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Feminism can’t kill the beauty pageant Even girlbosses are supposed to be hot

This is what it's like to be a woman. Credit: Lee Celano/Getty Images for Miss USA

This is what it's like to be a woman. Credit: Lee Celano/Getty Images for Miss USA


October 4, 2022   6 mins

Good-looking, groomed, docile. They were paraded around the arena, so that we could all see their body composition and their agility; so that we could see there were no signs of illness or infirmity. This is good stock, a fine animal for breeding.

The county fair was one of the more exciting events in rural Kansas when I was a kid. I’d go along to see my friends from nearby farms working the livestock shows, trotting out the creatures to which they’d devoted themselves, in the hopes of a blue ribbon and a small cash prize. Look at this great pig we raised!

I’d go along, too, to watch other teenage girls — those few who were managing the fluctuations of puberty well — exhibiting themselves in polyester and rhinestone gowns. They would walk across the stage to show how refined they were; they would wear backless and sleeveless dresses to show their good muscular tone and their skin free from blemishes. Whoever won would go off to one of the three mid-sized cities in the state to represent our county, in the same way the best pig represented its farm. Look at this great lady we raised!

Eventually, they might represent the nation. As a child, I would lie on my grandmother’s floor and watch the enormous national and even international versions of the beauty pageants I’d seen at the county fair. It’s a poor kid’s idea of glamour: if it sparkles it must be expensive. But it was also the external performance of a secret, hidden wish: to be selected, to be deemed special, to be crowned, so you could get the hell out of this rural town and be whisked away to a more beautiful life. And when the Miss USA 2022 pageant line-up was announced, I was secretly rooting for Miss Kansas — the kind of girl you’d see at the Topeka mall not eating at the food court and think: “she’s so pretty, what is she doing here?”

Miss USA is not to be confused with Miss America. It is far trashier. Their website’s portfolio of contestants has zero biographical information, just photos of the girls clavicle-up, their hair wet and messy like they “just stepped out of your shower”, but with a thick layer of make-up and fake eyelashes. Unlike the Miss America website, which lists out each contestant’s “Social Impact Initiative” and college majors and career goals, Miss USA just has hot, wet girls giving their best trout lips to the camera. And unlike Miss America, which caved to calls to get rid of the swimsuit competition in 2018, Miss USA continues to resist. It knows why you watch pageants.

And so the pageant is accompanied with much soul-searching. Questions swirl: are we celebrating women’s beauty or women’s accomplishments? Is this feminist or anti-feminist? Who is it for? Are we proud of these women or are we setting them up as the punchline to an unwritten joke? Do we want these women to do well or are we hoping one of them will confuse Georgia the state with Georgia the country or refer to Ukrainians as Russians and set off a meme that has vast geopolitical implications?

Since the last iteration of Miss USA, a tragedy has darkened the pageant’s reputation and these questions are more fraught than ever. In January, the radiant 2019 winner, Cheslie Kryst, jumped to her death from a Manhattan apartment block. In life, Kryst was a perfect model of feminine excellence: not only was she beautiful, she had a law degree and an MBA and a side hustle with the celebrity gossip show Extra. She represented a new kind of beauty queen. But the year before she died, she wrote an essay for Allure about the pressure “to hoard accomplishments as fast as possible” in order to compete with her peers. Even when she triumphed, it didn’t feel good: “Why do I work so hard to capture the dreams I’ve been taught by society to want when I continue to find only emptiness?”

My own disenchantment with pageants was born out of a growing feminist awareness. Naomi Wolf’s very successful (and mostly silly) The Beauty Myth was released just as I hit puberty. I stopped reading it only a few chapters in — I needed a book to help me manage my lack of beauty, not one suggesting that being beautiful is hard, actually — but it had a huge influence. There were suddenly new questions being asked, even in fashion magazines. Shouldn’t girls and women be valued for something other than thin thighs, ample chests, shiny hair, and frantic smiles? Shouldn’t women aspire to do something grander than cash in their sexual capital as fast as possible?

For a while, when protestors outside the Miss America pageant were burning their bras and fighting to redefine what femininity could be, it seemed that, if we pushed hard enough against beauty culture and unfair standards, we could finally eradicate them once and for all. Maybe women wouldn’t be judged first — or solely — by their appearances; maybe ugly girls would get a fighting chance in this world, finally freed from, as Andrea Dworkin put it, “the lengths to which men will go to protect themselves and their society from the contamination by ugly women”.

