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In defense of beauty pageants

By Wendy McElroy
web posted November 22, 2004

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

It is unlikely that feminists are fans of Ms. America 2005 Deidre Downs
It is unlikely that feminists are fans of Ms. America 2005 Deidre Downs

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.

Wendy McElroy 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). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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