Yes, you read the title correctly— a feminist pageant girl, what a concept. Before you write me off, like many have before, and group me into whatever stereotypical cookie cutter pageant girl group you’ve seen depicted on reality t.v. shows like Toddlers and Tiaras, hear me out.
Let me begin by stating I don’t condone child beauty pageants, particularly “glitz” pageants. They are too young to fully understand what they are entering into and too young to make the decision to compete for themselves. There are pros and cons to pageants, but one of the cons that I’ll later address is the emphasis on appearance, and my concern is with the possible psychological effects that could leave on a young child.
This was not my case, however. I started competing in pageants when I was thirteen years old. The decision to compete was completely mine, and I fought against the many people, including my family, who expressed concerns for a multitude of different reasons. Nevertheless, I wanted this, so though I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into, I entered in my state’s teen competition, and committed myself fully to competing. By the grace of God, I won that first year, and went on to hold the teen title for my state for a year and represented my state at the national pageant.
Now over the course of that year, and every year since then, when people find out I’m a “pageant girl,” I am often grouped into some sub category of barbie-looking bimbos and am judged as such. I’ve been subjected to a lot of pretty demeaning comments, usually targeted at my intelligence or character, ranging anywhere from, “No need to use that scholarship [one of the prizes I won when I became my state titleholder, and a huge reason as to why I am here at JMU today], you’re beautiful enough to marry rich” to, “Women aren’t taken seriously in politics in general, as if a pageant girl ever would be” (commented by a classmate in a dual enrolled class that I received special permission by the head of the political science department to take as a senior in high school).
Now I am not naive. I understand the negative connotations associated with pageants and if I’m being completely transparent, some of them have some merit. So, here’s the brutally honest truth to the most common pageant stereotypes from a pageant girl who has lived this for several years of her life:
1.) Pageant girls are dumb.
False. Keep in mind that there are multiple different systems that have different categories, but a common category amongst all of the most well-known systems is the interview. I compete in the Miss America system which requires a six-minute private interview as a teen contestant and a ten-minute private interview as a Miss contestant. These interviews are in part guided by a resume that highlights academic achievements, leaderships positions and community involvement, and a platform statement. However, anything is fair game, and typically at least 1/3 – 1/2 of your questions are comprised of political and current events questions. And no, you are not given a “study guide” or any warning of what kinds of questions they will ask. In addition to the private interview there is onstage question, which again is almost always a political or current events question. Oh, yeah, and you have 20 seconds to answer it, in front of your audience of hundreds to thousands of people, and if you go over, points are deducted. Even if you’re unfamiliar with pageants, it’s likely you’ve seen one of these onstage questions as “bad answers” often go viral, which unfortunately only perpetuates this stereotype of the “dumb” pageant girl. I’ll admit, there’s some rough answers out there, but there’s also some incredible ones like Miss Virginia 2014, Courtney Garrett’s Miss America onstage question. Still think it’s easy? Check out this video where random pedestrians were asked common pageant onstage questions and see how they responded.
2.) Pageant girls just smile, parade around in a bikini, and stand in dresses.
False. Again, each system is different, but almost all systems have different categories usually with some variation of interview, talent, onstage question, evening wear, and swimsuit/fitness. I personally have only ever competed in the Miss America system, which with new changes in leadership and grading criteria, including the elimination of swimsuit competition, recently broke down the 2019 Miss America competition as such: Personal Interview (25%), Onstage Interview (15%), Evening Wear/Social Impact Statement (20%), Talent (40%). If you are curious as to what a “social impact” is, it’s a personal initiative that each candidate must have. It must reflect a problem that faces the community/state/nation and the candidate must be involved with it prior to the competition. While yes, of course you can (and should!) volunteer and be involved without competing in pageants, I think this is one of the most impactful parts of this organization. For reference, my own personal impact initiative has been implemented in four different states since its founding, something that would’ve been a lot harder to achieve had I not had the networks and access given to me as a titleholder. And my own initiative is only one of many, as titleholders nationwide have initiatives addressing pertinent national issues, ranging anywhere from child literacy, to food insecurity, to immigration and refugees.
3.) Pageants reflect an archaic and idealized version of feminine “beauty.”
I promised at the start of this I would be brutally honest and transparent, and I’m keeping my word. So, in short, the answer to this question is yes. There’s no denying that pageants to a certain extent judge your appearance. I’m willing to even admit I’m included in perpetuating that stereotype. When I compete from head to toe I am “pageant ready” which includes teased, curled hair with way too much hairspray, a full face of stage makeup, french tips and a fake tan. Do I need to do any of this to be “beautiful?” No. But do I do it to “fit the mold” and make myself as competitive as I can be in pageants? Yes. Further, the elephant in the room is that this picture of the “stereotypical pageant girl” historically has been white. It’s no secret that diversity amongst candidates is not where it should be, and frankly, is not reflective of the diversity that exists within this country. This of course is problematic as the competitions are intended to create a spokesperson for all of America, but when for several consecutive years the winner is a thin, fair skinned, blonde haired, blue eyed girl, that’s not inclusive. That’s not diverse. With all of that being said, however, there are efforts being made to change this. In recent years we’ve seen an influx of candidates of different races, ethnicities and sexual orientations, including the first ever openly lesbian titleholder, Miss Missouri 2016, Erin O’Flaherty. Just this past year history was made as for the first time ever Miss America, Miss USA and Miss Teen USA were all black women, two of which who wore their natural hair for competition.
4.) Pageant girls are catty and bitchy.
False. I’ve already made it clear I have no problem calling out the flaws in pageantry, but this is genuinely not one of them. Sure, out of hundreds of girls I’ve met throughout these experiences there might be one or two that were less than friendly. The reality is that’s people in general, not every single person you meet is going to be a ray of sunshine. I’ll give those select few the benefit of the doubt and say perhaps the exhaustion and stress of the competition got to them. However, overwhelmingly the women I have met through pageants are incredible. In addition to being articulate, talented, and immensely accomplished as individuals, they are some of the most uplifting, inspirational and intentional women I have ever met. Win or lose the outpouring of love and support I have both experienced and witnessed is something to be noted.
5.) You can’t compete in pageants and also be a feminist.
False. Now let me just say I am, and always have been, unapologetically myself, pageant girl and all. But being a feminist does not stand in the way of being able to do that, it actually allows me to do that. I understand there are many interpretations of feminism, but the way I personally define it is that a woman should have the access and ability to do what she wants, and to make that choice for herself. So whether it’s parading across a stage in a cocktail dress and six inch heels, or defending my intellect and character as a feminist, I’m not apologizing to anyone for liking what I like and being who I am. Further, why should I even have to? When a man enters a body building or fitness competition- which is judged solely on his body and physical ability which is not the case in pageants- he’s not questioned. So why am I?
After several years off I have just recently returned to the pageant scene, and competed for a title that would allow me to compete at the state level. I won. Ironically, one of my questions in my private interview was about the feminist critique of pageantry and the negative stereotypes and connotations associated with it. In part thanks to this blog, boy was I ready for that one.