Home > Beauty, fashion, Life, Movies and TV > A Feminist in a Beauty Pageant?

A Feminist in a Beauty Pageant?

Attendants of the eyelash! I shall unloose one feather, like the peacock.
–Sylvia Plath

Aileen Wang recently wrote about her encounter with Helen Hua, who is not only a 2010 Smith graduate but is also “Miss Southcoast 2010” and was in the “Miss America” pageant.

Aileen asked the obvious question:

How could one simultaneously be a “feminist” and strut around in a swimsuit on stage for a panel of judges … to promote conformity and the idea of some male-constructed female “beauty” that’s rated in numbers and percentages?

Though skeptical, she found that Helen made some good points in defense of beauty pageants. In particular, Helen said that “a feminist is a woman who does what she wants” instead of conforming to some predefined role. We can all agree with that.

I have conflicting feelings about beauty pageants. Part of it is just the name, which suggests — wrongly — that they’re all just superficial contests of appearance. And most competitions decided by people voting depend partly on superficial factors. Even the Nobel Prize isn’t exempt: President Obama won the Peace Prize mainly because he got elected president and his name isn’t Bush. So beauty pageants aren’t that different from a lot of other competitions.

But of course, everyone focuses on the swimsuit part. And yes, that part is superficial. As far as I know, the Nobel Committee didn’t ask President Obama to model a speedo.

Helen points out, though, that appearance is only part of beauty pageantry. Depending on the pageant, of course. The Miss America pageant is the largest donor in America of scholarship money for young women, and it requires a lot more than just looking good in a swimsuit. It takes talent, and brains, and determination: qualities that we all need to get through life.

Of course, both Miss America participants and the women who write about them tend to be high achievers. Helen is taking a a job with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, while Aileen will probably end up working for Vogue magazine (and I totally envy her for it).

I’ve always been a believer in lists, so here are my lists of good things and bad things about beauty pageants:

Good Things:

  • Beauty is good in itself. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating it. The fact that some people watch beauty pageants for lower reasons doesn’t change the fact.
  • Pageants give opportunities to young women. That applies to participants and to recipients of scholarships funded by the pageants.
  • Pageants usually showcase the fact that we can do a lot more than “strut around in swimsuits.” Good pageants showcase the talents, learning, and personal qualities of the participants.

Bad things:

  • There is that swimsuit competition. It reinforces the idea that a woman’s main value is her appearance in conventional, male-defined standards of beauty.
  • And the pageant itself is a competition, meaning that it can be superficial and sometimes brings out the worst in people. We are made for cooperation, not competition.
  • It reinforces the idea that we always have to be pleasing other people. It’s the idea that we should say, do, and look like what’s popular instead of what we really believe in. Not every pageant participant falls victim to this: Helen obviously didn’t. But the danger is there.

I don’t know. Maybe I worry too much. Or maybe I shouldn’t stay up so late on Friday nights. 🙂


Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

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  1. November 6, 2010 at 2:22 am

    You make some really good points here. I definitely agree that feminists are defined by being women who are fighting to do what they want – and a beauty pageant gives them a platform to say so!

    • November 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm

      Hi, Frances —

      Thank you for the nice comment! I agree that pageants are a great platform, and an opportunity to show we can do a lot more than just look good in a swimsuit. 🙂

  2. David
    November 9, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    I don’t think it’s an oxymoron to be feminist and in a beauty pageant. But if you look at some of the key feminist leaders, you’d think so…:D

    On the other hand, I don’t get beauty pageants. As a young adult I would watch them and waste time trying to whittle them down as if they were cattle. I’d never get more than 3 of the final 5, and then usually lose. But they (pageants)do seem like meat markets, except that they grant scholarships to the women, and the women do generally need to have a decent IQ. And then there’s the ‘other’ pageants-Hawaiian Tropic and Hooters, which are really meat markets. You have to usually be a knockout to even qualify for those…but some of the swimwear tends toward the pornographic, as does some of the body work…:D

    As for feminist, I think the day, at least in America, where women had to fight to be more than second-class citizes is gone. Now, America has awakened, and the salary disparity is because of women doing what women naturally do…have babies and raise families. This society gets it wrong when it says that women can have it all. You can’t have a contiguous career, a decent family and married life, and great wealth all at the same time. Usually, the career will suffer for the family and married life, and thus the material wealth will suffer as well. Men can have this because they aren’t usually the stay-at-home domestic homemaker-we aren’t wired that way. If I have something cooking in the oven, I either have to have a timer to remind me it’s in there, or I have to stand in front of the oven watching it brown. Women can multitask like I can’t believe, and are better suited to raise families and make the home. I know I’m in trouble with you now, Rinth…I’m not saying that women have to be in the home. I am saying that they need to choose what’s going to be their path in life. Career or family. Either is honorable, believe me…

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