A lot has changed since the first ever beauty pageant was held in 1854. PT Barnum is the man who started it all. But his pageants were soon closed down after public protest, Racked reported.
Sixty years later a more esteemed challenge paved the runway for beauty pageants as we now know them. According to Racked, "Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest" (now Miss America) was the first live pageant. Contestants dressed in nothing but bathing costumes were judged based on the magnitude of the audience’s applause.
The Miss America pageant often found itself in hot water for both its exclusion of black women and other racist and controversial practices.
And right here at home our beauty pageants have raised a few eyebrows over the past few years for their own set of somewhat questionable criteria, which I’ll address shortly.
But first I want to share a brief anecdote of my personal experiences with beauty contests (as they were called in my time).
In pursuit of a title
This is a subject matter quite close to my heart, so please be patient as I take you through this journey as briefly as I can.
I entered my first ever “beauty” contest when I was five years old. It wasn’t anything like Toddlers & Tiaras, though (thank goodness). All I had to do was submit a photo of myself in order to stand a chance to win a, wait for it… a Wimpy dessert. I won. What a treat.
I started entering pageants again in my pre-teen years, knowing I’d do well every time I entered because I came from a family which affirmed me not just my outward appearance but in terms of my abilities too.
And considering pageants for girls that age were not necessarily about choosing the prettiest girl but the most endearing, I kept entering confidently. Always a finalist. Never the winner.
But at 12 years old I finally won 1st princess for the one which mattered the most at the time, Miss East London Show Queen.
I started entering again when I was 15, made top 15, but didn’t place top 5. And that’s when I quit – because that’s when looks started to matter.
After my long hiatus from pageants, I entered Miss SA (the ultimate goal) for the first time when I was 22 – I chuckle at the thought now though.
I instantly made Eastern Cape regional finalist where they flew just a handful of us to Cape Town for an afternoon of parading around the Table Bay Hotel in bikinis and sarongs (it was so cold that day).
I had fun but I never made it any further and that was the last time I entered.
It was the last time not only because of my age and my lacking height but I actually started asking the bigger questions about the role of beauty pageants in society and the judging process as a whole.
Why are there so many swimsuit rounds in the preliminary judging phase of Miss SA?— Gravitas (@AfikaLulo) January 5, 2016
Why must contestants parade in swimsuits before they're even spoken to at Miss SA castings?— Gravitas (@AfikaLulo) January 5, 2016
But enough about me. Seriously. Let's discuss the bigger questions around pageants.
Pretty hurts. Pretty can be ugly too.
Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts music video shows the not so pretty side of pageantry – the eating disorders, the cattiness (not always the case), the mental toll it takes on contestants and the overall pressure to keep up with the textbook definition of a "female role model".
Anyone who's ever entered a beauty pageant can relate to being Miss 3rd Ward at least once.
Be pretty, be slim, pay it forward, and be smart (but not too smart). Furthermore, don't have tattoos, piercings, a child or have ever fallen pregnant before.
Things which have me questioning the integrity of and role of pageants.
Is it about congratulating the queen for winning the genetic lottery? Is it about fostering healthy role models for young girls? Giving back to the community? A gateway 'drug' into the modelling industry? Or is it just a recreational activity previously reserved only for tall, slender, light-skinned/racially ambiguous cishetero women?
Ever since traditional beauty standards started being called out for their controversial criteria, we welcomed more inclusive, diverse pageants such as Miss Wheelchair World, the environmentally themed Miss Earth SA, and Miss Plus Size is Me South Africa.
Well-intended, but the titles (with the exception of Miss Earth) somewhat have connotations of othering.
These kinds of pageants also remain peripheral in comparison to those which reinforce conventional beauty standards with their weight and height restrictions, hair texture policing and many others.
Of course no one has to enter any of these competitions but even as someone on the outside looking in you can't help but feel a little uneasy about the archaic nature in which beauty contests are executed.
I mean, if they're really all about inner beauty as they purport to be, would there be a need to create the above-mentioned peripheral contests? Would a curvy woman, a differently-abled woman, and a transgender woman all not be able to enter the same competition then?
You see, having different pageants for different factions of beauty only further perpetuates the false idea that the rest aren't good enough.
The silver lining
The race for the crown has actually helped a lot of women find their confidence, paid for varsity tuition in some cases, awarded cash prizes which helped winners build homes for their parents, contributed to the betterment of hundreds of charities and worthy causes, and even gave young girls women to look up to when they would have perhaps otherwise not had a role model.
One must also commend the Miss Peru 2018 contestants for using their platform to share statistics on hate crimes against women in their country.
The Daily Mail reports that instead of parading their waist and bust measurements, these ladies used the mic to say "my measurements are..." before sharing a harrowing stat on either femicide, harassment or gender-based violence.
Miss Mamelodi Sundowns, Sharon Rose Khumalo, opened up to the media about being intersex and didn't have her title removed as some people unjustfiably expected.
Daveyton, a township in the East Rand, has a pageant for members of the LGBTQ+ community in an effort to make the area safer where homophobic hate crimes are commonplace.
The annual winners of the Beauty With a Purpose humanitarian project of Miss World have single-handedly done more for children in need in their respective countries than our own government ever could.
The Miss South Africa pageant also takes pride in their humanitarian work, where doing charity work forms part of the judging process.
So a lot of good has definitely come from pageantry ever since that fateful year of 1984 when Vanessa Williams was crowned the first black Miss America, thereby opening the door for other black women and women of colour across the world to one day wear a crown too.
But when you have women dipping balls of cotton wool in orange juice for dinner just to fit your body standards, surely you need to take a step back and reconsider what the purpose of your competition is.
Keep the pageants. But change the approach.
After sharing the good that has come from years of beauty pageants, it would seem rather myopic to declare that we do away with them completely.
I don’t think beauty pageants are completely unnecessary and evil. I just think they could be carried out better.
And I know they're no longer as aspirational and awe-inspiring as they used to be when we were youngins or even teens but there's some value to be kept from them.
Yes, there's still no 'world peace' as promised by our pageant queens, but lives have indeed been improved. Even if it's just a few.
The problem with beauty pageants is not the contestants who enter. It's the rigid criteria that expects women to only be a certain way and when they don't fit this mold, renders them a reject.
Let's also not forget that the history of pageants is racist, sexist, and colourist. So keeping them may be implicit of a culture of upholding an unkind system.
Beauty pageants can stay (for now), but they most certainly need to evolve.
Do you think beauty pageants have an overall negative or positive impact on the lives of women and young girls in South Africa? Do we still need them? Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook or email us here.