The pageants heard these criticisms and saw the dropping audience numbers and responded by looking for women who worked with charities, who had medical degrees and cured diseases, who spoke multiple languages, who studied international relations and could explain in 20 seconds or less how to defuse a ticking geopolitical timebomb. But they also still had to appeal to sponsors and advertisers, who still find it useful to collaborate with attractive women and splashy spectacles. So all these competitors also had to have a winning smile and a great pair of tits.

The attempt to make the beauty pageants more feminist — or to at least prize something other than just beauty — has actually made them more regressive and less politically defensible. This echoes many of the failures of contemporary feminism, which has burdened women with new obligations and expectations without freeing them from any of the old ones. We still have to be perfect mothers and domestic goddesses with nightly ten-step skincare routines — while also finishing our PhDs in biochemistry. Adding new qualifications for our beauty queens wasn’t a sign of defiance against a culture that puts absurd pressure on women — it was a reinforcement of it.

Nowadays, even entry-level jobs can require university degrees; you need a masters to even get the chance to be exploited in our new frantic corporate culture. In this competitive, aspirational environment, women must be girlbosses; we still don’t have the freedom to be mediocre. And looks still give women a leg-up. If you lose focus for a moment, or your hair goes flat, there is a bitch with a can of AquaNet stashed in her purse ready to take your place.

Beauty used to be more of a lottery: an advantage granted, completely unfairly, to a select few. If they had the guts, those few could leverage it to get out of their dusty little towns and ascend to another class. This is the origin story of generations of Hollywood starlets, beauty queens, trophy wives, and models. When I was a kid, I’d see the pageant scouts trawling malls, fairs and high school games, looking for fresh meat. Pageants for girls were a lot like athletics for boys: a performance of gendered excellence that could project you out of a predictable future in failing and depopulating towns and into the possibility of greatness, riches and wealth. Or at least a scholarship that would get you a degree in computer science or hospitality management.

Mostly, girls from small towns who were told all their lives how exceptionally pretty they are found that, in competition with someone other than farm girls and small-town cheerleaders, their good looks didn’t count for much. Especially next to city girls with access to cosmetic dentistry and professional dermatological care.

But now beauty — like higher education, entry into cultural institutions, and the fancy universities that will set you up for life — is just another thing that can be bought, if you work really hard, or inherit a lot. (Heiresses like the Hadid sisters, not content with inheriting millions from their father’s real estate empire, bought entirely new faces and entry into the modelling world.) More than ever, all the girls competing for Miss USA look vaguely the same, thanks to what looks like fillers, Botox, and facial contouring — all of them have the “Instagram face”.

The homogeneity is ironic, because Miss USA has done a lot of work in the run-up to this year’s pageant to justify its existence by claiming it is diversifying the standards of beauty with racial inclusion. They also claim to be celebrating the grand variety of women’s accomplishments. All the time, though, they have been trying to ignore the spectre of Kryst’s death. That’s pageant culture: preying on women’s insecurities and fears of failure in a precarious economic environment to keep them running on the endless hamster wheel of accomplishment.

Who wins in all this? Not the woman wearing the crown, nor the runners-up on the stage. Perhaps it’s the girls at home — too plain, too ugly and too unshapely to dream of ever making it onto that stage. These girls will raise good pigs or hold an unglamorous local office. They know they’ll never be good enough and so won’t ever have to compensate for some inner lack with external markers of success.


Jessa Crispin is the author of three books, most recently Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. 

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Claire D
CD
Claire D
1 year ago

That’s a long article for the sake of a down-to-earth, entirely sensible conclusion.

Vanity, as an example of Pride, one of the seven deadly sins, is detrimental to happiness and well-being.
Sins are not part of a conspiracy to spoil humans having fun, the idea of them exists because those negative forms of behaviour cause misery, collectively and individually.

Feminism is based on Envy and Pride, sometimes even Hate. It is has no real answers to offer in the face (unintended pun) of beauty pageants.

During my life I’ve known plain and beautiful women, and it’s wonderful to me how beautiful a plain woman can become as she lives her life of valuable work, kindness and love.

Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

And plain to whom? When you are hugely attracted to a person’s character the so called ‘plain looks’ becomes part of the devastating attraction.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

I agree, but I suppose, in a way, that’s a different matter.
The point of beauty pageants is they view a particular woman as an aesthetically pleasing object, and there’s no getting away from the fact some women (and men) are born objectively beautiful, eg, Nefertiti, Rita Hayworth and the like.

