Monday, February 13, 2012

The Quaint Custom of Beauty Pageants, Part 1

     This is the time of year that local and state beauty contests are held in preparation for national and world-wide beauty contests. I helped a civic group organize a statewide beauty contest back around 1980, so I got a chance to see the event from the inside. I kept asking myself, “Why am I doing this? It’s just a dog and pony show. It’s dumb.”
     Swaziland's Umhlanga Reed Festival, which raises eyebrows in the West, makes more sense to me. At least it has a point that I can respect.
     In this three-part series of articles, I’ll address seven features that most national and world-wide beauty contests have in common. I’ll show that world-class beauties have less chance of winning than blandly nondescript pretty women; that, in the “talent” contest, mediocrity is preferred over talent; and that, in the “personality” segments of the contest, the most winning qualities are shallowness, glib deliveries, and insincerity.
     It’s a truism that ugly buildings, politicians, and bizarre customs come to be considered respectable if they stay around for a long time. That seems to be true of beauty pageants—only the organizers of many beauty pageants have become sensitive enough to changing times that they've come to call their event something other than a beauty pageant.
     A certain well-known beauty pageant in the United States is called a scholarship pageant. That makes it sound as though it’s an educational process to determine which needy student most deserves to go to the college of her choice. If that’s the case, why are needy young men are disqualified from consideration?
     Let’s pretend for a moment that the event is called a scholarship program rather than a scholarship pageant or a contest. As it is with the so-called scholarship pageant, this event is presented as a public service for educational purposes, and the event’s organizers wanted to choose the most deserving scholar. Of course, you would want do know what criteria they use for determining which scholar is the most deserving. Here is what they would tell you:
1. She must be female, single, under thirty years of age and pretty. (Right away, anyone in his right mind would get suspicious.)
2. She doesn’t even have to use the scholarship money to further her education. After a year of behaving virginally, she could—if she so desired—use the money to buy a franchise in a Central American drug cartel.
3. She must publicly compete with about fifty other would-be scholars. Only one of them will receive the scholarship. In the unlikely event that the winner falls under a bus or reveals her belief in reptilian shape shifters before the year is out, the first runner-up will receive the scholarship prize.
4. Her means of competition for the scholarship has absolutely nothing to do with anything scholarly. If fact, if she gives any indication that she has scholarly inclinations—such as showing that she is smarter than the judges or in any way has a mind of her own—it will be counted against her. 
      In full view of the judges and a national television audience, she must parade across the stage half naked, like the women at right. Then she must do the same thing in an evening gown. Her body movements and even her body itself will be judged by an motley panel such as cosmetics marketers, fashion magazine editors, and washed-up actors. Not just any standard of beauty will do. She must fit the standards of bland “beauty,” heavily larded with make-up, like the women on the covers of fashion magazines. Under all those layers of make-up, natural beauty must be indistinguishable from the painted-on variety. Likewise, there’s no room for facial characteristics that many people find appealing, such as overbites or freckles.
     In tomorrow’s installment of this three-part series, I’ll show you that truly world-class beauties would have little or no chance of winning one of these "beauty" contests.
(See Part 2)  (See Part 3)

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