Beauty pageants say they are changing, don’t believe them | Gender equality

Something is wrong in the country of sequins and lacquer.

In August, the Miss Universe pageant announced that it would expand its pool of eligible contestants to include married women and mothers in its next pageant in 2023, removing a 70-year rule that prohibited them.

An internal memo announcing the policy change stated: “We all believe that women should have agency over their lives and that the personal decisions of a human being should not be a barrier to their success.” The move was received as a nod to inclusion and a move away from sexist expectations.

Also in August, a Miss England contestant broke with that pageant’s history to become the first to compete without a mask. By ditching the makeup, Melisa Raouf, 20, said she was “embracing imperfections”. This is not the first time that women have tried to challenge the rules in pageants. Last year at the Miss Universe pageant, Miss Bahrain Manar Nadeem Deyani refused to wear a bikini during the swimsuit competition, opting to remain fully covered in a black suit.

That’s all fine, but here’s the hard truth. Policy tweaks and small acts of rebellion by contestants cannot hide the fact that beauty pageants have become increasingly jarring and out of place in our modern age.

To be eligible for Miss Universe, the highest-profile international beauty pageant, women applying in each country must be between the ages of 18 and 28. Contestants are technically judged in three categories: an evening gown, a personality interview, and a swimsuit competition. However, the most important requirement, which is rarely acknowledged in writing today, is that women must be slim and stereotypically beautiful.

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Your skin color may vary, but amid all the changes and nods to inclusivity, there’s still no room for wide noses, disabilities, or stretch marks in beauty pageants.

Officially, the Miss Universe organization wants us to believe that beauty is not a requirement at all, let alone the foundation of this money-making company, which earns $5 million in annual revenue. It describes itself as a global, inclusive organization “that celebrates all cultures, backgrounds, and religions” and provides participants with “the tools to effect positive change on a personal, professional, and philanthropic level.”

In other words, a very noble sounding mission.

Other beauty pageants follow the example of Miss Universe. The slogan for the Miss South Africa pageant, for example, is similar: “Face your power. Embrace your future.” Nodding to the strides women have made in society, beauty pageants are quick to remind us that contestants are professionals with careers and ambitions.

Yet watching a revolving door of women be judged on how well they portray femininity and parade across a stage inevitably feels like stepping back into a distant past when women were seen but rarely heard.

After all, the expectation that contestants should be childless and single had a fairly explicit historical basis: using pretty, virgin young women as bait to attract business is how beauty pageants got their start.

In 1920, the owner of the Monticello Hotel in Atlantic City devised a marketing plot to extend the business season beyond Labor Day in the United States. He sold the idea to other entrepreneurs who saw the monetary potential for all of them: How about a parade made up of 350 beautiful maidens to attract tourists? Incidentally, 1920 was also when the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution gave women the right to vote, after a century of often acrimonious feminist campaigning. The following years saw this parade transform into the show it is today.

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Of course, beauty pageants have been trying to stay current in societies that are more likely than ever before to see women make up the majority of college graduates, breadwinners, and world leaders.

A remarkably misguided attempt to adapt the pageant to modern times took place during the Miss Peru 2018 competition. During the swimsuit segment, the contestants paraded around the stage in gold bikinis while a giant screen behind them projected newspaper headlines that they reported real-life stories of male violence against women. “Man murders woman and her baby”, “Man strangles woman with rope”, “Stalker stabs pregnant woman, runs away”, “Drunk man beats wife to death” and “63 women raped every day ”, read the headlines as a local artist sang a heartbreaking song about female empowerment.

Clearly concerned about its awkward place in the modern world, the contest sought to present itself as alive in the Latin American and Caribbean regional awakening against male violence against women, also known as the “Ni Una Menos” movement.

However, at the end of the day, these superficial policy changes represent marketing strategies that have an expiration date. Surely these must be indicators that the organizers know that the future of beauty pageants is unsustainable.

The audience for Miss Universe pageants around the world has been steadily declining for decades. The disinterest of the public is the clearest sign that this archaic institution and its hundreds of offshoots, where women are presented to be eyed and discarded one by one, have stayed longer than expected.

No amount of lipstick or makeup will change that. It is time to abolish them.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.