Pageants: Sexist & Exploitative? 

When Pia Wurtzback won Miss Universe, it resuscitated an issue on comatose. Many brought to life the debate on beauty pageants being sexist and exploitative of women.

As Pia described in one of her international TV guestings, there are three things that are “big” in the Philippines. They are crowd-drawers. And Filipinos, like Colombians (and Indonesians with their football), would most likely fight tooth and nail over them. Beauty pageants is one of them; the other two are basketball and boxing.

Wikipedia points to beauty pageants starting in the early 1800 as a “re-enactment of a medieval joust”. When in the medieval times the winner of the joust was granted the right to marry a royalty, it could have been that beauty pageants at that time were to parade the prettiest and most admirable women for the winning knight’s taking. It was “modernized” a few years later but shut down, following public protests against its organizer, the same businessman who previously held beauty pageants involving dogs and birds.

In 1921, Miss America set the standards of beauty pageants. This time, it was known as an “inter-city beauty contest” which objective was to entice more tourists to Atlantic City, New Jersey — its birthplace. This paved the way for other now-popular beauty pageants: Miss World (1950), Miss Universe (1951), Miss International (1960) and Miss Earth (2001). Miss Philippines started in 1953. Do your math and you would have an idea of how many women have already competed for these prestigious pageants.

So are beauty pageants sexist and exploitative?

Two of my nieces are beauty titlists: one was crowned Miss Dumaguete (Harlee Jell Tia), now a nurse in the United Kingdom; another was hailed Miss Silliman (Sophia Cassandra Diago), currently in her third year in Management. Was I supportive? No, initially.

From an “audience perspective”, beauty pageants could be reduced to a form of entertainment. You have a crowd cheering you on, wanting you to win. Nothing wrong with that. While many consider it a showcase of the essence of a woman, others say it is redundancy in the making: a show of who a woman already is in the minds of the public – someone who is charming inside-out and a mover in the community. Why prove to be someone you already are?

Others hold a different view. Beauty pageants allow for members of the society to affirm the value of a woman. It facilitates a better appreciation of their role, their talent and skills. It is also capacitating as over time, beauty pageants have drawn from the contestants sharp views on issues that matter to each of us.

Perhaps because of the prevailing misconception about the inferiority of women to men and the unfair treatment given them, beauty pageants still appeal as a source of reawakening, empowerment and liberation.

Times have changed. Many have grown vigilant, sensitive, inclusive and accepting of the superior abilities of women. The women in my circle are influential in their own right, and those in my organization are among the country’s more notable. This could be the reason why beauty pageants have become more on the “substantive”, taking on themes of social relevance, incorporating picture analyses that test one’s ability for parallelisms and symbolisms, and asking more issue-oriented questions.

But there remain beauty pageants that stand to showcase more the external beauty of women. Some force candidates to be in very provocative attires, surfacing the question on the availability of supply of cloth. Others literally hold the fate of some would-be beauty titlists by the meter stick or ruler, turning them down for falling short by a centimeter. And there are those that have made weighing scales either a friend or a foe of contestants.

To a large extent, capitalization on the external beauty of a woman and the display of such is antithetical to beauty pageants being a source of inspiration among women. While beauty pageants may encourage women to be themselves, such capitalization sets an unfair standard, a mold of some sort that other women have to conform to. That makes beauty pageants exploitative as you set a group apart from the rest and herald them as the “ideal”.

The ultimate gauge though of how beauty pageants are serving their purpose — and whether they are at all sexist or exploitative — are the candidates themselves. Did the pageant help the candidate achieve a certain level of confidence and social consciousness? Or did it compromise her view of life and her important role in it?

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