The first beauty pageants documented in history are found in the traditions of the European Festivals held during the Medieval era. One example of this structure is the selection of the May Queen held during the celebrations which occur during the first week of May. What we think of as the modern beauty pageant got its start in 1839 as part of a reenactment joust, while the first American pageant was attempted in 1854.
It wouldn’t be until the 1920s that beauty pageants in the United States began to shape society. The first Miss America was crowned in 1921, earning 16-year-old Margaret Gorman a bounty of $100 for winning. Before then, most events that were promoted as beauty pageants were deemed too disrespectful.
As Miss America grew in popularity in the 1950s, various beauty pageants began to be added to the yearly schedule. Miss Universe debuted in 1952, along with the Miss USA competition. Miss International started in 1960. Miss Teen USA debuted in 1983, while Miss Earth began in 2001.
These beauty pageants pros and cons show us that although society has accepted the format and benefits of these events, they are still not without controversy.
List of the Pros of Beauty Pageants
1. They are a way to promote societal connections.
Beauty pageants happen at local, county, state, national, and international levels when looking at the competitions from a U.S. perspective. There are similar competitions held at similar levels internationally as well. These events bring people together who are passionate about the same things, building bridges between cultures and societies with their mutual love of pageantry. It is a way to enjoy some healthy competition, promote good causes, and learn about one another.
2. They are a way to encourage self-discipline.
To be successful in the world of beauty pageants, one must stay dedicated to the various processes which allow them to be competitive. Beauty is only one element of this process. Contestants must practice their public speaking skills, which can be used in various occupations and industries. They must be courageous and vulnerable as they stand before others on the pageantry stage. Talents and gifts are celebrated while charitable causes are promoted.
3. They are a way for today’s youth to find new opportunities.
Most beauty pageants offer scholarships as an award for doing well in the competition. Large pageants may offer sponsorship opportunities, an annual salary, or additional career-building options that allow participants to carve out their own path in life. When growing up in an underprivileged socioeconomic household in the United States, academics or athletics are the two avenues where a child can “change their stars.” Beauty pageants offer a third opportunity to find success.
4. They encourage self-confidence.
The modern beauty pageant does more than celebrate outward beauty for the men and women who compete in them. They encourage personal self-confidence, wanting competitors to get to know their true selves. You must be authentic to be successful in today’s world. Pretending to be someone or something you’re not does create an impenetrable ceiling that limits success. Getting to know the “real you” allows competitors to pursue whatever opportunities they wish in life – whether they win the pageant or not.
5. They promote local economic opportunities.
During the Miss America beauty pageants, more than $30 million in positive economic impacts come to the community which hosts the event. Every pageant creates opportunities for tourism, including competitions like the annual Dairy Queen pageants held in the Midwest. Different counties come together to host the state-wide competition. Families from a specific county come together to host their local events. Businesses benefit each time as they get to meet the needs of each visitor.
6. They encourage charitable work.
Because of beauty pageants in the United States, charitable organizations like the Miss America Foundation are possible. “The Miss America Foundation strives to change lives and influence young women across the country and around the world,” their homepage says. “We proudly offer academic and community-based scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies, as well as endowed scholarships.”
Contestants often promote their own charitable causes when they’re active in the world of beauty pageants too. Miss America 1999 because the first winner with diabetes and publicized the use of an insulin pump. She advocates for diabetic research, education, and treatment because of her work in pageants. In 2013, she earned a Doctorate of Public Health degree.
7. They encourage healthy competition.
There will always be winners and losers in our world. It’s a harsh reality that sometimes gets shielded in our efforts to promote equality. Just as winning doesn’t define a person’s success, losing does not define an individual’s character either. The healthy competition found in beauty pageants allows us to teach people of all ages that what we learn in life tends to be more about the journey we go on together than the prizes we either win or the opportunities we lose. Through these lessons, sportsmanship is practiced, success is celebrated, and there is encouragement offered readily.
