Note: I recently made a comment about the Miss Universe Pageant on Facebook. It was met with many passionate reactions. Therefore, I felt the desire to blog. Much of this is taken from a research paper I wrote (I cut out bits and pieces and add my 22 year old self in a bit at the end) in my first English class at Fordham University. To this day, it is one of the papers of which I am most proud, though it may cause some controversy.
An Illusion of Perfection
What American, has not, at some point in their lives, tuned into the annual Miss America Pageant? It is a pop culture phenomenon.The First Miss America Pageant was held in 1921. It ingrained in Americans the notion of an “ideal” woman. What these early pageant judges considered the “ideal woman” to be, however, is quite alarming. The first pageant winners were chosen for their sweet, innocent demeanor and their apparent non-threat to masculine superiority. Young women with high aspirations and a desire to be in the spotlight were overlooked for shy, quiet types who wanted nothing more than to be a mother and housewife. The first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, was chosen over more professional and sophisticated contestants who were favored by the public to win. Samuel Gompers said of Gorman, “she represents the type of womanhood America needs, strong, red-blooded, able to shoulder the responsibilities of homemaking and motherhood. It is in her type that the hope of the country rests” (Martin and Watson 35). Now, some may argue that the pageant has since changed and it no longer reflects these sexist ideals. Yet, if we stop and think about it, I will gladly bet that the majority of us do not know whom the current Miss America is or what she is doing. Most of these women fade into oblivion after they have had their shining moment on stage at the pageant’s end.
The Miss Americas of today are very much like those of the 1920s, as they spend very little time in the limelight and are almost always never heard from again after their year of duty. Yet, the Miss America pageant has evolved into other similar pageants like the Miss USA Pageant, Miss Teen USA Pageant, Miss Universe Pageant, Mrs. America Pageant, and various children’s beauty pageants. Jill Filipovic asks: “In 2007, when women are attending college and graduate school in record numbers, when the first female Speaker of the House is in power, and when women have unprecedented access to almost all professional fields, why are we still playing dress-up for money?” (Filipovic 1) More importantly, why do people watch this show that so greatly demeans women?
Perhaps, some of us like watching beauty pageants because they continue to have some comical moments in the media and in the news. Take, for example, when Miss Teen South Carolina flubbed her response to a geography question during the 2007 pageant. Clips of the made- up blond teenager messing up her answer became favorites on You Tube. To make things even better, Miss South Carolina was third runner up in the competition (Chicago Tribune 1). We got a kick out of it when current Miss USA, Tara Conner, almost lost her crown for alleged drug use and kissing Miss Teen USA, Katie Blair (TMZ 1). We especially relished in the debate that would occur between pageant-owner Donald Trump and famous talk-show host, Rosie O’Donnell. And one cannot deny that even Trump himself did not eat up the attention this controversy brought to the pageant. With all that is going on in the world, it is amazing that these things even make it to the headlines.
Beauty pageants are also mocked in the movies. The blockbuster hit Miss Congeniality does a perfect job of that. The plot centers around Sandra Bullock, who plays an FBI agent that gets roped into competing in the Miss America pageant. Watching Bullock’s annoyed expressions while she is being made-up for the pageant makes us roar with laughter. She continuously gets caught hiding food in her dress, as the movie portrays most of the other contestants as women whom starve themselves. Her talent of banging wine glasses while dressed in a Heidi costume makes a total mockery of the talent portion of the Miss America Pageant, suggesting that the contestants have no real talent. While watching the movie, we can sit back and laugh. Yet, the subject matter really is not funny. Though the movie is certainly an exaggeration, there is truth to the fact that many women go through great pain in order look beautiful by society’s standards.
Great changes have been made in the standards of feminine beauty. There has been a continuous increase in average height and decrease in average weight of Miss America contestants throughout the years. Today’s image of the “ideal” woman emphasizes a tall, slender body, with trim hips (Mazar 281). This has been met with a corresponding increase in the incidences of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in women. Today, the average Miss America contestant is 66.5 inches tall and weighs about 120 pounds. Yet, the ideal weight range for women who are 67 inches tall is between 133-147 pounds (Mazar 297). Therefore, the body image that the Miss America pageant projects as being “ideal” is actually unhealthy. The fact that millions of young girls strive to attain this type of figure is alarming. Besides an increase in the occurrence of eating disorders, there has also been a significant increase in the number of breast, thigh, and hip reductions since the late 1970s (Mazar 301). Why should women feel the need to alter their bodies in this way? In my opinion, women of all different shapes and sizes can be representative of the American ideal. Our ideal should not be someone chosen for how they look in a bathing suit, but rather for their character, strength, and their overall success in life. Now one may argue that beauty pageant winners are not chosen solely for their looks. Perhaps, this is correct, but looks do play a huge part in the competition. If they did not, a bathing suit and an evening gown competition would not need to be included in the pageant.
Another sad fact is that lots of children live their life preparing for pageants like Miss America. Many teenagers are pageant veterans by their senior year of high school (Martin and Watson 132). The problem with this is that these children often grow up believing that power and happiness come with subservience to pageant rules and a face caked with make-up. “A little girl pretending with make-up may seem relatively harmless; however, as institutionalized through pageantry, one senses a more overt training in submission to patriarchal power” (Martin and Watson 132). These young girls exploited and put under large amounts of stress. Many are the daughters of over-bearing mothers who are trying to live out their own failed ambitions through their children. They feel an enormous amount of pressure to please not only the panels of judges observing them at pageants, but their families as well.
To conclude in the voice of my 2011 self. Miss America is crowned each year. They sing to her “Here She is Miss America, Here She is, Our Ideal.” Yet, every year “our ideal” is chosen by how she looks in a bathing suit and evening gown, how gracefully she walks. She also always looks the same. Tall, skinny, big chested. 5’8. 120 pounds. Everyday we tell young girls this is their ideal, then we wonder why according to the National Eating Disorders Association, 10 million women in the United States suffer from an eating disorder. If this does not startle you, keep in mind that anorexia nervosa has a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness. It is estimated that eighty percent of American women have expressed deep satisfaction with their bodies. Yet, why?
Maybe its time we start to develop a different “ideal?”
How about Dorothy Day who, along with Peter Maurin, started the Catholic Worker movement, giving her life to assisting the poor and often forgotten?
How about the courageous policemen and firefighters who risked their lives for others are 9/11?
How about Rachel Lloyd, who started GEMS- an organization that rescues shelters young girls caught up in prostitution, providing them with love and helping them redirect their lives? Watch the documentary “Very Young Girls” – you’ll see why she’s one of “our ideal.”
How about Sister Helen Prejean- who ministered to and had compassion for prisoners on death row?
What about the visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program this year, a lawyer who defended women sentenced to be stoned to death?
What about women politicians who have overcome the obstacles of being a woman in a patriarchal society to achieve so much and inspire girls that they can do whatever they set their mind to- Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonya Sotomayor (the list goes on and its bi-partisan!)?
These are just some of the examples of people who resemble “our ideal.” There are plenty more. And they did not get on this list by parading around in a bathing suit.