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Beauty pageants fall under a type of competition that hopes to define femininity and self-love, but end up doing the opposite. This essay explores the ethical concerns of beauty pageants, like the objectification of women, reinstatement of eurocentric beauty standards, and the promotion of harmful ideas that affect women’s self-image.
The first ethical concern of beauty pageants is the objectification of women. Battistoni (2013) claims that beauty pageants harbour rivalry amongst competitors by exhibiting them onstage; despite statements that pageants have grown to become modern, one must acknowledge that historically, they began as swimsuit competitions. It then became lucrative after gaining popularity and resulted in businessmen selling goods through the display of women’s bodies (Battistoni, 2013, p. 37). This shows that the purpose of women in pageants back then was to advertise products and carry them well, and that there was more care for their bodies and immaculate appearance rather than what they had to say as people—they simply acted as vessels of feminine charms to satisfy the needs of men hungry for money. As Wright (2017) said, “The female body, as subject, is the main focal point rather than the focus of her identity as a contestant.” (p. 126). It is no doubt that pageants have ceaselessly turned women’s bodies into something to spectate and assess when in reality, “Girls need to know their skills, intellect, courage, sense of humour and treatment of others matter.” (Peacock, 2018, p. 3).
Another ethical concern regarding beauty pageants is the emphasis on eurocentric standards of beauty. Such can be seen in pageants like Miss America, Miss World, and Miss Universe—a racial preference is evident (Zhong & Wilkes, 2013). Although Miss America originated in 1921, Vanessa Williams became the first African-American woman to win the title in 1983 (Trammell, 2019). However, the African-American community “questioned whether William’s green eyes and golden brown hair made her ‘sufficiently’ black enough” (Watson & Martin, 2000, p. 113) since she embodied the stereotypical Western beauty standard (Watson and Martin, 2000). All the previous Miss World and Miss Universe titleholders also prove that the winners, regardless of their origin, have “semi-Caucasian features” and “skin much lighter than the national norms” (Gutierrez, 2018, p. 15). The Miss India controversy that took place in 2019 was an example, where closeups of all the candidates were released—this sparked an outrage across communities as all the women had ‘fair skin’ and lacked what most Indian women truly look like (Linning, 2019). This suggests that there are underlying tones of a pro-Western appearance, which is deemed as the ‘most’ attractive no matter where the pageant is held. Despite pageants becoming more diverse over the years (Williams, 2013), the image of Caucasian women is still considered as the highest tier of beauty. Furthermore, in 2019, despite being the first true African-American woman to win Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi claimed that even her friends advised her to wear a wig or weave (Prinzivalli, 2019). Therefore it is no surprise that people reigning from various cultures end up conforming to a more dominant beauty ideal—the implied preference to Caucasian features is destructive and very much prevalent.
The last ethical concern is that it promotes harmful ideas, affecting one’s self-image. Festinger (1954) claims that people often judge themselves based on the comparisons they make with others, suggesting that observing pageant contestants influences how women see themselves. Contestants like Kristel Herrera follow a strict diet containing two eggs, lots of vegetables and turmeric tea every day leading up the competition (Gutierrez, 2018). This diet causes her to consume under the recommended caloric intake which is unhealthy in the long run, showing how pageants could encourage “an obsession with physical beauty and illnesses like bulimia and anorexia.” (Gutierrez, 2018, p. 49). The height, weight and body measurement requirements set by pageants (Gutierrez, 2018) promote unrealistic standards that not everyone can attain, therefore causing them to harm themselves in an effort to achieve them. Additionally, at the 2018 Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria pageant, a producer stated that the contestants must wear bikinis to show their bodies specifically so the production crew can disqualify women with scars, imperfect features or large tribal markings on their bodies (De La Cruz, 2018, p. 13). This sends a message that women’s imperfections or natural features are considered ‘ugly’. Furthermore, Gutierrez (2018) mentions that child pageants are popular in Philippines. This discourages children from being comfortable with their own appearance since they must morph into a specific mould from a young age, leading to an obsession with fulfilling beauty standards. It is the structure of categorising women purely based on their looks that encourages contestants to alter their appearance to reach the standard set by the pageant (Battistoni, 2013). To satisfy these standards, they might develop eating disorders and other habits that cause harm to their health and bodies, which bring negative impacts on one’s self-image.
To reiterate, beauty pageants have brought forward ethical concerns such as the objectification of the female body, the reinforcement of Western beauty ideals and promotion of harmful ideas. There should be a greater emphasis on inclusivity and what contestants have to contribute as this will then begin a trend whereby beauty translates to more than one specific form.
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