8. They promote friendships.
When competing in beauty pageants, the contestants come together during the journey. Many become lifelong friends, despite the competitive nature of the event, because everyone has the same intention at their core. Most competitors seek out the diversity offered in the moment, embrace the different personalities, and everyone becomes each other’s biggest supporters. There will always be those who compete only to win, but it is more common to see people competing because of how it changes them and the rest of the world.
9. They help competitors overcome issues with shyness.
Being shy is a natural part of life for many kids. There are times, however, when shyness gets in the way of being yourself. For beauty pageant participant Chantelle Wright, competing helped her to deal with this issue. “We bought me some makeup and cut off about 18 inches from my waist-length hair, and created a more stylish hairdo,” she wrote. “I was willing to work hard if I could just be less shy.”
Even though Wright didn’t win her first beauty pageant, she said that it started her on the road of being more poised in various social situations.
10. They promote self-discovery.
There are numerous reasons why beauty pageants are an attractive competitive outlet for some people. It may be the chance to play “dress-up” in real life with the formal gowns. Some people are attracted to the glitz and glamor of public events, hoping to find success on larger stages over time. Sometimes it is the spotlight at any level which gives those who compete the energy they need.
11. They can lead to other paying jobs.
Although the pressures to compete are enormous, beauty pageants also give people a chance to find a career later in life. Winning major competitions will open doors to modeling jobs, university scholarships, and apprenticeship opportunities that may not be available to others. Even when the clothing options seem inappropriate, there could be options to swap clothes with a different model or accept a job with a different brand, store, or fashion line. When you’re involved in this world, you are still in control, even when others may think otherwise.
12. They offer a chance to connect to personal spiritual practices.
Chantelle Wright suggests that all beauty pageant contestants read the Bible for ideas about character qualities that are worthy. Look in the lives of family members, acquaintances, and friends. Look at how other people achieved success, the influences that helped to get them there, and then attempt to replicate it in your own life.
List of the Cons of Beauty Pageants
1. They place emphasis on beauty over talent.
Although Miss America 2.0 made significant changes to the beauty pageant format in 2017, there is still no getting around the fact that these events are based on society’s perceptions of beauty. It creates a divide in the society which reinforces the idea of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” To the average person (man or woman), the physical requirements of beauty pageants are not obtainable. They either don’t have access to needed resources, family responsibilities, or don’t meet the public standards of “beauty.”
2. They are expensive.
Information published in 2014 about the cost to chase the Miss America crown put the price tag at $15,000. Even chasing local competitions creates a cost for families that can be several thousand dollars per year, depending on the number of events which are entered. There are also the makeup costs, gown expenses, and travel requirements to meet when wanting to be competitive in modern beauty pageants. Unless sponsorships are available, households with a median HHI may struggle to keep up with the financial demands involved.
3. They are judged based on societal bias.
When women compete in beauty pageants, it is often those who are taller that win. The Miss USA competition has had just two winners who were 5’ 4” in height. Most of the competition winners are between 5’6” to 5’11”. Although there are no height requirements published to enter a competition, judges (especially at major events) look for modeling potential and marketability as part of the final award. That structure makes it difficult for petite women to be successful, even when they meet all other beauty standards.
4. They enforce the traditional rules and perspectives in society.
For the “Miss” beauty pageants, such as Miss America or Miss USA, there are specific entry rules which must be followed. That includes an age limit, which may be as low as 26 years old. Some competitions exclude women who are married or are mothers. Some competitions require winners to avoid negative public attention to their image, otherwise their title could be revoked. Vanessa Williams famously had her Miss America title forced into resignation in 1984 for photographs which appeared in Penthouse without her permission.
5. They force women into specific demographics.
Because the large competitions are less-than-inclusive with many of their entry requirements, many women are forced to compete based on their physical or lifestyle demographics instead. You will find niche beauty pageants offering competitions for women who are shorter than 5’6”, for women who are plus-sized, and for married or older women. Some of these pageants are even associated with the larger ones, such as Ms. America with the Miss America competition. Although they allow women to compete in an event they are passionate about, the only reason why they exist in the first place is due to the exclusionary nature of beauty in modern society.
