Beauty Pageants: A Debate on Sexuality
From Women's Studies
Beauty Pageants: A Brief History
P.T. Barnum was the first person to hold a beauty contest after success with dog, baby, and bird beauty pageants. But he was quickly shut down because of public protest. Then in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware in 1880 the “Bathing Beauty Pageant” took place as a way to promote business during their summer festival. After the success of the pageant in Rehoboth beach, summertime pageants at the beach became commonplace and many women from all over the nation would flock to seaside boardwalks to compete.
In 1921 the Miss America Pageant was born and won by a 16-year-old. This pageant continued to grow and by the 1930’s a talent portion was also included as a way for Hollywood scouts to find new talent. During WWII the Miss America pageant was not cancelled because it was decided that it “strengthen[ed] the American Spirit”, and by the 1950’s the scholarship fund for the winners of the pageant exceeds $250,000. Also during the 1950’s the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants emerge as sexier versions of the Miss America pageant.
In 1960 the first “Little Miss America Pageant” is held in New Jersey, quickly followed by The Miss teenage America Pageant, and the America’s Junior Miss Pageant. In the 1980’s the teen pageant scene changes drastically when ‘TEEN Magazine takes the reins and judges contestants not only on beauty, but also grades, community service, and intelligence.
Pageants have lost their national television appeal as the Miss America Pageant has bounced from station to station, being dropped based on viewer numbers, but a new surge in interest has risen in conjunction with TLC’s show Toddlers and Tiaras.
Child Glitz Pageants
Full Glitz pageants are pageants that expect the contestants to fit a particular body image. Since 1935 an “ideal body” has been associated with pageants. Contestants in glitz pageants will alter their appearance by adding hair pieces, spray tanning, wearing flippers (an artificial teeth piece), make-up, fake eye-lashes, and dresses that are revealing, sparkling, and very formal. The girls are expected to walk and smile perfectly for the judges. They are judged on overall appearance, an “outfit of choice” or swimwear, and their entries for interests and “about me” type of information that is stated by the host of the pageant during their initial walk on stage.
The debate over child glitz pageants is a heated one, especially with regard to the younger age groups where parents are significant driving forces in participation. The mainstream media feeds off of pageant drama, highlighting scandals among adult contestants and portraying pageant moms as tyrannical monsters. The American Psychological Association has come out with a report that many are using as evidence against young girls participating in beauty pageants that states that “there is evidence that sexualization contributes to impaired cognitive performance in college-aged women, and related research suggests that viewing material that is sexually objectifying can contribute to body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, low self-esteem, depressive affect, and even physical health problems in high-school-aged girls and in young women”. If even just watching the sexualization of women on television can so aggressively effect older girls then the question stands on what dressing up ages zero through 12 in lingerie style outfits, with fake hair, fake eyelashes, and fake teeth all in the name of beauty can do to their psyche at the time and as they age? But there are also numerous YouTube videos of adult contestants, parents, and children defending their pageant careers. For many international participants, pageantry is like sending out an ambassador to the world. It may be one of the only international arenas that the country feels it can compete on. Ultimately it does not seem as though pageantry is going to die any time soon. With shows like Toddlers and Tiara’s on TLC putting pageants back in the mainstream, and the global appeal of the Miss Universe Pageant, and other international pageants pageant moms and contestants will be able to find friends between the naysayers.
Little Princesses Are Always Perfect
Often using words, like “princess”, “queen”, and “royalty” in their names or descriptions and awarding crowns to winners, pageants have always associated themselves with the “princess obsession” that, as Peggy Orenstein discusses in her article for the NY Times What’s Wrong With Cinderella?, seems all of America bashes little girls over the head with all their lives. Even though Ornstein eventually seems to entertain the fact that there is nothing wrong with this, I’m inclined to say that she would find pageants a frightening aspect of our US and global culture. And as Bordo, states in the introduction to Twilight Zones, “with created images setting the standard, we are becoming habituated to the glossy and gleaming, the smooth and shinig, the ageless and sagless and wrinkleless. We are learning to expect ‘perfection’ and to find any ‘defect’”. These children are, for the most part being judged on their appearances and in a culture so obsessed with the perfect image of a person, demanding Photo Shopped and air brushed images, how can these women, and children ever win the crown without doing everything in their power to do the same to their actual body?
American Psychological Association, Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html
Bordo, S., Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Pato to O.J.. University of California Press, 1999.
Ornstein, P. What’s Wrong With Cinderella. The New York Times, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/24/magazine/24princess.t.html
Pageant History. (n.d.). Pageants! Beauty Pageants! Great Pageant Resources! Beauty Contests! Miss World, Miss USA, Miss Universe and more.. Retrieved November 29, 2011, from http://pageantcenter.com/history-2000.html
Top 10 Most Controversial Parents : Videos : TLC. (2009, September 18).TLC : Family, Home, Style, Cooking. Retrieved November 29, 2011, from http://tlc.discovery.com/videos/toddlers-tiaras-top-10-controversial-parents/