I have a love hate relationship with Beauty Pageants. On one hand I love the idea of displaying  talent and intelligence. Intelligent conversation and a brilliant combination of skill and creativity will get me every time. I have even been involved in helping to achieve a high standard in the things that I like about beauty pageants i.e. successfully coaching contestants to great execution in the talent and interview segments. However, in principle, I am not fond of the concept of “the beauty pageant” on a whole.

My problem is this; if you are judging contestants in various categories (swim-suit, talent, evening-wear and interview), you are most certainly using some standard. The thing is, standards of beauty and talent are culture specific, and even then they vary from individual to individual among members of the same cultural/ethnic group. If we follow this logic, the idea of a beauty pageant seems, well, counter-intuitive.

Why?

Firstly, in order to set the criterion for judging in these shows, you must, whether consciously or unconsciously, accept/prioritize one set of standards for beauty, talent and intelligence, at the expense of the other. As much as the score sheet appears objective on paper, the standard used for measuring the beauty of the contestants is not quite the same.  The ones who are successful, are successful because  they have met a culturally subjective criterion. The ones who are not successful have not met that criterion. The one who has won, is praised for her beauty and brains, the ones who do not win are not quite as beautiful, or talented, or intelligent as the winner, of course, and deserve their minor positions on the platforms of flesh.

The thing is, because it is so culturally based/subjective, you may find that had the pageant occurred in another country with different concepts of beauty, intelligence and talent, that one of the contestants that didn’t place originally may emerge the winner, and the original winner may be deposed to second or third or not mentioned at all.

And what happens when the judges have internalize another culture’s standard of beauty? It’s not as far fetched as we think. In a post-colonial context as ours, such a phenomenon is very possible. I have heard comments coming from judges and audience members, describing contestants as being too dark and too thick (that grey area between slim and fat). I’ll let you determine the subtext in those claims. This post-colonial era has seen an unconscious internalization of other cultural standards in the minds of our general population to such a degree that they seem second nature. Our ideas of beauty have not escaped. This becomes especially apparent when you think that our winning girls are then prepped for competing in Miss World and Miss Universe beauty pageants, where they compete with contestants from countries whose standards of beauty proliferate our print and electronic media. We need only look at the contestants who have entered either Miss World or Miss Universe, from St. Vincent, to see if there is/isn’t a pattern.

It is also worth noting that these contestants, in the months leading up to the Miss SVG pageant go on diet regimens. I am not sure if this sanctioned by the beauty shows’ committee, nor am I suggesting that. However, I have heard contestants remark on the fact that “they” do not allow them (the contestants) to eat certain types of food while in training for the pageant, as well as noting how much weight they would have lost in the time leading up to the pageant.

The other thing to consider is the effect of these contests on the minds of the contestants. I hear contestants ad nauseam relate how having entered a beauty contest boosts their self-confidence, that it turns shrinking violets into divas. I have no doubt that this is true. Hearing the comments about beauty contestants in the past, and most recently with the launch of the 2010 Miss SVG contestants, a contestant will either become really thick skinned or she would develop serious self-esteem issues. (I wonder if there are any provisions made for helping the contestants cope with these issues?)

The comments range from contestants being too dark, too tall, too short, too thin, too thick, too fat, too flat chested, too flat in the derriere, too big in the derriere, too fresh, too stuck up, too old, too ugly. I have heard these comments and cringed as though I was their target. I find the comments unkind and illogical. It boils down to faulting the biology of the contestants, something over which they have little control. It is basically saying that they are not fearfully and wonderfully made, but rather need to crop themselves in some form or the other to meet an ideal.

Death or Victory by phenotype.

Winning then has more to do with your physical appearance than a lot of the other categories. You won because you happen to be made in the way that judges approve (figure, beauty of face and such). This idea calls to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale which, while not exactly a point for point match, can be seen as the logical extreme of this particular mind-set.

Despite all of my misgivings about beauty pageants, despite the sinking feeling I get when I try to wrap my head around the idea of one standard to measure something as multiform as beauty, and despite the screams of  my inner womanist/feminist whenever I agree to assist with coaching a contestant in the areas of talent and interview, I am still intrigued by things relating to displaying a talent. I am drawn to the pageants the way many people are drawn to soap-operas. You know it’s mostly bad acting, incredibly weak plots, and many anti-climactic moments, but can’t turn away because you want to see how the story-arc ends, even if the ending leaves you ‘cussing’ the director/judges for their lack of vision.

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