A Feminist Perspective on Beauty Pageants (including Miss Universe)

A Feminist Perspective on Beauty Pageants (including Miss Universe)
Meg Yarcia
Written by Meg Yarcia

I can name three things many Filipinos are extraordinarily passionate about: Basketball, karaoke, and Miss Universe. Today I’ll tell you a story about the third.

When I was eight, the Philippines hosted this worldwide pageant. Back then, my family lived 12 hours away from Manila, in a province where it’s common to meet carabaos being herded home, and where crickets can be heard at night. And yet on the day of the coronation, there we were: Huddled around the television with our neighbors, rooting for our candidate to be called the most beautiful girl on the planet.

Halfway through, our old black and white TV refused to churn out any more sound. So, one of the men ran to their house next door for the radio, where the pageant was also being broadcast live. We all shouted for joy; we can watch it after all!

We didn’t win that year nor within the next two decades, but I know that year after year, many households tuned in to the pageant filled with hope. Finally, three weeks ago, our bet Pia Wurtzbach was hailed Miss Universe 2015. Filipinos here and abroad, including myself, were ecstatic. But my New Year’s resolution is to be a better feminist, so here I am, ready to enter that difficult conversation about pageants, while the rest of my countrymen eagerly await her return.

No skill, just pure genetic luck.

First of all, what are we celebrating when we call a woman a beauty queen? Isn’t it to honor someone for what is largely the result of natural selection? “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments,” said Carrie Fisher recently, and she’s right. Yet that is exactly what we do in Miss Universe and in many other pageants: we reward women for being beautiful.

Related Post: The F Word: An Open Letter By a Feminist

In response to this criticism, some have said that beauty pageants have greatly evolved over the years, pointing to the opportunities they create for women to also showcase their intelligence (indeed there’s a Q&A portion), skills (there’s a talent show, too), and character (Miss Congeniality is a coveted award). When I see smart, talented, and friendly but obese women get accepted as candidates, maybe I will consider this argument.

A Feminist Perspective on Beauty Pageants (including Miss Universe)

The unachievable ‘gold’ standard of beauty.

Equally dangerous are the standards for beauty and femininity these pageants are propagating. The women must have perfect skin, and ideal height, waistline, breast size. They must be able to carry a gown and a two-piece swimsuit well. They must always have a smile on their face, even as they walk in four-inch heels.

But I have two young nieces and I would like to be able to tell them that they are beautiful – not because they are anything like the typical pageant candidates, but because they are full of zest for life. They are beautiful when they look so intent on accomplishing what they set their heart into, even when at this point it just involves wooden cubes. They are beautiful when they can confidently stand up to their peers, especially males who are socialized to think women are weak. They are beautiful when they show empathy to their playmates, and even to strangers – sometimes much to our chagrin as paranoid adults. So you see, none of these concerns vital statistics.

Related Post: ‘Ugly’ is in the Eye of the Beholder

Reflecting on my own admiration for our Miss Universe, I realize that much of what I like about her goes beyond physical beauty. I enjoy watching her in interviews because she laughs a lot, many times at her expense. She is always present, listening intently to the person she’s conversing with, and giving thoughtful, honest answers. I hope more people would see that that is what makes her truly beautiful.

Treated like a beauty trophy.

Finally, and I saved this for last because it is the most tricky argument, beauty pageants are a space where women get objectified and sexualized. They are told to line up and literally get scored based on how they look. They lose their name, and are assigned with a number, or the country they represent. They are paraded exactly like products at a fair.

Pageant apologists argue that this can be empowering for women, many of whom may be genuinely proud of their appearance. I am happy for them. But I say we should find more meaningful ways to empower women, because certainly the efforts and resources put into staging these competitions could be of better use.

Let’s build a society where women can walk with pride for how they look, without fear of getting harassed or raped. Let’s create an environment where the most important validation women will ever seek will come from themselves. Let’s present more opportunities for women to learn, and speak their mind about art, music, politics, science – everything under the sun. Let’s encourage them to lead their communities! If we can do this, our world will be a much, much better place.

How do you feel about Miss Universe and beauty pageants in general? Do you get embarrassed by them or do you enjoy watching them? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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About the author

Meg Yarcia

Meg Yarcia

Meg is a Manila-based activist with a Master’s Degree in Psychology from the University of the Philippines. She is a director at Sinag Microfunds, a non-profit that promotes access to education among disadvantaged Filipino youth, and a volunteer for People’s Solidarity and Education Tours, an organization that holds people’s exchange programs to promote international solidarity. Meg holds many years of experience as a communications specialist, researcher, and project manager for local and international organizations, in both development and corporate environments. She loves music, visual arts, and the written word, and is passionate for endeavors where these are used to improve the plight of the marginalized.


  • I agree with your thoughts. I’ve also heard that there’s such a huge, up front financial investment that the prize money normally doesn’t cover the costs of participation.

    It also seems that the beauty ideal is narrower in these pageants than it is in general. Everyone’s body type in the recent Miss Universe pageant was almost identical and I found that bizarre.

    Still, becoming a beauty queen can represent a way out of poverty and into relative freedom for women in highly patriarchal societies. I recommend the documentary, The World Before Her, about the Miss India pageant.

    In conclusion, the world is messy and patriarchy sucks.

