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Commentary

Miss U: objectification or empowerment?

12:11 AM January 18, 2017

Beauty pageants are always accompanied by critiques of the very idea of beauty pageants. Referencing the (in)famous moment of last year’s Miss Universe, American feminist writer Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian: “The most awkward moment of the Miss Universe pageant this week wasn’t host Steve Harvey naming the wrong winner on live television—it’s that in 2015, a pageant still exists that parades women around in bikinis for the honor of winning a sash and tiara. That’s the true embarrassment.”

Sentiments like this, during a time when the Philippines is playing host to the Miss Universe pageant, can easily be seen as “killjoy” for what a majority likely sees as harmless fun. On the other hand, it is also an undeniably opportune time to reflect on the place of beauty pageants in our society.

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One widely held view is that beauty pageants reflect and reinforce certain standards of beauty. Even just applying pageant or “model search,” for instance, requires a certain height and bodily frame: Local pageants are explicit in stating these requirements upfront (i.e., “candidates must be at least 5’6”). Pia Wurtzbach, at 5’8, is a full 8 inches taller than the average Filipino woman; 1990 was the last year someone below 5’7 won the Miss Universe title.

Some of these standards vary across regions: Fair skin, prized by Filipinos, is not as important in international pageants. They also change through the years: The beauty queens of today are thinner, even as women in general have gotten heavier.

Candidates and organizers alike emphasize that pageants go beyond physical beauty. In one pageant I watched, the criteria for judging—“beauty of the face,” “beauty of the body” and “beauty of the mind”—reflect this discourse. “Talent” and “question and answer” portions—inevitable and much-awaited parts of many pageants—send a clear message: One should not just be beautiful, but talented and smart as well.

What organizers do not say, however, is that a certain level of beauty is required to have the opportunity to demonstrate one’s “brains,” in the first place. And so what emerges is a depiction of an idealized woman: one who is smart, and, in Wurztbach’s words, “confidently beautiful with a heart.”

Critics say that beauty pageants lead to an objectification of women, because they are evaluated mainly by their physical appearance (the same can be said for male beauty pageants, but that’s for another essay). Consequently, their bodies become objects of “beauty work”—attempting to enhance them through physical effort (i.e., working out and dieting), using beauty products, or undergoing surgery (many pageant hopefuls don’t mind being “retokada”). More commonly, girls take supplements in the hope that someday they will be tall or fair enough for the scouts’ notice.

But some have pushed back against the idea that beauty pageants objectify young people’s bodies. Wurtzbach has called the superficial aspects of Miss Universe a “bait” to get people to listen to important advocacies, like the HIV awareness about which she is passionate. Miss World Canada Anastasia Lin, who has drawn the ire of her native China for being an outspoken human rights advocate, can certainly attest to this.

More commonly than these lofty goals, young people also join beauty pageants for pragmatic ends, in ways that arguably empower them: giving them skills like public speaking and the all-important social capital. In many provinces, indeed, pageants can be a route to success and fame—perhaps the only tangible one for those with boundless dreams but limited means.

But even as beauty pageantry is certainly empowering for those who succeed through its narrow path, its impact is mixed for the rest of us. Stories like that of housemaid-turned-beauty-queen Janicel Lubina are certainly inspiring, but our real challenge—one that goes beyond pageants and entails looking more broadly at our popular culture—is to build a society in which women can feel “confident with a heart,” regardless of their beauty.

Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.

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TAGS: Beauty pageant, Commentary, Empowerment, Feminism, miss universe, opinion, women
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