Manila, Philippines: 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.
Rewarding women for being beautiful
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.
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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.
Imposing an unachievable 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. When I think about it, none of these concerns vital statistics.
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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.
Towards true women empowerment
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, I’m sure our world will be a much, much better place.#