    • Hi Leah, thank you for reading! Exactly, joining any of these pageants means coughing up a lot of money – from the training, to the clothes, to styling and makeup, etc.

      I agree; it can be one’s key to a better life. I just hope our society gives more opportunities to women so there’d be no need to enter pageants, if overcoming poverty is the goal.

      That said, I definitely agree with your conclusion!

      p.s. Thank you for the recommendation – now looking for that documentary! 🙂

    • Yes I agree with many of your points. Thanks also for the recommendation. I will be putting that on my “To Watch” list.

  • I hear you on some points however I’ve also had a very posotive effect with Miss Universe and feel that some countries are really setting the bar and changing the nature of these types of competitions.
    I entered for Miss Universe New Zealand this year because it was a huge step outside my comfort zone and I thought it would really challenge me as a person – I’m a short kiwi girl who’s got a Communications degree and is chasing some pretty big goals and dreams…and I’m definitely no supermodel. I was so petrified the night before the ‘bootcamp’ that I wanted to quit right there and then; I’m so glad I didn’t because I learned so much and gained an incredible amount of confidence through doing the camp. We were taught to be confident in our bodies, how to develop our public speaking, how to dance, walk etc. It was such an empowering experience with a group of girls all in the same boat as me.
    New Zealand is setting the way with the Miss Universe Paget – there’s no bikini section in their show because they maintain that there will never be a time in a girls life that she will have to parade on a stage in heels with just a bikini on (pretty sensible really).

    I do understand your points and am waiting for the day that a real ‘go getter’ girl wins over a genetically pretty girl, but I think the whole environment is already changing for the better.


    • Hello Nicky!

      I’m happy to hear from someone who’s joined one, and even happier that the experience was very positive for you!

      “We were taught to be confident in our bodies, how to develop our public speaking, how to dance, walk etc.” – that’s what I hope all the other pageants actually offer! In which case I’d love it if all existing pageants become leadership boot camp programs for women. Not such a bad idea, right? Pretty sure the male-oriented/dominated organizations behind them won’t agree, though. 🙂

      And yes, the sight of bikini-clad women in high heels should have no place in pageants.

      Just now I remembered the movie Little Miss Sunshine, and I hope that if pageants will continue to exist, contestants would be just like Olive: She simply looks at the pageant as a place where she can do her thing and celebrate her being.

      Anyway, I do hope more pageants would follow the Miss Universe New Zealand example!

      Thank you so much, Nicky, for dropping by and sharing your experience! 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing your story and I applaud you for doing something outside of your comfort zone and challenges you. I have no doubt at all that these sorts of activities can help boost confidence, empowerment and self-love. But I say the same for Toastmasters and other self-development courses that aren’t linked to white toothpaste smiles/layers of make-up/fake lashes/physical appearance. And while I understand that adult women make these choices, young women are watching with eyes wide open, impressionable, seeking external validation by emulating their older counterparts. The pressure to be perfect – physically and otherwise – is an issue for us women. I’m not convinced entirely that these pageants help solve that problem and still question whether it does more harm than good.

      • Hi Jennifer,
        I totally agree – I think I saw the bootcamp as an opportunity to add to the list of courses and personal development opportunities that I’ve already embarked on and feel that it was an experience for me rather than a competition. I couldn’t agree more that the way it’s depicted on television is horrendous, rehearsed and fake – and I do really hate the way that it idolizes ‘perfection’. In the same way I am hopeful that the small changes that countries like New Zealand are implementing will be adopted by other countries to ensure it becomes a more positive experience for all those involved.

        I’ve really enjoyed the thoughtful discussion on this topic – great work Meg!

  • I too competed in a national pageant just like Nicky (funnily enough it was Miss World New Zealand 2015 – go NZ!) and cannot agree more with Nicky.

    Before entering I could not talk to more than 5 people at once, had two left feet and was just your typical shy kiwi girl. During the experience I met life long friends – women who truly supported each other throughout the whole experience and were willing to share all of their wisdom with the newbies. We had sessions with a well known public speaking coach, learnt to talk to a camera, properly construct speeches, and conduct ourselves in interviews. In addition to this we had nutritionists, fitness coaches and lifestyle coaches talk about how to live a healthy and fulfilling life both in regards to pageant training and normal life.

    Miss World did not have a bikini section, but we had ‘beauty with a purpose’. That year our pageant sponsored a special needs school and raised a huge amount of money for them, one of the students who was in a wheel chair even competed on a completely equal level to all of us able bodied girls. I actually won the Beauty with a Purpose award, raising $10,000+ for the school myself – it was perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences.

    I learnt so much as a result of competing in Miss World NZ, made life long friends and grew as a person. One of my close friends went on to win the competition, gain her medical degree, set up a learning platform for school kids AND place in the top 15 of Miss World internationally all in the same year – she is the type of woman I aspire to be and the type of woman you see in pageants.

    • Hi Emma!

      Again, I am glad to hear from someone who has been through it, and I am really happy that it became an opportunity for self-discovery in your case.

      The way you and Nicky described national pageants in New Zealand though, the more I am convinced that the ones you hold in your beautiful country are not the typical beauty pageants I criticized in my piece. Also, that we need to turn pageants to leadership camps for women!

      Thank you, Emma, for sharing your experiences and your thoughts! Know that I and Jennifer, for sure, will be behind every venue for women to truly grow and find themselves in today’s world!

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