Why do we celebrate good looks more than pleasing personality? Do we get the balance right? In this article we look more closely at the kind of things we celebrate. It is recommended that you first read "What is 'inner beauty'?"
A Consolation Prize?
As I'm sure all those reading this would know, beauty contests sometimes have a prize for "Miss Congeniality". Everyone knows that the contest is mainly to find out who is the most beautiful, but everyone also knows that outer beauty isn't everything. Some see "Miss Congeniality" as a kind of 'consolation prize'. It goes to someone everyone likes but who isn't quite good looking enough. It doesn't seem right that she doesn't receive some recognition. Is that a fair way of looking at it?
Some might wonder wistfully whether "Miss Congeniality" should in fact be the first prize, and that the one who only happened to be the best looking would be runner-up.
Wouldn't that be more appropriate? Wouldn't it better reflect the fact that what is on the inside of a person is more important than what is on the outside? OK, let's take that question seriously. Should "Miss Congeniality" be the first prize?
No one really doubts that goodness is more important than looks. So shouldn't we give more recognition to goodness than to beauty? It depends what you mean. It is no accident that we don't hold "Charity Contests", in which those who think they are better than others put themselves forward to win a prize for being so good. Even to say such a thing out loud is to condemn it.
How unseemly would it be to have people vying against each other trying to show how good they were!
In fact, when we want to honour someone for their good deeds we do it secretly so they don't even know they are being considered for any award. We don't want them to hear about it in advance because we want to save them embarrassment. Indeed, when it comes to the supremely good, the saints, we don't even consider honouring them in such a way until after they have died.
What about rewarding achievement? This is not as awkward as recognising goodness but it still involves some proprieties. Take the case of a world champion athlete, such as the winner of the Olympic 100m sprint. After the race he is approached by a television reporter who says something like, "Congratulations! You must be so proud of all you have achieved. All those years of effort have paid off with a well deserved win." How does he reply? Does he say, "Yes, I am proud of all that I have achieved. Considering how hard I've worked for it I really do deserve it." No, he says something quite different. He says something like, "I'm so grateful to be where I am today, and I'd like to acknowledge all those who have helped me along the way, especially my mum and dad." Is this just pretense? Not usually. In any case it reflects the proper dynamic for recognition of achievement.
The one offering praise dwells on the achievement. The one receiving praise dwells on the gift.
Both elements are present, and both need to be acknowledged. Yet it would also be discordant to do it the other way round. The reporter comes up and says, "I wish I had natural talent like yours. You must feel very lucky today to be receiving the gold medal?" If he did speak like that, emphasising the gift aspect, it would tend to force the athlete to make some recognition of his achievement. So he might say, "Yes, I've been blessed with natural talent, but so have a lot of other people. The difference is I've put in an enormous amount of time and effort to realise my potential."
When you spell it out it's so obvious that this strikes the wrong note. We recognise intuitively that it is for others to praise our achievements and ourselves to show gratitude for what we have received that made the achievements possible.
Recognising beauty is more like recognising achievement than it is like recognising goodness. However, there is still a reason to make the primary prize for looks and the secondary or incidental prize for personality.
This is because personality, although not the same thing as goodness, is closer to it.
It would be unseemly then for the contestants to be openly vying to become Miss Congeniality. It is something that should be indirect, such that while in the process of seeking the prize for beauty people can't help but notice that one of them is notably sweet and kind. It is OK to do that as a 'bonus', if you like, but it would be quite different if it was the chief reason for the contest.
So it is not really a 'consolation prize', but an indirect award that has been made because of circumstance. To reinforce such a status it would probably be best not to award such a prize automatically, but to let it be known that it might or might not be awarded depending on whether it was thought that someone particularly merited it.
What have we learned?
It is because outer beauty is the least important that it makes the most suitable focus for a contest.
Not only is it the least important, it is much more a gift than an achievement. These factors mean that the 'contest' aspect of the beauty pageant is its least important feature. It provides a form, and some frisson of interest, but at the end no one really puts it down to merit, and everyone goes home with their own view of who was the most beautiful.
At least, that is the hope. In order to encourage such an outcome care is needed to foster solidarity among the contestants. Naturally, in the world of professional contests, or the pathway to professional options, this solidarity is going to come under strain. This is where greater care is needed, and perhaps there is scope for some changes in how beauty pageants are conducted to encourage this.
If winning a contest for being the most beautiful is the least important aspect, what is the most important?
The most important thing is fostering solidarity among women through shared beauty.
This is what actually takes up the greater part of major beauty contests such as Miss Universe. The contestants spend a whole week or more together engaging in various activities, rehearsing choreography, and doing the preliminary stages of the contest away from the public eye. The final show is, quantitatively, a small part of the whole experience. At its best, a beauty pageant is a way of fostering among women a lively sense that beauty is a 'common good', something that is primarily shared, not something essentially individual. The more successful this is the more balanced and fruitful will be the beauty pageant experience.
In cases where this is less successful, at least it is the arena where this is attempted. A parallel for men would be the way that sport is primarily a way to foster solidarity among men through good sportsmanship. If these things are clearly understood then beauty pageants can be seen with more clarity as a potential good, rather than something about which people feel ambivalent.
You might also like to read "How do you feel about beauty pageants?"