PT Barnum, the fellow famous for creating the circus, also takes the credit for the first beauty pageant in 1854. Before women, he’d held pageants for dogs, babies, and birds. It’s hardly shocking that women didn’t exactly jump at the chance to join in, and protests sprung up left and right.
Women in the US won the right to vote in 1920. Yet, the very same decade witnessed a boom in beauty pageants, with the start of the Miss America pageant in 1921. Originally dubbed the “Inter-city pageant,” it kicked off as a tourist attraction in Atlantic City with a swimsuit competition.
Next week, we’ll be marking a whole century since that event. Isn’t it about time we put an end to these odd competitions? After all, if they didn’t exist already, would anyone with a heart think to create them today? I asked my six-year-old what she thought about lining up women and picking out the prettiest. She thought it was “kinda weird” and couldn’t figure out why anyone would do it. She also wisely noted, “How can you pick, anyway? There’re so many ways to be beautiful, right?”
As we make progress in voting rights, pay equality, the #MeToo movement, maternity rights, public safety, health, and so much more, why do pageants still persist? The era of parading women on a stage and picking a winner based on a single beauty standard as the symbol of womanhood is over. It’s high time we bid it farewell.
And this isn’t a hopeful farewell to one particular pageant. It’s a resounding call to say goodbye to all of them.
Over the years, pageants like Miss America have tried to project themselves as progressive, but most of the time they’re just changing shape to justify their existence with seemingly empowering initiatives. Scholarships have been introduced. Women of color have occasionally won. Talent rounds have been introduced. And this year, it’s all about “wellness” and “empowerment.”
But these are just thin veils over the core DNA of the competitions: judging women based on their bodies and reminding us all that what really counts about a woman is how she looks.
Looking back at pageant history, it’s easy to piece together some of the baffling answers some contestants have given. I won’t lie, they’re good for a chuckle. But it also just strengthens the idea that beauty means you can’t (or shouldn’t) be smart.
The fact that more and more intelligent, successful women are joining these competitions isn’t a sign of progress. It’s a glaring reminder that no matter your achievements, it’s your looks that matter – the golden ticket to success. It’s a cruel joke that tells women, sure, get an education, be financially independent, live life on your own terms. But remember, you’re only valid if you look good. And this idea keeps getting passed onto other women.
Sadly, girls soak this up from a young age. It leaves lifelong scars on their mental health and self-esteem.
A UK survey in 2016 found that over a third of seven-to-ten-year-old girls believed women are valued more for their looks than their abilities. And 36 per cent felt their appearance was their most important trait. More than two-thirds of girls aged seven to eleven felt like they weren’t good enough. A 2015 report by Common Sense Media found that more than half of girls aged six to eight wanted to be thinner than they were. By the age of seven, one in four kids had tried dieting.
To put it bluntly, no matter how successful, how socially advanced, how smart or talented, looks still seem to be the key to unlocking everything. That’s the message girls are getting. And beauty pageants are the starkest symbol of this.
Even if everything else mattered 99%, the pageant insists that success, acceptance, and celebration all hinge on looks.
You might think I’m overreacting. It’s just a little competition, right? Not even close. It’s not just a snapshot of the problem – it’s a celebration of it!
So, if we really care about women’s body image and mental health, then it’s time to pull the plug on beauty pageants. It’s time to stop pretending that judging a woman’s looks empowers her. It’s time to stop sending the message that no matter a woman’s accomplishments, it’s her looks that really count. Most importantly, it’s time to stop turning beauty into a competition. Because in this game, there are no winners, only losers.