Beauty pageants are a harmful entertainment tradition

Contests based on physical appearances perpetuate gender and racial stereotypes

A woman wearing a dress, sachet and tiara.
Pretty tiaras and sashes can’t hide the toxicity of such contests. PHOTO: Mochammad Syaiful / Pexels

By Nancy La, News Editor

Beauty pageants started as a form of entertainment for (mostly) men and have now become a cultural phenomenon across the world. Beauty pageants exist in many forms under the titles of countries, states, cities, and even the universe itself! Contestants show off their physical qualities on stage for a panel of judges, who will determine a winner out of the group based on an arbitrary list of qualifications that no one knows about. The judgement of bodies and supposed beauty as a form of entertainment is archaic and sexist, and continually perpetuates dangerous gender and racial stereotypes. Entertainment should not be about making money off of the judgement of beauty, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

A look at pageants event rounds is enough to point out the sexism that fills such forms of entertainment. For both men and women beauty pageants — yes, mens beauty pageants exist and they are as toxic as the women’s — the swimwear event is perhaps the most glaring example. Contestants are expected to wear revealing bikinis (or swim trunks) on a stage and perform a 360° spin for the panel of judges to see and evaluate. The mere idea of placing bodies up for evaluation and judgement is deeply unsettling. The swimwear event, and perhaps the whole of beauty pageants, encourages the audience to engage in the practice of sexualizing and objectifying people. 

On top of that, the association between cities or countries with beauty pageants creates an incorrect association between race, gender, and outward appearances and the country in question. Take, for example, the Miss America beauty pageant. Despite the racially diverse makeup of the United States, there has only been one Native American woman crowned winner of Miss America in 1926, and “it has never had a Muslim, transgender, or openly gay winner.” The title of Miss America suggests whoever holds it is representative of America, yet the contest did not have a Black Miss America winner until 1984, over six decades after the inaugural Miss America pageant.

There has been resistance to the white, cisgender norms of beauty pageants in the United States. The first Miss Black America — a pageant specifically for Black women — was part of a force that slowly transformed the inclusivity and diversity of beauty pageants. In 2020, five crowned winners of international beauty pageants were Black women. 

In 2018, Miss America changed its rules on the swimsuit event and replaced it with a “live interactive sessions” with judges to “demonstrate their passion, intelligence, and overall understanding of the job of Miss America.” The nightgown event is still present, and swimwear is replaced by athleisure clothing for Miss Teen USA.

Despite the continued efforts to make beauty pageants a more inclusive and diverse experience, the core question remains: is the objectification and evaluation of people’s appearances for the sake of entertainment an empowering event? Looking past the leaps made in racial and gender equity, beauty pageants rely on the display and judgement of people and reducing them to the external qualities (and internal minds, if we’re to take the rebranding of some contests seriously). 

This judgement of bodies does not lead to empowerment it leads to generations of people having a misunderstanding of what beauty is, and how “beautiful” they themselves are. Dismantling this toxic symbolism of societal emphasis on physical beauty and judgement is a small step for furthering women’s rights, and a big step for gender equity.