Facing up to some ugly truths about beauty contests

August 14, 2022 | 05:09 pm PT
Nguyen Thuy An Researcher
Beauty pageants in Vietnam seem to have become pedantic – excessively focused on height, weight, hair length, curves and so on. Is this what beauty is all about? Far from it.

The proliferation of pageants in the country has become a recent topic of discussion/debate. People say that the sheer number of competitions has caused a drop in both the quality of the candidates and entertainment value. Comparisons have even been made to Thi No, a literary character famous for being the polar opposite of beauty in Nam Cao's "Chi Pheo."

Over the years, I have come to believe firmly that today’s beauty contests, not just in Vietnam, are inherently flawed.

While the concept of beauty pageants has existed for millennia in both the East and the West (known through the Greek myth "Judgment of Paris"), modern beauty pageants as we know them only truly began in America during the early 20th century. The first beauty pageant of the modern times was the Miss America Pageant in 1921.

Besides the touted appreciation of female beauty, pageants were a major tourist attraction, enticing people to go to resorts and entertainment centers in America's beach cities at the time. Atlantic City in New Jersey was the most famous and also the location that hosted that first modern beauty pageant.

Thanks to Hollywood and globalization, more and more beauty pageants have sprouted up in every nook and corner, and international competitions like Miss World and Miss Universe are heavily marketed and broadcast, attracting millions of views from all around the world.

I grew up with tapes of Miss World competitions in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the things they taught me was the poverty that existed in Africa, thanks to the numerous charity trips made by those crowned the beauty queen. Recognizing the cultural, historical, and economic value of such pageants, I stand by my opinion that they do far more harm than good.

I have three main arguments for this.

First, beauty pageants craft inaccurate, even wrongful narratives of what it means to be a beautiful woman. Beauty is subjective, we know, but pageants objectify it. They demand their contestants to be of a particular age, a particular weight and a particular height. Then they require "ideal" curves and measurements, not to mention other inconspicuous criteria like hairstyle and skin tones.

When H’Hen Nie, a Vietnamese woman from the Rade ethnic minority community, won the Miss Universe Vietnam contest in 2018, she helped break some of the unrealistic expectations of what it means to be beautiful. That is a feat to be commended. But one way or another, there will always be an element of absolutism in the criteria set by pageants, sidelining the truth that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder.

By imposing absolutist criteria on what constitutes beauty, we undermine the very concept of, and the appreciation for the individuality of beauty and the unique qualities of each person.

Contestants at the Miss Universe Vietnam 2022 in HCMC, June 25, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue

Contestants at the Miss Universe Vietnam 2022 in HCMC, June 25, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue

Second, with their unrealistic portrayals, pageants exert tremendous pressure on women to make themselves "beautiful enough" in society’s eyes. This happens at overt and covert levels, corroding their self-esteem if they fail to meet the criteria set by a set of people with vested interests.

This can be especially damaging to girls who feel compelled to compare themselves with their peers, making them retreat to their shells because they believe they are not beautiful enough. Depression, eating disorders, etc. follow with the internalization of deprecating beliefs that will haunt them in adulthood. And in the predominantly patriarchal world we live in, women are more likely to be discriminated against for their outward appearance than men.

The desire to attain and retain beauty, which many believe to be essential to procure and ensure a fulfilling relationship, a happy family, and a successful career, leads to another problem. The beauty industry is draining the finances of many women, who spend excessively on cosmetics, even surgeries, to get the kind of "beauty" they think they need.

There have been numerous studies about the "beauty tax": the extra money, time and effort that women spend to look "presentable" to the world. A 2018 report revealed that women account for up to 90 percent of consumers in the global beauty market, which is valued at around $500 billion.

Despite numerous technological and medical advancements, cosmetic surgeries still carry many health risks, including death. Equating the word "beauty" with "youth" and "evergreen" has caused middle-aged women, or any woman past a certain age, to believe that the word "beautiful" no longer applies to them. And even after successful surgeries, women can face stigma and disdain that their beauty is untrue and artificial.

Third, by placing physical appearance as the most important aspect of the competition, beauty pageants encourage women to focus their energy on the wrong places. Instead of directing it within, they dilute their own beauty with the obsession over their appearance, undermining what truly makes them happy and satisfied. The contests also devalue women by turning them into a commodity to be looked at, judged and critiqued.

On the surface, these beauty pageants may claim that their purpose is to appreciate female beauty or to put women as a standard for beauty. But in reality, most of these criteria are decided by men and their preferences, typically not based on realistic, daily life settings. Housewives and working moms, with unkempt hair and sweaty clothes at the end of the day, are not included in the beautiful bracket.

All this said, these ugly truths are not modern inventions. Even in ancient times, "beautiful women" were portrayed in literature, poetry and music created mostly by men. In modern days, these cultural productions are simply replaced with films, television, and other media projects. Beauty pageants are a prime example.

The ultimate irony is that even after all the effort that goes into becoming a Miss This or That, women may still fail to earn society’s respect and admiration. Descriptions like "walking flower vases" and another "Thi No" can still beleaguer them.

There is great beauty in ordinary things. We need open hearts and open minds to find and appreciate it. The first step is to take off the blinkers that beauty pageants force on us without us realizing it.

*Nguyen Thuy An is a researcher in History and Women's and Gender Studies. She is a PhD Candidate, specialized in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations, at The University of Maine, U.S.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
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