Review of the Issue of Beauty Pageants

Beauty pageants should be banned because it gives society an unrealistic image of beauty, it impacts people’s physical health as they strive to achieve a ‘perfect’ body, and it objectifies young girls when they are portrayed as sexually appealing to the world. According to History Channel, the first ever beauty pageant thought to have taken place was on 19 September 1888 in Spa, Belgian, from a local newspaper advertisement seeking for “the most beautiful girl on the planet”. In the olden days, beauty pageants started out as a form of entertainment where participants were judged by artists and philosophers. Even in royal families of the Ottoman Empire, the leaders would humour themselves by having to pick the most gorgeous wife. The perception of beauty has definitely changed over the years, for both men and women. From slender figures, to being desirably plump, to being curvy and having an edge of muscularity.

Modern beauty pageants instil an image in many young girls and boys of what is considered beautiful in our society. When girls strive to achieve an unrealistic body, they have what is known as “The Princess Syndrome”, a fairy tale that influences young girls to dream of having a perfect, thin and beautiful body (Cartwright). They may starve themselves, restrict themselves from eating foods they enjoy, or go through unhealthy diets they found on the Internet for ‘fastest way to lose weight’. They may take it to the extremity by only consuming a daily intake of less than 1000 calories per day, when the recommended minimal intake is an average of 1,600 calories for women and 2,000 for men (Coleman). The media plays a strong influence in younger generations, young girls start to see thinner figures as the more ideal body types because that is what the media promotes. This is more common in Western countries as compared to places that are less exposed to the Western ideal figures (Petre). When teenagers start to focus too much on their physical appearance and continue to have a strong dissatisfaction with their bodies, their self-esteem would gradually get lower. This could accumulate to depression, mental issues such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and eating disorders in many teenagers, and issues with self-esteem could linger on in their adulthood. A common yet lesser-known eating disorder is Orthorexia Nervosa, with reference to the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), it involves extreme exercising and obsessing over ‘healthy foods’, to achieve a lean and physically healthy body, and such bodies can be seen a lot in popular international beauty pageants such as the big four – Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International and Miss Earth.

In the process of preparing for a pageant or even a fitness competition, participants may face severe physical impacts on their bodies. These impacts may be more severe for bodybuilders who participate in fitness competitions, where they stand on stage almost naked in bikinis and boxers, yet covered from head to toe in spray tan. They flex their muscularity while being accessed by judges for muscle definition, balance, symmetry and stage presence (Bell). Using fitness competitions as an example, participants go through months of extensive weight or cardio training, combined with strict clean diets, to achieve their desired amount of fat loss and muscle gain or retention. Nardia Norman, an author, educator and Australian Personal Trainer of the Year, has 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and community. Anybody from any background can choose to participate in a pageant or fitness competition, but their decisions involving what they put their bodies through may affect and cause harm on their overall mental and physical health. “We’re seeing the wrong type of woman get on stage,” Norman says. “And it's contributing to an increase in body dysmorphia, disordered eating and self-esteem issues. These women [slightly overweight, sedentary] are suffering from low self-esteem and see it [fitness competitions] as a way of getting external validation.” Norman initially weighed at 75 kilograms but after 17 weeks of rigorous training, she walked proudly on stage at 53 kilograms. After which, she did another three shows in the same year. When the shows were over, her weight drastically bounced back to 75 kilograms. To add on, she suffered from mercury toxicity due to consuming a lot of tinned fish in her diet, she had lost her period and was suffering from depression (White). It took her a whole two years to fully gain back all her health and recovery may vary for every participant, regardless if they are a beauty pageant or fitness show participant.

Even with the physical challenges participants face, they face other issues that are beyond their control. Beauty pageants sexualises women, and social media only amplifies this problem. According to the American Psychological Association, sexualisation invokes a feeling that “a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics.” This controversy peaked in 2011, when French Vogue released a magazine showing 10-year-old model, Thylane Blondeau, wearing a full face of make-up and being seated seductively on leopard print bed covers. Another tragic incident occurred in 1966 when a six-year-old pageant participant, JonBenét Ramsey, was murdered by Gary Olivia, 54 and a convicted paedophile, who claims that it was an accident (McDonell-Parry). People start to question, ‘how young is too young?’ For child pageants, the parents are in control and it is their choice to put their children up on stage to the world. This could affect their children’s childhood, as they are being shuffled on stage instead of having playtime with their friends at the park. They would also grow up accustomed to people making decisions for them such as what they should wear and say. In 2005, an online survey was conducted in United Kingdom that showed the results of 63 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 years are more motivated to have a modelling career rather than careers like doctors and teachers (Datta). This just shows how beauty pageants have shaped the younger generations’ thinking into believing that appearance is more valuable and admirable than education. In Singapore, the age range allowed to participate in beauty pageants is 18 to 27. Hence, the targeted audience would be anywhere from 14 and above, attracting younger minds which are also easier to influence.

In a Straits Time article, the deputy editor of The New Paper said, “The competition is not just about picking the most beautiful contestant, but about finding someone who can represent the country with confidence and pride.” However, this quote is contradicting as it can be questioned why physical attributes even matter in finding a citizen to be an ambassador for Singapore, by having girls to fit under their physical requirements. There is the argument that beauty pageants are inspiring and empowering women. It is true to a certain extent, but its positive impact is greatly limited due to the lack of diversity and celebration of different body types as beauty standards are changing and evolving. If the objectives of beauty pageants want to remain empowering and inspiring as well, it needs to adapt with the changing and diverse ideals of beauty. 

16 December 2021
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