Cosmopolitan (South Africa) - - CONTENTS -

Yes Danielle Bowler Writer Twit­ter: @DanielleBowler In­sta­gram: @dan­ni­bowler

When I was a child, I sat on the loor, every year, my face lit by the re lec­tion of the TV screen. It was my favourite time of year: watch­ing Miss South Africa.

As years went by, I con­tin­ued to view the an­nual beauty pageant, my ex­cite­ment co­ex­ist­ing with an un­fa­mil­iar feel­ing in my body. I had started to com­pare my­self to the women on the screen, not­ing the ab­sences and re­quire­ments: hair cas­cad­ing in waves, bel­lies flat, bod­ies ap­pear­ing ‘per­fect’. I be­came aware of how I didn’t mea­sure up.

Main­stream pageants are built on ex­clu­sion. When we think about them, we of­ten ig­nore the cis­gen­dered and sexed na­ture of the dis­cus­sion. They in­clude com­pe­ti­tions like Mr South Africa – which can rep­re­sent dam­ag­ing, ex­clu­sive ideals of mas­culin­ity – and queer pageants that have arisen out of a need for com­mu­nity and in­clu­sion but that wres­tle with their own ex­clu­sions and trans­mis­sions of ‘ideal’ ways to be.

Main­stream pageants say to women and femmes that the ideal is to be thin, tall, light-skinned, able-bod­ied and vir­ginal. Pageants did not in­vent these beauty ideals; they are re­flected to us through run­ways, movies and at­ti­tudes. But pageants cap­i­talise on the struc­tural ar­chi­tec­ture of the world we live in to a height­ened ex­treme.

There have been shifts in main­stream pageants. These in­clude more black and brown women wear­ing their nat­u­ral hair on stage. Still, not enough has been changed within the struc­ture of the com­pe­ti­tion and the bar­ri­ers to en­try. Main­stream pageants are profit-mak­ing and thus ex­pen­sive to par­tic­i­pate in, mak­ing class an­other site of ex­clu­sion. As Gugulethu Mh­lungu ar­gues, cri­tiquing these spa­ces must not be about ‘vil­i­fy­ing the women who par­tic­i­pate in them’. Rather, our cri­tique must be aimed at struc­tures that up­hold this kind of pageantry and con­trib­ute to the nar­row ideals of be­ing.

Sys­temic change is re­quired if we are to move to­wards a bound­ary-less per­cep­tion of beauty and worth. I still watch main­stream pageants, scream­ing as Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters is crowned Miss Uni­verse. I revel in the drama and ex­trav­a­ganza of them. But there’s a greater aware­ness that’s re­placed the un­fa­mil­iar feel­ing I used to have as a child. I know now that beauty is much more vast than its on-screen re­flec­tion, stretch­ing far be­yond sin­gu­lar ideals and ges­tur­ing to­wards in­fi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing.

No Margaret Gar­diner Jour­nal­ist; irst South African to win Miss Uni­verse (1978) Twit­ter: @Mar­garetGGG In­sta­gram: @mar­garet_­gar­diner

In any com­pe­ti­tion, peo­ple take a nat­u­ral ap­ti­tude, hone and per­fect it, then work hard to achieve recog­ni­tion for

it. It’s a widely ac­cepted way of nav­i­gat­ing life. But when it comes to phys­i­cal­ity, this con­cept is den­i­grated.

In every area of life, we open our­selves up to judg­ment. But it seems that if it’s in the form of a pageant, we pre­sume it’s ex­ploita­tive. No doubt there are some pageants that are ex­ploita­tive – but there are board­room con­ver­sa­tions and sales ne­go­ti­a­tions that are, too.

Com­pet­ing in a pageant seems to come with the caveat that you’re stupid. Why do we still say ‘She’s beau­ti­ful and smart’, like one can­cels out the other? That’s a de­struc­tive as­sump­tion – and it’s wrong.

For many, call­ing pageants BS stems from an un­con­scious bias so­ci­ety teaches us to have against beau­ti­ful women (or women in gen­eral). It’s the same bias that tells us you can’t be beau­ti­ful and clever, or that women can’t wear a bikini and be taken se­ri­ously in busi­ness. It’s a big part of why women are still paid less than men and hold fewer po­si­tions of power, and why men and women of equal abil­ity and proven suc­cess do not get pro­moted at an equal rate. Now that’s BS. Men and women have been branded with dif­fer­ent traits and ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Yet many of the things girls are sup­posed to suck at – en­gi­neer­ing, science, maths – have been proved to be un­true. You know what else is un­true? That you can’t com­pete in a pageant and also be smart, am­bi­tious and a fem­i­nist. You have to ask your­self the ques­tion: if some­one of­fered you US$100000, first-class travel around the world, an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a plat­form for any­thing you be­lieve in and a chance to meet with global in­dus­try lead­ers, would you take it? The price? Walk­ing across a stage in a swim­suit. Smil­ing (a lot). Talk­ing pas­sion­ately about causes you be­lieve in. A lot of hard work and train­ing to get there – just like an ath­lete or some­one try­ing to pass a course they’re study­ing. It’s hard to deny it’s an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity, and say it’s any less worth­while than train­ing for a sports event.

Com­pet­ing in a pageant can help you start a busi­ness or pur­sue a pas­sion. It gives you a plat­form, con­nec­tions and celebrity to har­ness for your fu­ture. Many Miss Uni­verse and Miss South Africa win­ners have gone on to build im­pres­sive busi­nesses, cham­pion wor­thy causes and make a dif­fer­ence in the world – even if they did start out in a bikini… ■

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