Same old

Raquel Rosario Sanchez
Monday, Sep 26, 2022

In August, the Miss Universe contest announced that it would expand its pool of eligible contestants to include married women and mothers at its next pageant in 2023, scrapping a 70-year-old rule barring them.

An internal memo announcing the policy change stated: “We all believe that women should have agency over their lives and that a human’s personal decisions should not be a barrier to their success.” The move was welcomed as a nod to inclusivity and a move away from sexist expectations.

Also in August, a Miss England contestant broke with that pageant’s history to become the first to compete barefaced. By ditching makeup, 20-year-old Melisa Raouf said she was “embracing blemishes and imperfections”. This is not the first time that women have tried to defy norms in pageants. Last year in the Miss Universe contest, Miss Bahrain Manar Nadeem Deyani refused to wear a bikini during the swimsuit competition, choosing instead to stay fully covered in a black outfit.

That’s all good, but here’s the harsh truth. Policy adjustments and small acts of rebellion from participants cannot obscure the fact that beauty pageants have become increasingly jarring and out of place in our modern age.

In order to be eligible for Miss Universe, the highest profile beauty pageant internationally, women applying in each country must be between 18 and 28 years old. Contestants are technically judged on three categories: an evening gown, a personality interview and a swimsuit competition. Yet the most important requirement, which is rarely acknowledged in writing nowadays, is that the women must be thin and stereotypically beautiful.

Their skin colour may vary, but amid all the changes and nods to inclusivity, there is still no room for wide noses, disabilities or stretch marks in beauty pageants.

Officially, the Miss Universe organisation would have us believe that beauty is not a requirement at all, let alone the basis of this money-generating enterprise, which earns $5m in annual revenue. It describes itself as a global, inclusive organisation “that celebrates all cultures, backgrounds and religion” and provides participants “with the tools to affect positive change personally, professionally, and philanthropically”.

In other words, a very noble-sounding mission.

Other beauty competitions take their cue from Miss Universe. The tagline for the Miss South Africa pageant, for instance, is similar: “Face your power. Embrace your future.” Nodding to the advancements women have made in society, beauty pageants are quick to remind us that contestants are professionals with careers and ambitions.

However, to watch a revolving door of women be judged based on how well they perform femininity and parade across a stage inevitably feels like stepping back into a distant past in which women were seen but rarely heard.

Excerpted: ‘Beauty pageants say they are changing – don’t believe them’. Courtesy: