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… ■