Are Beauty Pageants about an Ideal or Diversity?: Thoughts on three recent pageant programs

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen almost every documentary, movie, or TV series about beauty pageants (well, at least those that appear in the English language). Want evidence? Click here.

In the past week I’ve seen three new documentaries/TV specials that raise some interesting questions about whether beauty pageants are about an ideal (“There she is, your ideal…”) or if they might actually be about diversity.

1) Miss You Can Do It–  Without a doubt one of the best documentaries I have seen in recent memory, particularly about children’s activities (it’s up there with Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom for me right now!). I would love this even if it wasn’t about pageants, and full disclosure I cried during almost all of its 74 minutes. The subject is an annual pageant held in Illinois started by Abbey Curran, who was Miss Iowa USA 2008. Curran also happens to have cerebral palsy and she was the first woman with a disability to compete in the Miss USA system (note that Heather Whitestone, Miss America 1995, was the first winner with a disability [hearing loss] and this year Miss Iowa America 2013 Nichole Kelly is missing part of her left arm– so the Miss America Program is no stranger to championing contestants with disabilities). Curran believed she needed to share her gifts and dreams with others, which led her to start the Miss You Can Do It Pageant ten years ago. When the pageant is held later this month, fifty young girls will compete for the title– but everyone will leave with a prize. As the documentary shows, every girl gets her hair and make-up done and gets the chance to feel special for the whole weekend, and while on stage. To see the transformation among these young people, and the positive impact it has on their families, is truly something. I can imagine this program turning into something like the Special Olympics, which focuses on sports for those with special needs. Thumbs up to both Miss You Can Do Its– the pageant and the documentary about it!

2) There She Is– This short documentary (less than 20 minutes and viewable in its entirety via the link provided) is another interesting contribution to pageant documentaries and makes you think about how we define beauty– particularly relevant this week in light of the Dustin Hoffman Tootsie clip that’s been making its way around the Internet. It focuses on two women competing in a plus-sized beauty pageant. In this case I actually wanted to know more about both women and the pageants themselves (Is there a minimum size or weight requirement? Does anyone try to get around this? Does it help to be bigger or smaller? What are the age limits for these events? How many of these women did more traditional pageants before?). I loved that the filmmakers followed up a year later, but I still had questions (Were the two women still friends? Do they recommend that other women like them do pageants? Do they think there should be plus-sized pageants for kids?). The short film raises more questions that it answers– particularly when one of the women talks about never going to the grocery store in sweats because she doesn’t want strangers to think she’s a slob– but it’s a good start.

3) Crown Chasers– Sadly, this show is getting the most press, even though it’s the least worthwhile contribution here. It’s on TLC and the show is basically a grown up version of Toddlers & Tiaras. Five women are featured (ranging in age from 30 to 52) as they compete in a Mrs. beauty pageant in Colorado. The women, predictably, behave poorly, fighting and swearing. One woman can barely go three sentences without breaking down into tears about menopause. They’re catty and not very fun, but this special was clearly a test run for a possible future series. I hope it doesn’t happen (note that I participated in a HuffPost Live segment with two of the crown chasers, around 14:45, and the women seem far more likeable in this format). While they emphasize that pageants give them a chance to retain some non-mom identities, as a new mom I know there are better ways than this to do so…

So between pageants for those with disabilities, those who are overweight, and those who are older, it seems as if pageantry isn’t just about a blonde, thin ideal. Actually this shouldn’t be tremendously surprising given that prisons often hold pageants for inmates and there has even been a Miss Holocaust pageant recently. And, let’s face it, the child beauty pageant contestant who is currently most well-known is Alana Thompson of Honey Boo Boo fame, and she doesn’t exactly conform to the norm of what a child beauty pageant contestant looks like either…

Increasingly we will see more diverse types of contestants, and contests. Case in point: This week in South Carolina Analouisa Valencia is one of 103(!) women vying for the title of Miss South Carolina, and ultimately Miss America 2014. Valencia stands out for two reasons: 1) She is openly gay, and 2) She is bilingual. Miss America has never had a national or state winner who was either.

Analouisa Valencia

So as the “ideal” changes, so do those who aspire for recognition in small and larger ways. I for one think this is a good thing!

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