More Than Skin Deep: What Makes Beauty Pageants Empowering
by Anne Marielle Eugenio, February 07, 2019 3:00pm
Art by Dani Elevazo
The Philippines has 14 crowns from the “Big Four” of the pageant industry—Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss International, and Miss Earth. Apart from the winners of these major beauty competitions, our country takes pride in winning several titles from other international pageants.
As a pageant-loving country, the Philippines was more than glad to host the recently concluded 47th Miss Intercontinental on January 26. This edition promotes the "power of beauty" with over 80 stunning candidates from different continents. Besides hosting the pageant for the first time, we made history when Karen Gallman won the country's first Miss Intercontinental crown. Her victory came only a month after Catriona Gray brought back the Miss Universe crown after three years. This winning streak is one proof Filipino beauty stands out among the rest.
But are pageants enough to know how someone’s beauty stands out? Does it empower or does it limit society’s idea of beauty?
History of Beauty Pageants
Before we had Miss Intercontinental, Miss World, or even Miss Universe, beauty pageants have already been around for over 130 years. The modern beauty competition thought to have started in the Belgian municipality of Spain in September 1888. Women are encouraged to submit their photographs with a written description. Those who are qualified had the chance to win “the most beautiful girl on the planet” title. 18-year-old Creole contestant named Marthe Soucaret won the competition and became the cover of the French Magazine L’Illustration. Since then, the idea of beauty queens became popular and glamorous.
Beauty pageants these days are all about using beauty for empowerment and a purpose. Titleholders are those who stand out, not only in terms of beauty, but because of confidence, intelligence, and impact on people. Their poise, knowledge, and advocacies—their determination to “make a change” are being judged.
It’s been more than a century since the first modern beauty pageant took place, but whether pageants empower or degrade women remains a debate.
Elegant as it may seem, the pageant scene is not all about glitter and glamour. Even to those who haven’t joined beauty pageants know the sacrifices and challenges each contestant goes through. Beauty queens undergo intense training—sometimes they train under a beauty camp where coaches “transform” women into the best pageant version of themselves (remember Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality?) A pageant guru even revealed an exercise involving doing lunges in high heels while balancing books on top of someone’s head. They also have to practice their runway walk and their answers for the dreaded question and answer.
We only see the other side—perfect hair and makeup, toned body, and an air of confidence. It’s a wonder how contestants smile amidst all the pressure or confidently answer questions that would make or break their chance to get the crown.
Pageant judges and enthusiasts judge them based on their beauty, walk, wit, and intelligence. Once the candidate is on stage, she is aware the public will judge her, mostly for her appearance than her brains.
Beauty queens go through all sacrifices but at what cost?
Beauty with a cause
Pageants are celebrated all over the globe; it’s a great platform to communicate one’s thoughts and ideas. In a pageant-loving country like the Philippines, people look up to beauty queens as influencers and role models. Beauty contests pave the way for the beauty queens to promote their advocacies. May it be about anti-bullying, empowerment, education, and mental health—the list of advocacies is long, probably endless.
Pia Wurtzbach used her Miss Universe 2015 win to promote HIV awareness, especially among Filipinos. Even after her reign, she continued her advocacy. She became UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador for Asia and the Pacific in 2017, empowering those who have HIV around her. In her way, she strived to be “confidently beautiful with a heart.”
The pageant scene is also a space for diversity. Every country has a representative in the world stage, which became an avenue to accept different beauty standards each country has. With the likes of Akiko Kojima, who became the first Asian who won the Miss Universe crown in 1959; Janelle Penny Commissiong became the first Miss Universe from an African ancestry in 1977; Agbani Darego became the first native African who became Miss World in 2001. They represent the beauty of their region and country.
Regardless of race, beauty queens want to have a voice for what they aspire for. They aim to inspire, especially women, and show beauty goes beyond a pretty face. Through their advocacies, communicated in beauty pageants, they are in high hopes to make a change in the society.
The other side of “BeauCons”
Beauty queens use their voice as icons, but for some, they see beauty competitions as a way to objectify women. Pageant hopefuls display their bodies clad only swimsuits or sheer and tight-fitting long gowns. They don’t see sense in parading bodies on the runway for literally the whole world to see and they deem pageants as degrading.
It has been an issue of how pageants cage the idea of beauty. With beauty queens as the basis, being beautiful is identified as tall, perfect skin and hair, and toned body. Siera Bearchell broke the stereotype, being a plus-sized woman who joined pageantry in 2017, but she did not escape the watchful eyes of the world and judgment that proved society has a certain standard of beauty that pageants somehow contributed to.
Some believe you don’t need a crown to spark a change in society. If there are other ways to promote a certain cause, people hope those won’t need any physical requirements, just dedication, and commitment.
Regardless of race, beauty queens want to have a voice for what they aspire for. They aim to inspire, especially women, and show beauty goes beyond a pretty face.
Despite the different opinions, we have to accept our views on women joining beauty contests and beauty contests. Pageants are not everyone’s cup of tea.
The basis of true beauty and confidence should be knowing your worth as a human being. Pageants may give that sense of worth to some; beauty competitions may provide them a chance to change the world. Pageants like Miss Intercontinental believe in the power of beauty. It gave Karen a wider platform to promote her advocacy—education in the rural parts of the Philippines, and possibly around the world.
So we will leave this question for you to reflect on: Do you see pageants as form empowerment? Why or why not? The judgment is yours.