How do you feel about beauty pageants?

These days there is a fair amount of ambivalence about beauty pageants. Some condemn the whole concept. Some accept them wholeheartedly. Others don't know what to feel about them. It is recommended that you first read "What is 'inner beauty'?"

An Ambivalence about Beauty

In our society there is a fair amount of ambivalence about the celebration of women's beauty, not only in forms such as beauty pageants, but in other contexts too. Instead of a simple and wholehearted affirmation of the beauty of women many people have misgivings about overtly celebrating it. Why is that? Let us look at some of the possible reasons.

The Envy of Other Women

It might be tempting to ascribe this ambivalence to the envy of other women, unhappy about being overshadowed by those who are more good looking. However, I doubt that it involves much of that, without of course discounting the possibility in every case. As evidence I would note the way that women are often quite admiring of famous models or celebrities, especially if they are seen as being humble about their beauty.

A Reaction against the 'Sexualisation' of Women

The commercially driven 'sexualisation' of women and girls in our culture causes many people deep misgivings, and there has arisen some organised resistance to it. In a context where women's bodily beauty is so often seen as something to be used, it makes it harder to advocate for a proper and balanced celebration of feminine beauty. When disrespect is rampant people lose trust and can begin to see bad intentions where there might not be any. This is even more so when purported celebrations of women's beauty do not get the balance right and include problematic elements.

A Disproportion of Attention

Some people have a simpler misgiving: that there is already an excessive preoccupation with women's appearance - do we really need to have beauty pageants as well? This attitude would not see anything wrong in principle with such events but wonders whether it is adding to the problem. They see that something has got out of balance but are inclined to wonder whether beauty pageants are part of the problem rather than the solution.

An Ambivalence about Femininity

Nowadays there is also the complicating factor of confusion about gender issues. Some strands of feminism have interpreted things such as beauty pageants as being in and of themselves demeaning to women. They see them as objectifying women for men's pleasure. There are events which certainly have that character, but does this apply to all of them? What criteria would you use to form a judgement about what is demeaning and what is not? Then there are those who are unwilling to admit any important difference between men and women, and judge something as illegitimate if there is not a men's version as well.

A Devaluation of Femininity

For a variety of reasons femininity itself has been downplayed in our culture, so that many women have taken on board an attitude that devalues the feminine. Sometimes this is hard to clarify because we have been living through a time when women have gained more opportunities, including in areas previously the preserve of men. This is not necessarily a diminution of femininity, but can be an extension of what is felt to be feminine, so that women's options are not so restricted. Take sport for example. Women's involvement in sport, as well as being for its own intrinsic reasons, has also extended the range of what is presented as beautiful femininity. So now there is a 'sporty' aesthetic available to women, where leaner bodies are presented as 'sexy'. At the same time it can contribute to ambivalence in women themselves about what is attractive. It is not uncommon now to hear a girl refer to herself in somewhat deprecating fashion as a 'girly girl', as if a more traditional evocation of femininity now needs some additional justification.

A Legacy of Prudishness

Another possible cause of ambivalence towards celebrating the beauty of women is a certain legacy of prudishness arising from past attitudes. Many people simply don't know what to feel about such things. They are not necessarily negative about them, but they haven't clarified their thinking about the issue sufficiently to feel free to be positive about them either. This can occur also for reasons other than prudishness as such, being simply a result of an absence of opportunities to experience positive celebrations of the relevant kind.

A Clash of Contexts

Sometimes there are displays of women's beauty that cause ambivalence, not due to 'sexualisation' but to an uncertain context. For example, the presence of 'cheer girls' at a football match can be felt to be dissonant because of uncertainty how they fit into the context. There might be nothing improper about their state of dress but what are they doing there? From another angle one could feel that it's disappointing that they are relegated to such a minor place, being largely disregarded. Wouldn't it be better if women had their own chance to be centre stage at a special event rather than trying to get crumbs of attention as coincidental entertainment? Is it unfair to characterise it that way, or is it overthinking something that can simply be left alone to find its own level?