I don’t think there’s much wrong with beauty pageants personally, providing the women taking part understand how superficial the whole thing is in terms of their true selves.
I knew a beauty queen once long ago, she taught me maths at high school. Her beautiful features and long legs were just two more of her blessings, or assets if you like.

Last edited 1 year ago by Claire D
Dave Corby
DC
Dave Corby
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

“Sins are not part of a conspiracy to spoil humans having fun, the idea of them exists because those negative forms of behaviour cause misery, collectively and individually.”
Well said

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

Much beauty hides in plain view, much of it visible only to those with the eyes to see it. Show-ponies rapidly become tiresome, in my experience.

David George
David George
1 year ago

A few pictures would have helped illustrate some of the points.

Steve Murray
LL
Steve Murray
1 year ago
Reply to  David George

Cruel, but funny!

Arkadian X
AA
Arkadian X
1 year ago
Reply to  David George

I know. This is the main issue of many of the articles on this site.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  David George

Jeez the link to the Miss USA contestants is quite depressing – they do indeed put on their social media pouts and look like a bunch of Stepfords.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  David George

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I for one would love to see which pig was judged best in show, oh, and was there a dog show. I love dogs. Dogs >>>> people.

Teodor Calinoiu
Teodor Calinoiu
1 year ago
Reply to  David George

Feel free to link some of your own pictures of yourself. Make sure to be representative.

Cantab Man
Cantab Man
1 year ago

The author is correct; however, she’s also railing against evolution which is a losing battle in my opinion.

Just like with girls and beauty, the way out of a dead-end town for boys who are not off-the-charts intellectually gifted is projected to be sports or the military, both of which may lead to scholarships or other prospects. Plus there’s the bonus for boys that the town and the girls love and admire you. Specifically, if you look into the psychological research on this topic, a disproportionate number of girls only like boys at the top of the pyramid: Women generally pair up with men who have superior physical attributes and who are the woman’s socioeconomic equal or better, whereas men tend to pair up across the socioeconomic spectrum largely based on a woman’s physical attributes.

Evolution (and genetics) has a long arc: Women who are fertile repopulate and grow the village and men who are brawny gather resources and do battle/die to save the village. Hundreds-of-thousands of years of evolution are boiled down into the same High School narrative that the cheerleader pairs up with the football star. Scrawny boys and plain-looking girls need not apply. The evolutionary application is strict and it takes tens-of-thousands of years to update incrementally.

We may not like it (I was a scrawny boy myself) and we may prefer to navel-gaze about the inherent unfairness of it all, but them’s the facts.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Cantab Man

Indeed, as the saying goes ‘don’t hate the player, hate the game’. We can’t really change who we’re attracted to or not attracted to, much less influence anyone else. We can only, in the metaphorical sense, ‘take our ball and go home’, by refusing to participate in this game or by defining the terms and limits of our participation (indeed as a gambler who sets limits on how much time and money he can reasonably afford to lose.) I myself, being a male, chose only to date women I found attractive and who would not be put off by my relative lack of ambition and indifference to the seeking of wealth and status. You will doubtless not be shocked to hear that I was unsuccessful in finding a long term relationship. I certainly wasn’t surprised. It was the result I expected. Low probability events are, by definition, rare. Rather than whine about the unfairness of it all, I simply moved on to other things. The modern world is filled with better ways to waste one’s time than fighting against millions of years of evolution.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

It’s the age-old business of being judged against your peers, isn’t it. Whilst the ways and means of doing so might change, the competition never does. As the writer points out, rise above your local level and find yourself deflated in the bigger pond. Worst of all, even greater success may lead to a sense of worhlessness and taking one’s own life.

The question i find most interesting is how people find their own way out of this paradigm. Whilst the article is specific to females, it applies to us all. Can engendering (now there’s a loaded term) a sense of self-worth occur without recourse to success relative to one’s peers? I’m simply posing the question. Each of us has to find our own way forward, without succumbing to the perils of “individualism”, certainly when that term is used in a pejorative sense, or mistaken for narcissism.

It seems to me that a majority of people find a way through. The pressures on young people now seem to be exponential, with online lives to ‘curate’ and not yet mature enough to understand how little much of it really matters.

I wonder if pigs feel the same?

