In Defense of Beauty Pageants

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A
beauty contest at Lakehead University aroused sharp
protest
from campus feminists.

The
flap came on the heels of a similar contest at which I applauded
from the audience. The contrast made me wonder: “Why are politically
correct feminists so upset by beauty pageants?”

“Upset”
may be too tame a word. Rage against beauty contests lies at the
very roots of PC feminism.

Indeed,
a high-profile protest at the 1968
Miss America
beauty contest is often
credited
with bringing the feminist movement into public awareness.

It
was a defining moment, with feminist protesters setting off stink
bombs and singing, “Ain’t she sweet; making profits off her meat.”

Beauty
contests have evolved since 1968. For example, the majority of judges
at the Lakehead pageant were female; there was a female “co-host”;
40 percent of the tickets went to women. But PC attacks have not
substantially altered.

Some
of the Lakehead debate revolved around the appropriateness of holding
a beauty contest at the on-campus
pub
; that’s a valid debate. But mere inappropriateness doesn’t
explain why feminists campaigned so vigorously to cancel the event
despite the fact that the breach of contract would have resulted
in a fine of $50,000 to $155,000 to be paid by the university.

The
rhetoric surrounding their campaign offers a stereotypical example
of feminism’s stock-in-trade arguments against beauty contests,
on-campus or off.

In
the Lakehead student
newspaper
, Angie Gollat of the on-campus Gender Issues Centre
(GIC) lambastes the event as “sexist” and “heterosexist.” It is
difficult to imagine campus feminists objecting to lesbian events
because they are “homosexist.” But hypocrisy aside, it is not clear
why a celebration of female physical beauty is sexist – that is,
anti-woman – especially when all the women involved are eager to
participate.

In
the same newspaper, unidentified students state their concerns that
“the objectification of women [that is, the contest] leads to violence
against women.”

There
are two problems with that argument. Being judged on the basis of
your beauty is no more “objectification” than taking a college exam
and being judged on your intellect; yet, as far as I know, every
student will take exams. Moreover, absolutely no data supports a
connection between beauty pageants and violence against women.

Indymedia
carried the GIC’s call for a protest, which read, “Concerned citezens
[sic] are staging an anti-corporate demonstration,” to show “that
discriminatory events are not welcome on campus.”

The
anti-corporate remark refers to the pageant’s sponsor
and merely reflects left-wing bias. (Tax-funded feminists are notoriously
contemptuous of the free market.) And, unless a particular race
or religion was barred from entry, the charge of discrimination
doesn’t make sense. The contest was “women only,” but so are women’s
sports and many feminist events.

Two
more substantial arguments underlie the demonization of beauty contests.
One was presented in a 1991 book that caused a phenomenon upon publication:
The
Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women

by Naomi Wolf.

Wolf
hypothesizes a cause-and-effect
relationship
between women’s liberation and society’s ideal
of beauty. Although women have advanced, Wolf contends that, “in
terms of how we feel about ourselves physically, we may actually
be worse off than our unliberated grandmothers.”

Why?
Because of how “cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh
upon us.”

In
short, the ideal of female beauty oppresses modern women in a manner
presumably not experienced by earlier generations. Thus, feminist
Jo Freeman
writes of the 1968 protest, “All women were made to believe they
were inferior because they couldn’t measure up to Miss America beauty
standards.”

By
this analysis, beauty contestants become symbols and tools of oppression.

The
analysis is deeply flawed. For one thing, society has no one standard
of beauty. A cursory scan of today’s “beautiful people” reveals
women of all ages and ethnic groups, with no one body type or style
of dress.

Moreover,
the beauty of one woman doesn’t force another to conform. My favorite
makeup is a scrubbed face and I wear no-brand blue jeans. All the
women I know are intelligent enough to make such decisions for themselves.

Yet
the argument that beauty contests are unfair to the average woman
is common. An influential book by the philosopher John Rawls became
popular in left-wing circles and lends the argument support. Rawls’
book, A
Theory of Justice
, contends, “no one deserves his place
in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves
one’s initial starting place in society.”

To
Rawls, naturally beautiful people are akin to those born rich or
with perfect health; they have won “the social lottery.” That is,
they’ve benefited from random luck, which they did not earn or deserve.
His theory has been used to justify the redistribution of wealth
and power in society.

And
one way to “redistribute” natural beauty is to pathologize its display.

The
feminist contention that beauty contests are unfair to the average
woman has a Rawlsian ring. It also sounds like envy.

Even
after the Lakehead beauty contest had passed, the GIC made a
declaration of war
, “This is a wake up call to all you dormant
egalitarians. It’s time to mobilize.”

Actually
it is time to lighten up and applaud beauty, not pathologize it.

November
19, 2004

Wendy
McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of ifeminists.com
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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