Beauty in Centre Stage

Ambivalence could be due to a deeper reason. Some might have the feeling that making beauty centre stage at all misplaces it. The argument would go like this: beauty is an indirect attribute, meant to be a quality of something rather than the thing itself. If it is made the essential focus then we lose sight of the substance of the good of which it is a quality. This is even more so when the good in question is a person. This objection makes a valid point about balance and priority. It is important not to treat less important things as if they were more important. And it is essential not to treat persons as objects. This leads us to the heart of the matter. Do beauty pageants objectify women?

Do beauty pageants objectify women?

What does 'objectify' mean?

The first concern centres on the potential for undue 'sexualisation' of the body.

Since sexual attraction is such a strong force, with regard to something at the core of a person's being, it is important that its representation be managed carefully so as to be within proper limits. The concern is about inciting lust in men and causing the degradation of women. The concern is with men's objectification of women.

The second concern centres on elevating physical beauty in such a way that it becomes an undue preoccupation of women themselves.

The concern is about encouraging vanity in good looking women or envy in the less good looking. There is also a general concern about contributing to a disproportionate preoccupation with physical beauty among women generally. The concern is with women's objectification of themselves.

This sets the overall context. Now we consider how beauty pageants themselves might contribute to such objectification.

To Be Looked At

Some seem to think that the very existence of anything like beauty pageants is in itself demeaning to women. The argument is that they treat women as 'something to be looked at'. It is this very looking itself which is considered to be the problem. On the face of it this seems like an extreme view, and one that has not been fully thought through. Let us consider its opposite. Would it be an improvement if women were invisible? But wouldn't that be an even worse kind of objectification? Surely the problem is not in the looking but in the kind of looking. The wrong kind of looking would be that motivated by lust or envy.

Women in Competition

A beauty pageant does not have to be a beauty contest, although most if not all seem to have a competitive element. The danger of competition is that it can degenerate into conflict. However, such conflict is not the essence of competition but a distortion of it, an alien intrusion into a game. Competition is meant to be a judicious admixture of 'spice' to give an additional frisson of interest. It is meant to be something that occurs within the game. It is not the game itself. It is hard to see why there is anything inherently problematic about including a light competitive element into a beauty pageant.

The wrong kind of competition would reward sexualisation. The weakness of moderating elements would permit and encourage competition between women to become more and more sexual in its presentation, so that the 'most sexy' would win. If that does not happen it means that there are moderating elements that keep the focus of competition centred elsewhere.

What is the 'form' of a beauty pageant?

A beauty pageant could be in a competitive or non-competitive form. However, this distinction is not of the essence. At a pageant which had no formal competitive aspect those present would nevertheless perceive, and form private judgements about, the same kinds of distinctions between the women that are subject to formal judging in a beauty contest.

There are two key elements in a beauty pageant: looks and personality.

Different events can strike a different balance between the two, but a reasonable balance is required. We need to consider - how do we perceive beauty?

We all hope that beauty will turn out to signify goodness. Have you ever seen a movie involving a beauty contest? There will usually be some behind the scenes drama between some of the contestants, with one who is the more obvious beauty in terms of looks, but with a nasty streak, and another who is not quite so good looking, but with a heart of gold. Everyone wants the latter to win, so that goodness will be vindicated by being recognised as truly beautiful.

Setting the Context

The beauty contest is 'framed' by two presumptions about the women, one having to do with presentation and the other to do with character.

As to character, each contestant will be 'profiled' at some stage to give an idea of her background, her everyday life, and especially her involvement in anything like charitable works or public service. This is not front and centre of consideration, but is a way of situating the woman in the context of her life outside of considerations of beauty. It is meant to assure people of the substance of the woman's character, not to make out she is a saint, but to indicate that she is not just preoccupied with herself, but has a heart that seeks the good of others.

