Published on February 1, 2024, 1:25 p.m.
by Shaley Brown.
The pageant industry has drawn criticism over the years for its perpetuation of unrealistic body images and for crowning tall, thin young women. However, pageants are also known for building resilience by exposing women to competition and potential setbacks — teaching them to handle success and failure with grace. The industry’s polarizing perceptions have grown with changing societal attitudes, and the reputation of pageants is left to question.
Are pageants more than a beauty contest?
Crowns and controversies
What started as a tourist attraction to bring vacationers to Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Miss America pageant system has become one of the most well-known organizations in the world. Since it was created in the 1920s, the publicity around the industry as a whole has made international success, with the Miss Universe competition ranking as the #1 most watchedprogram outside of live sports.
However, the promotion of the pageant once known as the Inter-City Beauty contest paraded women from Northeastern cities to be judged based solely on their looks. And as the contest grew in popularity, so did the controversy.
The contest was originally used to display women in bikinis to attract attention: sexualizing their bodies and emphasizing the importance of physical appearance. This focus led to pageants becoming a tremendous pressure on young women to have the need to make themselves “beautiful enough” in society’s eyes. The Miss America organization suffered as a result and ultimately halted the contest for three years from 1928-1931.
But with criticism came change, and sanctions were put in place such as age and marital restrictions to revive the contest. The addition of talent and interview segments were also created to signify that women would no longer be judged based only on their looks, but beauty inside and out.
Beauty and brains
Following progressive trends, Miss America added a scholarship program in the 1940s. Like the Miss America Organization, other pageant systems have adapted their own scholarship funds to offer monetary prizes to women worldwide. Scholarships provide more than money to buy a new gown; they also give recipients the ability to afford a higher education and advance their academic careers.
Ultimately, pageant scholarships inspire young women to pursue opportunities that enhance their cognitive abilities — thus, furthering the pageant industry from its negative image.
However, not everyone is falling for what they see as the industry’s façade. An American Experience article said, “The Miss America Organization has evolved from a beach-side showcase for frolicking bathing beauties to a competition that still includes bathing suits, but now emphasizes scholarships and social causes.”
A 2000 comedy film, “Miss Congeniality,” starring Sandra Bullock as Gracie Hart, provides a light-hearted yet insightful perspective on the industry from an insider. The movie follows her character’s journey from viewing beauty pageants with skepticism and a lack of enthusiasm to understanding the challenges faced by participants and shows how she begins to appreciate the positive aspects of pageants, such as camaraderie, personal growth and the opportunity to make a positive impact on the world.
Although the movie does poke fun at the industry at the beginning of the film, Gracie ends the movie with the famous quote: “It’s not a beauty pageant. It’s a scholarship program.”
Contrasting, “Toddlers and Tiaras,” a TLC reality TV show showcasing child beauty pageants, faced “controversy” after publicizing and making a profit from dressing up children in adult makeup and clothes for entertainment. Child safety was at question — leading to the cancelation of the show in 2016.
But the backlash from the show hasn’t stopped everyone from finding success within the industry.
Queens and questions
With over 14 years of pageant experience and having held the title of Miss Ohio Teen USA 2022, Kylan Darnell, emphasized the importance of finding a pageant system that aligns with one’s own morals rather than tearing the industry down as a whole. She credited her poise, public speaking, character and confidence development to the industry and said, “I couldn’t imagine my life without pageants.”
It seems as though the industry has transitioned from better benefiting an audience to now better benefiting the contestants.
However, Darnell also referred to the pageant industry following more of a social trend. “It’s how they get people interested to join their system,” said Darnell. With over 776,000 followers on her TikTok Page, Darnell has become an internet personality herself. While her content is majority lifestyle videos as a student at The University of Alabama, she has also shared her pageant experiences with her supporters. Darnell uses her platforms to promote the industry in a positive light and encourages young women to be future leaders and the best versions of themselves.
Like Darnell, Amy Landrum, Miss Louisiana Teen USA 1988, also expressed how much she learned through the industry. “It was exciting and opened lots of doors for me. I received a college scholarship, had an incredible wardrobe, traveled to new places, was networked to many important people in the modeling and acting industry, and even met my husband,” said Landrum.
While Landrum had a pleasant experience herself, she has neither encouraged nor discouraged her own daughters to enter the pageant industry. Landrum stated, “Predators are everywhere, and it is critical to not leave young beautiful girls in the wrong hands.”
Reputation and reign
In the world of the pageant industry, public relations and reputation management are crucial pillars that can either strengthen or jeopardize an organization’s standing. A positive reputation builds trust, awareness, authority and credibility with one’s public. A negative reputation is well, hard to come back from. With vast digital resources, one can find just about everything about the pageant industry on the internet — including the good, the bad and the clip of Steve Harvey announcing the wrong Miss Universe winner in 2015.
Navigating the image and authenticity of pageants is vital. As the industry evolves, maintaining transparency, fostering positive relationships and promptly addressing issues become instrumental in safeguarding its reputation.
Whether through strategic media engagement or crisis management, the pageant industry must continuously adapt to societal expectations. The ability to uphold a favorable public image becomes not only a testament to an organization’s resilience but also a key determinant of its long-term success and relevance.
The pageant industry’s decision to align with evolving societal attitudes reflects a step toward inclusivity and breaking its traditional mold. By recognizing the beauty and accomplishments of individuals beyond conventional standards, the industry sends a powerful message of acceptance and celebrates the diverse journeys of women.
The recent crowning of an Air Force pilot in the Miss America competition not only challenges stereotypes but also highlights the importance of acknowledging achievements that extend beyond the realm of beauty. This forward-thinking approach mirrors changing social perspectives and also positions the pageant industry as a catalyst for positive transformation.
Similarly, the Miss USA Organization has eliminated age and marital restrictions — allowing every adult woman in the world to be eligible to compete to be Miss Universe.
So for now, the pageant industry has maintained its reign.