• Isabelle Osborne

Are beauty pageants liberating or oppressive?

A beauty pageant or beauty contest is a competition that has traditionally focused on judging and ranking the physical attributes of the contestants. In recent years, most contests have evolved to also incorporate personality traits, intelligence, talent and a charity element that requires contestants to raise money for a cause.

Despite enduring the challenge of time and surviving since the 1800s, these pageants are worthy of debate. This article poses the question: are beauty pageants liberating for the individual, or reinforce a culture of oppression against women?


Adolescence is possibly the most difficult time for a young woman, especially in the age of social media. Many believe beauty pageants fail to assist in reducing young girls' belief that beauty is attached to their bodies. Beauty pageants reinforce the idea that girls and women should place value primarily on their physical appearance, placing unimaginable pressure on contestants to conform to a conventional, societal beauty standard. This encourages them to spend time and money on their appearance - fashion, cosmetics, hair styling, and, in some cases, cosmetic surgery. Such doesn't just affect contestants, but spills into the insecurities of the female observer who watch these pageants and believe the women taking part are of a body image that is worthy of attaining. Idealising a certain type of figure is toxic, and increases a societal anxiety that beauty is defined by slimness, curves, large breasts and a thigh gap. This can be degrading for a girl or woman who doesn't fit this particular image.

If women believe 'beauty' is found in those bodies that are slim as a result of observing or participating in beauty pageants, they are more likely to endure unhealthy physical and dietry habits. The beauty ideal that pageants promote is subsequently abused by commercial products or services that can be further damaging to a woman's body image. Society plays into and consequently profits from the beauty ideal encouraged by beauty pageants. Chloe Ting, a fitness YouTuber, creates work-out videos that promotes body health. However, by promoting 'Slim Thigh', 'Hourglass' and 'Flat Tummy' challenges, Ting is playing into the insecurities of the young girl and woman that to be considered healthy is to have a certain type of figure, and this can be severely damaging.

By focusing on the female body, beauty pageants sexualise the body, and instils in girls the damaging sexism that women are products to be observed and used from a very young age. In a BBC Culture article, actress Minnie Driver claimed "If we are to value girls and women more – to give them the same opportunities and pay as their male counterparts – we have to stop representing them as objects.” Pageant culture is not helping to reduce the sexist stigma attached to the female body.

After interviewing Donald Trump, the former owner of the Miss USA Pageant, prior to his role as President of the USA, journalist Emily Maitlis claimed in her book Airhead that contestants are 'demanded...to walk the line somewhere between virginal baby and sassy chick - a sort of fairy that sits at the top of the Christmas tree but can never be touched.'

It is clear that the image of the beauty pageant contestant is surrounded by a toxic belief that the female body can be objectified, and has been used for financial gain by people such as Trump who focus on the TV ratings rather than the effect such a competition has on a young woman. An article in the Economist claimed Uganda 'organised a "Miss Curvy" beauty contest to entice foreign tourists', which suggests that the female body is used for the financial gain of larger corporations.

The financial concerns of the beauty pageant not only effects the owners, but the contestants too. pageants are a huge financial investment: not only do you have to pay to register and enter each pageant (typically hundreds of dollars/pounds), contestants must also travel to pageants all over the country, purchase tens of thousands of dollars worth of outfits, makeup, and other things just to have a chance to win. This gives off the impression that pageants are only accessible to those who have the financial backing to be able to pay for entry, and so aren't an opportunity for everyone.

However, the face of beauty pageants has evolved in recent years. Beauty pageants for plus-size women are increasing in popularity. In 2018, more than four times the number of women applied to take part in the national Miss British Beauty Curve contest in comparison to when it launched in 2012, which stipulates contestants must be at least a UK dress size 14 to take part. This suggests the perception of 'beauty' is shifting, and society is accepting many body-types as beautiful, rather than restricting the definition to slim models. The fact that more 'plus-sized' women are taking part also highlights that the perception women have of themselves is changing. This subsequently leads to an increase in body confidence, and reduces the stereotype of beauty as being reflected in a certain type of body.

What is more, recent pageants have changed to ensure winning is not about beauty alone. In the Miss USA competition, competitors have to prove they can speak in public and communicate to an audience. One of the ways this is carried out is by asking questions on typically challenging topics, which the competitors have 30 seconds to formulate answers to. Questions in previous years have included "what is the largest contributing factor to the high rate of gun violence in our nation?", "Do you believe that the incarcerated should be allowed to participate in our elections?", and "America is one of the most racially diverse countries in the world, yet it is also one of the most racially divided. Why do you think this is?". In addition, many pageants also involve a charity element, meaning competitors have to prove evidence of charitable work prior to the contest and must continue to support their community during the process. This highlights how pageants have become more than simply focused on physical beauty, but reflect the individual intelligence, talent and conscientiousness of the competitors.


Is there a future for beauty pageants, or is the appetite for them changing? Driver claims “I would like to believe that an evolutionary path exists where women and the perceived ranking of their beauty ceases to exist...[and] where beauty pageants are turned into educational tournaments."