To be a citizen of a country where beauty pageant culture is inculcated in youth, and then to admit to not being a fan of these contests would be seen as unpatriotic and sacrilegious. Yet here I am.
Somewhere between the ’90s, the decade where my adolescent years of annual summer sagala craze intersected with the hype over the 43rd Miss Universe pageant being held in the country, and the early ‘00s when I was becoming more aware as a young adult woman of the bullsh*t expectations heaped on my gender, I lost interest in ceremonial rituals that essentially parade girls and young women for the general public’s appraisal. It isn’t that I think less of those who join beauty pageants; I have nothing but mad respect for the guts and willpower it took for women to train then subject themselves to the judgment of total strangers. What I’m against is the celebrated system of judgment that co-opts female empowerment in the most dubious ways. It’s not the players I hate, it’s the game.
Beauty pageants are, in essence, the condensed version of all the contradictory demands society places on women, packed within a few months of pre-pageant prep and about three hours of pomp and ceremony on a stage. Look beautiful, but not intimidatingly beautiful! (Also, be the right kind of beautiful.) Be skinny, but maintain the right amount of muscle tone to remain aspirational! Push your boobs up, whittle down your waist, grow a butt, sharpen your clavicle! Smile! Always laugh at a man’s lame jokes even if it kills you! Be smart, but not scary smart! Present an eloquent solution to a decades-long international conflict within 30 seconds! Show your social conscience, but don’t be too radical or angry! Be a model of girl power, but only the right kind of girl power!
There’s no doubt in a woman’s capability to meet all these demands if she wants to, because we’ve been getting sh*t done even without getting credit for it throughout history. We’re raised knowing pain and fear deep in our guts, learning from our mothers and each other how to safely navigate a world that’s running on the fumes of toxic masculinity. But we’re also known to raise hell when we’ve been pushed too far, which is a limit men can only imagine. (See: the results of a clinical trial of an injectable hormone contraceptive for men.)
There’s no doubt, either, in the strength of a woman’s competitive spirit. Typical gendered upbringing makes it decidedly improper for a woman to be anything less than Kumbaya in spirit when fostering relationships especially at the workplace, but that ruthless, bossy, shadow self that will gun down for what she wants? Oh, it’s there alright; each of us simply requires our own specific targets to activate it. And it needs to be brought out more often without being frowned upon, because this censorial behavior is the root cause of the catty, passive-aggressive stereotype tacked onto women. Imagine how much more we can do when we’re allowed to do what we do best, with no regard if it’s unfeminine or unbecoming.
There’s nothing wrong with women pushing themselves to achieve perfection under an extreme deadline if that’s what they want to do. The question, though, is, in the beauty pageant business who benefits from and monetizes all their hard work?
Every title comes with its cache of prizes, on top of the crown, the sash, and the bragging rights; they rightfully go to the winners for everything they went through. Victory swag, however, is often laden with corporate sponsorship deals brokered by companies that are run mostly by men. Known misogynist and now-leader of a not-so-free world Donald Trump owned the Miss Universe organization until September of 2015, until he sold it to WME/IMG for an undisclosed amount of money. A quick Google search on who runs WME/IMG showed Ari Emanuel as its co-CEO—another white man. With beauty pageant culture very strong in Southeast Asia and Latin America, Miss Universe is guaranteed millions of viewers from all over the world, which translates to bajillions of ca$h money for the corporate suits involved in the production and distribution of the program. And let’s be real here: majority, if not all, of these suits are men, glass ceilings and all.
The one-year lease on a New York apartment, the personal trainer services, the jewelry, and all that a beauty queen earns? Those are peanuts compared to what these men make yearly from pitting women against women. Again, nothing wrong with being female and being competitive, but is it really girl power when it’s controlled within a structure that uses archaic standards for judging women and ultimately funnels money to men?
But what about the platform? The chance to raise awareness for important causes? Yes, it’s valuable, but again, it’s the woman hustling to get camera-ready and press-ready even as she looks for ways to help the cause of her choice. Whatever success she builds out of these endeavors would be forever linked to the beauty pageant organization. While she did all the work, in the public’s memory, she’ll always share the credit.
I mean, it’s very admirable of Jonas Gaffud to coach the country’s Miss Universe bets to become their pageant best at no cost, but as a woman, it’s frustrating that a gay man is known as the beauty queen-maker, the arbiter of what the “right Filipina” is for the crown.
And let’s not even get into the girls who flubbed onstage and were less than perfect for a few crucial moments. For all their preparation and intense training, they’re lucky if they’re able to “retire” to regular life without getting turned into a meme that’s dug up for ridicule in every pageant-related listicle for the foreseeable eternity.
I don’t begrudge women who find empowerment in fitting within the arbitrary beauty standards decreed by random organizations. For all the criticism they have to endure, their amazing will to push on and silence their detractors (and self-doubts) is something my lazy and contrary personality could never muster. They’re all queens in their own right, and I wish nothing but the best for them.
But I hope that in the near future, we foster a global culture where girls of younger generations would grow up knowing they’re more than enough as they are, where they’d feel free to have their life’s work speak for themselves instead of looking to others for validation. Where they’d instinctively know they hold the power within them.
Art by Yayie Motos