantee that father is cheering his daughter on. If you view the swimsuit competition as women being "scantily-clad", then I imagine you also use the same term to describe women wearing swimsuits at the beach. If that's the case, then one could say the same about you in the multiple swimsuit pictures on your public Instagram page. Not every system has a swimsuit competition, and for the ones that do, not all of those require a bikini. The swimsuit competition is about a healthy body image, confidence, and personality. It's a time for contestants to show their fun side and confidence to be in any outfit. They are not walking nude. The swimsuits are not sheer showing what lies underneath. They swimsuits are not thongs.
Yes, pageants ARE a competition and only one wins the crown. The same goes for the Super Bowl. It's a game and only one team wins. Pitting women against each other is far from accurate. Pageant Sisters (yes, I said sisters), become friends. Sometimes, they become best friends. Lifelong friends who support each other. I'm not denying that there is some drama in pageants. There's a chance of drama whenever a group of individuals get together. It's human nature. It's difference of personalities. It's not a fight club.
Women who participate are also much more likely to spend money than make money on the endeavor – the cost of dresses, hair and makeup, entrance fees and more are the responsibility of the contestants alone.
Women do not get into pageantry as a way to make money. I'm pretty sure pageantry isn't an MLM business. Contestants know what's expected of them and it's THEIR choice to spend as much, or as little, as they want. Same goes for athletes training for events. Are you telling me that a triathlete doesn't want the best pair of running shoes or bike possible? It's a competition, and only the competitor can decide how much she is willing to spend.
The pageants themselves – in addition to the explicitly vacuous swimsuit competition – have policies and rules that make clear women’s worth is very much dependent on her sexuality and ability to perform a narrow model of proper femininity.
Again, Jessica returns to her disapproval of the swimsuit competition. If you don't like it THAT much Jessica, then don't watch it. What I would like to know, is what pageant policy or rule states that a women's worth is dependent on her sexuality? Do you have a copy of such a statement? I didn't think so.
She moves on to criticize the "strict morality clauses" and lists examples of pageant queens who were stripped of their title. While the act of pageant queens before, during, and after pageantry is up for debate, Jessica fails to mention that these big pageant systems do list what the expected behavior of a contestant and winner is. Let me ask you Jessica, have you ever worked for a company that had a code of ethics for employees? Have you ever heard of a professional athlete being restricted from playing due to steroid use, which is not permitted? So when a pageant queen is conducting herself in a way that does not align with the organizations values, why does that upset you? She is being held accountable for her actions. I fail to see the issue here. You should also be aware that pageant queens also serve as role models to young girls.
Let me ask you this, Jessica. Are you also against fitness competitions? Do you think fitness competitors are also "scantily-clad"? Do you also find them to be vacuous?
Speaking of vacuous, let's talk about that for a moment. You wrote "That in 2015, a pageant still exists that parades women around in bikinis for the honor of winning a sash and tiara. That’s the true embarrassment". The true embarrassment is how little you know of the pageant world. The true embarrassment is how you are contributing to the stigma that pageant contestants are nothing more than self-centered and uneducated. I'd like to direct you to Cara Mund's Instagram post on September 23, 2019. Although this occurred after your outlandish article, it applies perfectly to prove how wrong you are. Cara Mund, Miss America 2018, posted a picture of herself in her pageant swimsuit on Instagram with this caption: "Female empowerment doesn’t mean insulting, alienating, and discrediting the thousands of women who paved the way. To those who have ever had the courage to pursue their dreams, overcome obstacles, or competed at the local, state, or national level, you are STRONG. You are SMART. You are UNSTOPPABLE. As the last Miss America to ever compete in swimsuit, I am an Ivy League honors graduate, current law student, and proud supporter of ALL women".
Cara's post went viral and pageant women all over the world posted similar captions, myself included. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, and military veterans have competed in pageants.
Have you heard of the interview portion of the competition? You only mention the swimsuit, so I'd like to inform you about the interview. In the majority of pageants, the interview is the most highly scored area. Women are asked a series of questions, like a job interview, to help determine which contestant would best represent the organization. Is that not how job interviews work? What someone on the outside doesn't see is the interview, which is held behind closed doors and off camera. This is where the contestants get to highlight their accomplishments, both personally and professionally, discuss their philanthropic efforts, and show how she would be the best queen for the organization. Just like a job interview.
I mentioned philanthropic efforts. Did you know that most pageants encourage their contestants to advocate for a platform of their choice? It's a true story. You are ignoring all the GOOD of pageantry and focusing on the one area that you find barbaric. Contestants become role models to not just girls, but to their entire communities. We're public about it and help educate others by highlighting organizations or charities. Our sash and crown become our microphone, and we use our microphone to do GOOD.
I mentioned that contestants become role models, and while you've made it clear that pageantry only focuses on ogling scantily-clad women, this is yet another opportunity to show how uneducated you are on the pageant industry. Pageantry teaches public speaking skills. Women learn interview skills. Girls watching pageants on TV see contestants who are not only active in their communities and advocating for their platform, but are also very educated. Many women are still in college, others have completed higher degrees, and many have successful careers.
Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020, studied biochemistry and systems biology at Virginia Tech. During her talent portion, she performed a chemistry experiment demonstrating the catalytic decomposition of hydrogen peroxide. It was something completely different and completely awesome. In response to being asked how she handles those who make fun of Miss America, Camille had this powerful response: "Miss America is someone that needs to educate, be able to communicate with everyone, and that’s what I do as a woman of science. And we need to show that Miss America can be a scientist and that a scientist can be Miss America.” After her incredible performance, girls all over the country were asking for chemistry kits for Christmas. She showed the country that girls can also do STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Is that not such a powerful act? Empowering our nation's youth is a rather incredible outcome. Not an embarrassing act by a vacuous beauty queen.
My closing statement is this: We have FREE WILL. It's a contestants choice to enter a pageant. Since you say you are a feminist, I'd encourage you to be more supportive of women who decide to enter pageantry. Or at the very least, be supportive of the fact that we have free will and that free will allows us to enter pageantry if we desire. You don't have to agree with it, which is another wonderful aspect of free will. I do ask; however, that rather than judge the women who do compete in pageants, that you take some time understanding what pageantry really is. Rather than shame pageant women, which is exactly what your article is doing, I'd suggest being accepting of women making the choice to enter. It is our choice after all.