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.