If you read coverage, you’ll find that I had a positive experience overall. I also noted in my paper that my dieting/exercising/obsessing was probably more appropriate for someone competing on the national level – so my stress level was definitely more elevated than many other contestants.
I ended up not only blogging about the experience, but writing a 24 page paper on it. The paper was written in about two days… and the class was on the anthropology of consumerism, which explains why I focused on beauty as a commodity.
Here’s an excerpt, the conclusion, which has been edited for general blog-y consumption.
- A beauty pageant is actually a very democratic competition. Anyone can enter, as long as they cough up the entrance fee an pay for their wardrobe. Contestants are treated fairly and equally – we all wear numbers, receive the same gift bags, and sleep in the same dorm rooms. There are no height or weight requirements.
But the fact remains that there’s only one girl who gets the crown.
Some of the contestants are models. Many of the top 20 had done at least some modeling work in their lives, and the girl who eventually ended up winning, Davina Reeves, is signed to a modeling agency. But the vast majority were fairly normal girls. Many were short, heavy, plain, and did not have expensive dresses. Some were pretty, but not tall, slender, or striking enough to have careers as models. Some wanted to be actresses or astronauts, some ran businesses, many were students.
I was confused at first why so many of these girls were entering a pageant. It was an expensive and time-consuming task. Did they actually think they had a shot at the title?
One girl revealed that she had attended Barbizon modeling school (widely known to be, in strong words, a scam). She wore a cheap, simple dress from her prom: “I kept it since I knew I was going to use it for something special,” she said. She carried her modeling portfolio with her at all times in case the opportunity arose.
Talking to her, I felt something of a sadness and incredulity that while her optimism buoyed her, it also left her vulnerable to paying large sums of money so that she could play out a dead-end fantasy.
In interviews with contestants, some seemed to be inarticulate about their motivations for entering, what duties a winner had, and whether a pageant placed undue emphasis on appearance. While some contestants seemed calm and clear-headed about the experience – taking each portion for what it was – others focused on the duties of a beauty queen without concrete plans. This is a symptom more of the pageant itself – the USA system is not focused around community service and scholarship, and it would be unfair to expect contestants to have a well-formulated “platform” as the Miss America organization requires.
In the end, as one contestant commented, “As long as [the contestants] feel good about themselves, it’s more money for the pageant and it’s a good experience for them.” While preparing for a beauty pageant is a commodified experience in itself, the very act of entering a pageant and performing in one is another prepackaged fantasy.
With so many girls competing and only one title, the experience itself is the real thing that these girls seek. For one weekend, they treated precisely like Miss New York USA, among their ranks, is. For a few short minutes, they are able to walk down a runway, smile for the judges, and have their photo taken at the end of the runway (available for purchase later), just like every other contestant. They may not win the title, but they can befriend those who do.
Because of how similarly each contestant is treated and presented for the first two days of preliminaries, the pageant boosts their self-images and allows them feel on par with every other girl, as well as giving them a sense of accomplishment in having overcome insecurities of appearing on stage. Far from making these girls feel objectified – some could return only blank, nondescript answers when I asked them about objectification – it seemed to be a thrilling experience.
If we are to view this negatively, the aim of a beauty pageant has a similar objective as the beauty industry at large: to peddle the myth that if enough products are bought, if you curl your hair with the right iron, if you have the right dress and shoes and walk, that you, too, can be a beauty queen. Beauty then becomes a skill.
In the end, I am wary of comments that I should have placed, because part of me wonders if I had been similarly deluded into thinking that I could be a beauty queen.
Pageants are – and will continue to be – a pyramid scheme. For every beauty queen crowned, there are dozens and hundreds and thousands of hopefuls that empty their bank accounts for naught. Pageant preparation sells the message that buying the most beautiful dress and tanning your skin to the perfect shade will bring you another step close to the crown. And it’s a message, that to some degree, is true – having a better dress and having a tan does help a woman win that title. The standardization of the appearance and wardrobe of winning contestants works to perpetuate the idea that a crown can be “earned”. But ultimately, the most striking commodity in a pageant is how feeling like a beauty queen is an experience to be bought– by paying thousands of dollars to walk down a runway and strike a pose, contestants are paying to have the same experience as the winner.