Shelley Bridgeman: The ugly side of beauty pageants

Shelley Bridgeman: The ugly side of beauty pageants

Being a beauty queen isn’t easy. It’s a cut-throat business and recent headlines reveal but a hint of the drama.

As explained in ‘Miss NZ may be stripped of her tiara’, the newly crowned South African-born Miss Universe NZ is not a New Zealander therefore is not eligible to hold the title. It seems the pageant director is blaming the judges for not heeding instructions that while the 22-year-old’s entry and so-called sponsorship fee of $3000 would allow her to participate, she would not be eligible to win the contest.

As Kiwis I think we may have a quiet affection for beauty pageants. And we can trace this soft spot all the way back to Lorraine Downes who represented New Zealand and won Miss Universe in 1983. For 12 months she was officially the most beautiful woman in the world and for a country still suffering from cultural cringe that probably mattered a lot.

It doubtless made a whole generation of New Zealand women realise that anything is possible, that it’s okay to dream. And then she married an All Black and we all should have hated her really but we couldn’t because she was just perfect.

Lorraine Downes singlehandedly turned an impossible dream turned into cold, hard reality – and we loved her for it.

Yet even she was ultimately unable to sanitise the ugliness that beauty contests represent. Their subtext is oppressive. Their mission is misogynistic. “Beauty pageants reinforce the idea that women are only of value according to their attractiveness,” says, an organisation that “challenges ‘sex object culture’ – the sexual objectification of women”.

In November last year Object, as part of The London Feminist Network, was involved in protesting at the London-based Miss World finals. It was just like the 70s when placard-waving protesters would picket and shout outside New Zealand venues hosting beauty contests, sending the very strong message that judging women based on their looks was a very bad thing.

So if they weren’t good then, you’d think they’d be equally offensive now, yet protesters at these beauty contests seem few and far between today. As far as I can tell, there’s barely a murmur of dissent – let alone a horde of angry demonstrators – when these women parade in order to be judged on their physical attributes as if they’re mere livestock at an A&P show.

Where exactly have all the feminists gone, you may ask. Well, they love blogging, that’s for sure. The writers at deliver minute analysis pertaining to women’s issues including bisexuality, beer advertisements and Hillary Clinton’s makeup while has recently considered housework, BDSM and the representation of women in the media. But with the advent of cutting-edge campaigns such as SlutWalk and Queer the Night marches, it seems that old-fashioned beauty contests are not the hot topic they once were.

What’s your view on beauty contests? Are they just a bit of harmless retro fun or are they entirely inappropriate? If it’s the latter then what’s happened to all the protesters and the dissenting feminist voices?

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