The contradiction of the pageant world

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I CONTEMPLATED for a while whether or not I should focus this week’s column on pageants, given the ones that were recently concluded.For one thing, I try to focus on issues that are personally important, and which I feel deserve to be addressed. So I had to sell myself on the idea of writing on pageants, because my ideas about pageants can often be very contradictory.

On one hand, I see pageants as patriarchal institutions meant to oppress women, and I think they should be done away with; but me trying to impose my views that pageants should be banned can, in turn, be oppressive to women who willingly enter. Is that not so?

On the other hand, I see pageants as possibly being an avenue to gain self-confidence and exposure. I also believe that, with much work, pageants can become good things.

This contradictory belief system about pageants, I believe, comes partly from my very short experience with them. When I was 14, I signed up for a local pageant, because I felt like I needed to prove something to myself due to the image issues I had, and in some aspects still possess. So when I won, I felt better about myself, never really thinking about the implications that came with the win; because, aside from being only 14, I grew up in a culture that taught me it was perfectly okay to judge a woman on nothing other than her aesthetics.

Even as I look back now, knowing all that I do, I still cannot overlook the part that that one pageant played in bolstering my self-confidence; and while I know not everyone enters a pageant to prove something to themselves, I feel that the majority of them do. And this can be a dangerous thing, because what if they don’t win? Do they go through life wondering if they are good enough?

Maybe if pageants weren’t so beauty-centred, I’d have less of a problem with them, because while there are segments such as talent, personality and questions, these segments too often appear to be there merely to quell public opinion that looks are all that matters. Because often when they want someone smart, they don’t want them too smart.

We really don’t want contestants going past the generic answers about world peace. Now, do we? There are some who would say that pageants in Guyana are not so bad in that regard. However, I remember going to a Miss Earth Coronation in 2014 and hearing one of the organizers say that as long as their queen was beautiful, they were good; because brains can always come after. I don’t think I have ever heard anything so shallow before; and unfortunately, that is a belief that is embedded within the world of pageantry, because those were the ideals with which pageants began.

It should be noted that pageants, as we know them today, were inspired in 1854 in part by P.T. Barnum, who hosted several contests for dogs, flowers and babies. However, when he attempted to have contests for women, many scorned the idea, as they believed it to be degrading; and, in several aspects, it was and still is.

In 1921, however, there was the “Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest”, which was more of a tourist attraction than a celebration of women; showing once again how women have, through the centuries, been commoditized. Unsurprisingly, this event was what formed modern day pageants.

One of the funniest reactions to pageants I believe happened in the year 1971 at the Miss World Pageant. Bob Hope had rotten tomatoes and flour bombs thrown at him by feminists who likened pageants to nothing more than a market in which women were the items being sold. That premise isn’t very far from the truth, as, while we can argue about pageants being simply an individual choice, there is no doubt that mainstream pageantry has had lasting effects on not only the women who participated, but women in general. It sells the idea that it is acceptable to measure a woman’s worth in terms of appearance, making it easier for us to be disrespected if we cannot fit a specific mould.

So, are pageants really meant to be a celebration of beauty, or are they manifestations of sexism? I know of several women who feel empowered by pageants, and several women who feel oppressed by them. As it is now, though, I do not know whether I can buy into the empowerment argument regarding pageantry. And while I agree that self-empowerment comes in many forms, pageants started out as a manifestation of sexism and, over the years, in order to justify the continuance of this practice, it began selling itself as one of empowerment.

I do think, however, that with a lot of work in terms of inclusivity, pageants can become platforms for women’s rights and empowerment; because, as it stands now, we’ll continue having generations of women whose image issues will see them going through life thinking they are not good enough.

More of Akola Thompson’s work can be found on her website akolathompson.com. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to send them to akolathompson@hotmail.com.