From Camels to Geopolitics: Why, Even in 2016, We Care About Pageants & What They Say About Us

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Over the past week I noticed a number of stories about beauty contests in my feed.  That’s not unusual.  What WAS weird was the type of stories.  Of course there were a few about the Steve Harvey guffaw at the Miss Universe contest, but there was another about a terrorist threatening to kidnap the recently anointed Miss Iraq and, even more bizarrely, one about a beauty contest for camels!

What gives?  Why are there so many beauty pageants out there.  And more interestingly, why do we care so much that people write stories about them, adapt them for their cultures (and local animals) and even want to kill people associated with them??  It’s 2016 already!  Haven’t we evolved past the old fashioned notion that people’s beauty should be judged?

Some of you reading this may be saying to yourselves: “frankly, I don’t care about pageants, move on.”  I can understand that.  But understanding why some of us care about something seemingly insignificant can open our eyes into what makes us ALL tick.

I could write a whole masters thesis on the pros or cons of beauty contests.  But I won’t.  And I’m not making any judgements here.  I just want to understand why people all over the world create and support such spectacles.  And I’m not the only one who is scratching her head here.  There have been scholarly works (The Why’s of Beauty Contests), books (Beauty Queens and the Global Stage) and a PBS series (Origins of the Beauty Pageant) developed around answering this question.

None of these sources have fully answered the question for me but in reading them all, I think I see some explanation.

Let’s begin by recognizing that beauty matters.  Whether we like it or not, every culture admires, creates and rewards beautiful objects and people.  Of course every culture has a different interpretation of what is beautiful, but in the end, each and every nation has written poems, novels and songs about someone or other’s beauty.

Ok, but why do we have to judge it?  Why should beauty become something we compete over?  To be fair, the human species competes over, well, almost everything.  That’s why we have the Olympics, national sports, Emmy awards, you name it.  Hey, we even compete with ourselves thanks to Fitbit.   Because beauty is one of those things that we care about, it too has become a source of competition.

But then why can’t beauty pageants just remain another harmless form of entertainment?  Why do they matter so much to people?  Based on my research (albeit somewhat limited) I learned that beauty pageants, especially outside of the Western World, are loaded with political, cultural, and social significance.  On the one hand, there is a strong antipathy toward them, as they are a blatant and, for some, immoral import from the West.  (These contests actually started in ancient Greece but took shape in the U.S. thanks to Phineas T. Barnum (yes, as in the circus :))  On the other hand, most cultures take this construct and reshape it to match their cultural values, i.e., judge beauty but their own standards.  In a way, the pageants become a source of cultural pride.  Even in the U.S., some early pageants were a form of rebellion.  I wrote a post last year (The Racial Dimension of Plus Sized Women) about the history of African-American’s elaborate dress code for Sunday church services.  Dressing up hearkens back to the slave era and how Sunday was the one day a week when slaves could dress with dignity and beauty.  Slaves would parade down the streets to show off their beauty and claim ownership of their humanity.

Beauty pageants are clearly fraught with conflicting ideals and a mix of emotions.  That is exactly why they matter to people.  These contests are a response to our innate and global love for beauty.  But they also tap into the debasement that we fear comes along with admiring people for their beauty alone.  They are examples of Western infiltration but a means to rebel against it at the same time.  They tap into our love for competition and our fear of losing.  Whether we support these contests or not, at least we have a better understanding of why so many of us care about them.  And maybe we just have a slightly better understanding of us all.

Beauty From Around the World & Why It’s Contagious

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People often ask why we started this blog.  The first reason: I have learned quite a bit about beauty in our culture from all my client work over the years.  Another reason: I find it a very interesting, and personally relevant topic.  Finally, it’s a subject that gets a ton a play, i.e., it’s a topic that always seems to generate conversation — every day.

Case in point?  I subscribe to beauty alerts from Google.  Every day I get story after story about the topic.  And that’s just articles with key word “beauty” in the title!  I realized that not only would I have continual fodder for this blog, but that other people seem to care –I mean REALLY care — about beauty.  We can argue the pros and cons of this high level of interest, which we have done a lot in this blog over the years.  But the reality is we do care — a lot.

And what I’m about to show you all is a great example of this.  The other day I came across this story about a Romanian photographer, Mihaela Noroc, who travels the world taking stunning pictures of young women.  The effort is called Atlas of Beauty.  At first blush this seems pretty banal, especially in our selfie-dominant culture .  How many more pictures of people can we look at?  The answer?  A lot!

This story has made the rounds.  People are fascinated by these images.  And I can understand why.  Not only are the subjects well photographed, but it is clear that each woman is unique.  Her background, coloring, facial structure and wardrobe are reflective of her native country. So each picture is a window into another world. But even more fascinating is how beautiful each one of these women are.  No question, beauty comes in all so many forms.

But still, why should we care SO much?  Our desire to appreciate beauty is innate.  We are hardwired to be attracted to it. Many argue we’ve evolved to be attracted to beautiful faces as they are a sign of health, and the owners of the faces, therefore, are worthy of reproducing with.  But I think it goes deeper than that.  I think our appreciation is born from a need to ground us.  So many of us are in our heads for good and bad reasons.  We are either spiritual, intellectual or just plain worried all the time.  We need to remember we are physical beings and tied to the earth. By witnessing beauty in others, we are reminded of this.  We need to reconnect with our bodies and the physical world around us more.  The more we connect to physical selves, the more whole we will feel.  I encourage you all to spend time appreciating these photos.  They are worth it.