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Murray
Ian Stewart
IS
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

I find the incidence of suicide amongst young people quite depressing. Its always been high, especially with young men, but it seems to have become more prevalent with the influence of social media – and I don’t mean the suicide sites that are topical – due to people, I think, comparing themselves to others around the globe, which is bound to end in feeling inadequate, and taking extreme action by giving up.
It would be interesting to see this apparent trend covered more in articles.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 year ago

“Pageants for girls were a lot like athletics for boys: a performance of gendered excellence”. Good point – I had never made this connection before. I was a very good student – but a mediocre athlete – and I remember being resentful of how much attention in our school was paid to the best athletes. Part of the railing against pageants is just that unpleasant realization you get as a teenager that life is not fair and that most of us are very ordinary.

Jp Merzetti
Jp Merzetti
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter Johnson

It’s kind of a no-brainer. Reinforcing the difference between what you can do, and what, why, how and as you are as constructed. Personally, I grew up in a time when what you could learn how to do was the default position in a life well lived while being distracted from yourself. As in, it is pure folly to turn the focus of your blithering lack of understanding upon your own defenseless inability to withstand it. Aim the misfiring weapons of ignorance out at the uninhabited hills, while finding objets of wonder galore to grab a desultory attention, much as a well-placed and better-designed mobile will do over a baby’s crib. In short, I not only learned how to be an average joe – but came to appreciate its very propulsion toward a freedom come to value and treasure in an adult life, that my presupposed immaturity I could not have tolerated. In short, a trusted accompaniment to growing up. One that used to be bandied about in social circles to the point that it was almost impossible to avoid. Compared to a curious dichotomy now, wherein it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the tools of competence and the stranglehold of infantilization. One does not preclude, or even excuse, the other.

Richard Parker
RP
Richard Parker
1 year ago

Andrea Dworkin as incel…? Pushing a point, maybe, but I think not too far wide of the mark. Of course it’s completely different because her disappointment is correctly gendered.
To pull tongue from cheek for a moment, it would seem that, as so often, women and men have common cause but fail to exercise cooperation. Who really wants these pageants? No man I know. Maybe we ought to ask “cui bono”? But then, that would mean we’d all have to let slip our hold on the cup of righteousness and human nature just somehow will not allow it.
*sighs, puts down phone, picks up book*

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

Well, life sucks.

Richard Parker
RP
Richard Parker
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

Yup, one more time around the sun, folks…

Betsy Arehart
BA
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago
Reply to  Brett H

As they used to say, “ life is a beach.”

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 year ago

Was the feminist revolution just to have women replace men in thankless occupations ?

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark M Breza
William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

It must be awful to be a woman. What a terrible existence. It’s understandable why you are all so dissatisfied.  How bleak it must look for young girls.

David Lewis
David Lewis
1 year ago

When are we going to accept that we are simply animals with a micron-thin veneer of rationality? When are we going to rediscover enjoyment of our animus?

Betsy Arehart
BA
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago
Reply to  David Lewis

Yeah, if we want to see civilization collapse. Seems like in primitive cultures things are much better for the men.

