April 13, 2011 Marion MacDonald

Why Do Beauty Contests Still Exist?

A few days ago, 17-year-old Domonique Ramirez won her courtroom battle to regain the title of "Miss San Antonio". During the week-long trial, pageant director Linda Woods said bikini photos of the teenager were "unusable" because the teenager had gained weight, and Ms. Ramirez told the court that she had been advised to "lay off the tacos and the junk food". Pageant organizers claim she was dismissed because she had breached her contract by showing up late for appointments.

My first reaction was outrage that a 5' 8" woman who weighs 129 pounds would be considered "overweight". But now that Ms. Ramirez has "won" her case — and the right to compete for the title of "Miss Texas" or even "Miss America" — I find myself wondering why, in the year 2011, beauty pageants still exist.

Beauty pageants have made a big comeback at British universities in the last two years, and there's a thoughtful post on Object.org about why women should be concerned:

We have nothing against women who choose to take part in beauty pageants. However, we would say that the issue is not as simple as one of individual choice. The mainstreaming of beauty pageants has an impact on all women. The idea that it is okay to judge women on the basis of their appearance and that there is one objective beauty that women can be measured against, influences the way that all of us feel about ourselves as women and the way that men view and treat women.

Rather than being empowering, beauty pageants are in fact disempowering because they deny the full humanity of women and they reinforce the idea that women's purpose is to look attractive or 'be hot'.

There's nothing wrong with celebrating beauty per se. But when it is always women who are judged on the basis of our appearance, and when the idea of beauty is based on sexist, racist, homophobic and able-bodied notions of what constitutes beauty, which excludes the vast majority of women;and when we are constantly bombarded with images and messages of what we are supposed to look like in order to be accepted as beautiful, which leads to the majority of us feeling terrible about ourselves – a contest is not a celebration of beauty, it is a manifestation of sexism.

What do you think? Do beauty pageants empower or disempower women? Are they harmless fun, or manifestations of lingering sexism and misogyny?