6. They promote unhealthy physical habits.
Because physical beauty is one of the primary judgment factors of beauty pageants, competitors often restrict their diets to keep a slim profile. They might combine those poor eating habits with longer hours at the gym working out, which furthers the health issues experienced by some competitors. Since 1952, women competing in beauty pageants have had their average BMI move into the underweight range, while the average woman saw their BMI move into the overweight range.
7. They require a lot of preparation time.
When competing in a major beauty pageant, most contestants who want to win will spend a minimum of one year preparing for the event. For male competitions, up to 3 years of preparation time may be necessary. Although anyone can theoretically enter a competition, without a lot of physical and emotional preparatory work, the chances of success are rather slim. This process can be a major blow for people who want to get involved right away without realizing the full extent of the expectations involved.
8. They are not always as glamorous as the national events lead on.
If you have ever attended a local beauty pageant, then you know the experience is akin to watching a high school talent show. In small-town America, some local pageants may have only 2 or 3 competitors for the entire event. When the winners of these small pageants go to the larger state-wide competitions, they face the same stigmas that shorter women face in a tall woman’s world. Because they come from rural communities, they are often overlooked because the idea of a farm girl promoting the event is not as provoking as an urban woman with “class” or “sophistication.”
At every level, beauty pageants expose the undercurrents of bias which are found in modern society. There is no way to get around that fact.
9. They sexualize girls in ways that are inappropriate for their age.
Beauty pageants for children were banned in France because of how the format sexualizes children, especially girls. To stay competitive, girls as young as 8 are undergoing Botox treatments, plastic surgery, and other beauty “treatments” to help them meet society’s beauty standards. These children are taught how to wear makeup in “attractive” ways, wear swim apparel which leaves them practically naked, and then forced to deal with the message that they’re “not good enough” if they lose.
10. They create adverse impacts on self-esteem.
Activities which focus on the outward appearance of children, especially girls, at an early age create negative impacts on body image, self-esteem, and self-worth. Many children struggle with issues of self-identity after they retire from beauty pageant competitions, even when they’re still in the young teens. Combined with a struggle to be “perfect,” there can be issues with body image that lead to eating disorders over time.
“In my experience as a dietician for high-powered entertainment groups, I found that many of the young women with eating disorders were trained at an early age to value physical perfection, thinness, athletic prowess, and attractiveness,” writes Dr. Martina Cartwright for Psychology Today. “When it comes to performing, education takes a backseat. The performer’s bodies are their livelihood and less-than-perfect might lead to unemployment.”
11. They can destroy parent-child relationships in the name of competition.
Many families begin the beauty pageant circuit at a young age. Children involved in these events are forced to perform and behave flawlessly without getting a chance to enjoy the fun that comes with being a kid. If the children fail to meet expectations while in this environment of enormous pressure, the adults involved will sometimes mock the kids as they try to express themselves. There are tantrums, tears, and negative emotional outbursts all the time with young children and beauty pageants because most are not mentally capable of handling this pressure at an early age.
12. They allow the parents to reap the financial benefits.
For the PEARL Girls beauty pageants, the message is clear from the very beginning. “Every contestant is invited to attend an optional FREE pre-pageant confidence camp where you can receive instruction on poise, the pageant walk, stance, public speaking, social etiquette, table etiquette, and much, much more!” The message is clear: you’ve got a better chance to win if you attend this event. Then the awards, sometimes as much as $50,000, are put into the care of the parents. The young competitors receive the tiara and sash, but then may have no guarantees about receiving the other rewards they’ve earned.
These beauty pageants pros and cons suggest that with a few shifts in societal perspective, these competitions could become a healthy outlet for many women. When we are inclusive, we are stronger as a society. Diversity allows us all to benefit from individual strengths while our weaknesses are tempered. There is nothing wrong with wanting to win. We must also remember there are lessons to be learned in winning and losing which benefit us all.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.