As to presentation, this is represented in the clothes each woman wears. Even though the clothes themselves hold some interest for the female onlookers, they are not the centre of attention. Rather, it is assumed they will be beautiful, so any particular attention will usually only be drawn if a woman has dressed in a way that shows poor judgement. There can also be positive attention if there is something that can be interpreted as showing some additional side of personality, such as a touch of creativity, or boldness, or humour. However, although these can add something to a particular woman's advantage, they are not considered essential, and there is no demerit for women who dress in a standard 'classical' way that is perceived as beautiful. That is, the competitive dynamic does not unduly reward highly individual presentation.

These two elements 'frame' the competition. They come from outside the context, involving the contributions of others, but giving the 'baseline' measures that confirm that this particular woman belongs in the contest.

The Key Elements

As to the substance of the contest, we can identify the two key elements as looks and personality.

As to looks, we have already established that the clothes a contestant wears play an indirect role in how she is perceived. There is an assumption that she will have good judgement, or the sense to draw on the good judgement of someone else. This allows the clothes to be perceived, not from the perspective you would have at a fashion show - judging the designer - but from the perspective of how they enhance the woman's bodily beauty. Is she able to wear them well? Is she able to walk gracefully while expressing herself attractively through movement and facial expressiveness?

As to personality, the contest includes opportunities for contestants to speak and answer questions. This allows for a more direct perception of ease of manner, pleasantness of speech, focus of interest and intelligence in responding to unexpected questions. This aspect of the contest highlights refinement, lightness of tone and grace of manner. The ability to seem to smile naturally at all times is highly valued.

The Integrating Element

These two key elements are integrated by a third - the face.

The face is the central element in both looks and personality.

An emphasis on the face has a moderating effect on the presentation of the body, since it is the part of the body capable of the most meaningful expressiveness. Facial expression significantly shapes perception of the body as a whole. Importantly it acts to moderate perceptions of the 'sexiness' of the presentation. Quite a different impression can be created with the same manner of dress and movement by adopting a different facial expression. A somewhat more sexual impression is conveyed with an unsmiling but interested expression that holds direct eye contact. A less sexual impression is conveyed with a dazzling smile and a gaze that looks round to include everyone.

More obviously, an emphasis on the face is also central to communicating personality. This effect requires close proximity, and a woman's ability to be smoothly expressive conveys confidence, self possession, maturity and grace. It makes a favourable impression if she is able to maintain this kind of manner even while being challenged to 'think on her feet', responding to difficult and unexpected questions.

A Balance of Elements

It is in the balance of these three elements that a beauty contest can be moderated so as to be a legitimate showcase for feminine beauty. Obviously a great deal more could be said on this topic, but I encourage those who are interested to think through this analysis of the dynamics of a beauty pageant and apply it to your own experiences and feelings. You might also like to consider some further particular questions:

  • What would a non-competitive beauty pageant be like?
  • What are your feelings about the 'swimsuit' section of a typical beauty contest?
  • Why are beauty pageants more prominent in some cultures than others?
  • Should there be some more integral role for men?

Women and Femininity

It is up to women to decide whether and to what extent they want to participate in beauty pageants, whether as contestants or supporters. Although such displays of beauty have men as their notional reference point, they are predominantly woman-centric events. Men have some supporting roles, but are very much secondary. On the other hand femininity can not be defined unilaterally by women, since it only exists in a complementary relationship with masculinity. Why do men usually not take much interest in beauty pageants? What would it take to give them a more integral role? Is that even desirable?

I want to finish by floating an idea. It picks up on a question raised earlier. If there is already an undue preoccupation with women's appearance in our society, wouldn't beauty pageants only contribute to the problem?

I want to ask: could beauty pageants become part of the solution?

So here is the question. What would it take for beauty pageants to become part of the solution? That is, how could they help more women feel wholehearted about their femininity, and to be less obsessed with being judged on their looks. It might sound counter-intuitive, but it is a question I intend to address in a future article. What would need to change about beauty pageants? By bringing greater understanding to bear on them could beauty pageants be 'rehabilitated' in the eyes of many who are currently ambivalent or negative?