Editor’s note: 19-year-old Julie Zeilinger is currently an undergraduate at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the founder and editor of FBomb, which calls itself a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard, and the author of "A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word.”
Normally, I don’t pay attention to beauty pageants. But when news of Jenna Talackova, the transgendered Canadian contestant who was kicked out of (then invited back to) the Miss Universe pageant, broke, it seemed like a shift might be occurring. In fact, the most recent Miss USA winner, Olivia Culpo, offered her own support for transgender contestants when asked if it would be fair for a transgender woman to win the pageant.
But here’s my question: Is allowing transgendered contestants to compete in an event that still promotes such a narrowly defined standard of beauty really progress? Beyond supporting anybody’s right to enter these pageants, I have to wonder why, on a basic level, these pageants still exist at all.
Beauty pageants began in the 1880s, before women even had the right to vote. In that context, beauty pageants made sense as one of the very few ways a woman could achieve any type of autonomy or empowerment.
Women had so few other ways to achieve political or social independence that it’s no wonder they would seize any opportunity to do so. For example, Bess Myerson, the 1945 winner (and first Jewish winner) of the Miss America Pageant, leveraged her pageant success into careers as a TV news correspondent and candidate for U.S. Senate. What are the odds she would have achieved those goals without her Miss America crown? At that time, honestly, not great.
So why do women continue to willingly submit themselves to judgment based on their beauty today, when so many women have worked so hard throughout the years to make those end results possible to achieve via other means?
Sure, I’ve heard the arguments in favor of these contests that blatantly objectify women, like that they boost “self-esteem.” But what is that self-esteem based on: Pride in oneself as a full human being, or as someone who possesses immense beauty in a global society where beauty is valued above all else?
Another defense is that beauty pageants are scholarship-oriented and provide women with educational opportunities. That’s only true for some pageants, but it's not the case for pageants like Miss USA -- a “ Donald J. Trump and NBC Universal joint venture." The Miss America Organization is not-for-profit.
To ignore the inherent capitalism present in these pageants -- no matter what scholarships they offer -- is to ignore the real point of these pageants. Pageants are about money the same way that our society’s standards of beauty are about money. The beauty industry makes billions of dollars a year by reinforcing the idea that women aren’t attractive enough, in hopes they continue to buy products to help them become more attractive.
Pageants may package themselves as a beneficial experience for their participants, but, ultimately, they feed into a much greater, much more destructive cultural framework that cyclically works to dehumanize women and to reinforce an unattainable standard of beauty in the name of profit.
However, as a feminist, I ultimately believe in choice. I believe that women -- and this includes all self-identifying women -- should have the option to participate in pageants. I don’t want to vilify the women who participate in these events, as I don’t think a desire to participate in these pageants makes anybody a bad person (although, I will say maybe some of them should brush up on their cultural references).
Pageants are a cog in the machine of a society that objectifies women’s bodies and undervalues their minds. Getting rid of pageants alone won’t solve that problem: It’ll take a lot more work than that.