B Davis
BD
B Davis
1 year ago

Oh my goodness…what on earth is this long, drawn-out whine?
Stereotypes piled on stereotypes as we stereotypically complain about sterotyping. Isn’t it long past time we all grow-up a bit?
Beautiful women can be brilliant…and yes, they can also be bimbos. Plain women can be dumb as stumps…and yes, they can equally dazzle. So what? Who among us finds this fact of life somehow startling or ethically intolerable?
The author tells us, “Beauty used to be more of a lottery: an advantage granted, completely unfairly, to a select few.” Unfairly? Didn’t everyone’s mother tell them … probably right after the toddler stage — that life itself is not fair…is not designed to be fair…will not ever be fair? And didn’t that ‘life is hard, kid’ speech end with a … ‘now get over it!’?
Fairness, as they say, has nothing to do with anything (once Mom stops dividing candybars for her kids)
Some of us ARE beautiful. This is true. It’s been true since forever. Most of us are not. Some of us are plain…some ugly…some amazing….some transcendent…some few geniuses….tons of mediocrity…and some actively working at bringing down the curve.
Catherine Deneuve was the ‘Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ for decades…and she is beautiful still. Do we begrudge her what God gave her? Should we actively prevent her face from being shown to keep her adoring fans from adoration? Millions and millions of people have traveled thousands of miles to visit the Grand Canyon. Only a microscopic handful have ever been to the farm pond outside Schroeder’s farm in central Indiana. Is that fair? Is that right?
People with more money (like the Hadid’s) can buy more things than people with less? Taller people get chosen first to play basketball. Beautiful girls get asked to Prom more quickly (and are then more likely — talk about ‘unfairness’ — to be queen than Ugly Betty. Again, so what?
In Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron all this unfairness was rebalanced by the nation’s Handicapper General. Everyone wore masks so the beautiful could not be seen. The graceful wore leg irons to keep them from dancing. The smart wore concentration-shattering headphones to keep them from thinking. The eloquent, we would guess, had to keep stones in their mouth, the better to not be heard. Is this the world the author wishes…a bland emptiness, filled with bland and faceless people, doing unremarkable and graceless things to the undying indifference of the bored and banal mob of nondescripts?
Ms. Crispin asks us — with an extraordinarily disappointing lack of self awareness: “Who wins in all this?”
She tells us, “Not the woman wearing the crown, nor the runners-up on the stage. Perhaps it’s the girls at home — too plain, too ugly and too unshapely to dream of ever making it onto that stage. These girls will raise good pigs or hold an unglamorous local office. They know they’ll never be good enough and so won’t ever have to compensate for some inner lack with external markers of success.”
Can we be any sadder or more silly?
Who wins in any competition for anything anywhere? Who won the opportunity to write for Unherd? Who won her way into the publication of three books? Who got herself out of that little Kansas town where she, as child, considered herself plain and presumably ‘unlovable’? Are we to assume (does she assume??) that she is the exception that proves the rule??
NO! We’re all the exception…or can be the exception. We may not look that sweet Catherine….or act like Anthony Hopkins…or smile like George Clooney….or sing like Whitney….or dance like Baryshnikov…or or or or or.
Still we all have the opportunity, given us by Life, to build our lives as we so wish. Hard work accomplishes miracles. Combine that with talent. Combined with luck (for who knows what the tide might bring). Combined with an emergent adult understanding that EVERY life and every opportunity and every accomplishment brings with it value and a chance for glory, not as Ozymandias (King of Kings) but as a husband, a wife, a father, a mother, a good son or daughter who in their own way, with their own life, in their own little dusty towns that the Crispins among us seem to hate build something transcendent.
So what that the 7 billion others may not see it, or if seeing it, may not recognize it — so what? We see it; we recognize it; we cherish it — and cherish the opportunity with each sunrise, to do it all over again. How much better can life be??

Claire D
CD
Claire D
1 year ago
Reply to  B Davis

Well said, an excellent counter article to the main one.

N T
N T
1 year ago

It’s because girlbosses, emphasis on GIRL – are SUPPOSED to be hot.

Robert Eagle
RE
Robert Eagle
1 year ago

The French have a nice description- jolie laide – for a woman whose intelligence and character more than make up for a lack of conventional prettiness. A pageant devoted to them would be a treat.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Eagle

Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd was very plain yet is described as being very sought after by men when she was young. What else could that be but a great personality?

B Davis
B Davis
1 year ago
Reply to  Robert Eagle

Actually no. In reality, a pageant devoted to those who ‘lack conventional prettiness’ would be incredibly pointless. Like going to a museum to view transcendent beauty and finding only PhD Dissertations framed and displayed in every gallery: would anyone ever go back?
The point is, of course, that the purpose of a Pageant is ‘show’…is ‘entertainment’….is flash & dazzle & exactly that thing you tell us your pageant would most pointedly lack — the enthusiastic display of conventional prettiness.
Entertainment is, after all, entertaining: it’s why we go to pageants.
The problem arises — per Peggy Lee — if ‘that’s all there is to the circus’. If all we wish and ever want is a passing thrill, that brief frisson of hormonal delight at the sight of a nicely turned ankle….well….’if that’s all there is, my friend, then let’s keep dancing, let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
1 year ago

Life is not fair. Become a decent person and your life will be tolerable. Maybe even fantastic.

Teodor Calinoiu
TC
Teodor Calinoiu
1 year ago

(deleted repetition)

Last edited 1 year ago by Teodor Calinoiu
Teodor Calinoiu
Teodor Calinoiu
1 year ago

Is there a certain threshold of brains one must not surpass to get published in UnHerd? Because there’s a huge herd of stupid pieces around these fields. Isn’t the internet lovely; in real life I’d have tried to put myself in your shoes and make the best I could to get you, from your point of view. But here is fashionable to bang your head against the extremes while claiming you’re not, you’re reasonable, ’cause look at all those other people who just say the same. I guess I’m in the wrong bubble, pardon, herd. But still mates, this – your utterly unfruitful and likely ill-intentioned half-wit overly stretched angle on and pseudo-critique and pseudo-endorsement of feminism and other social rights movements – is pathetic, misleading, and potentially dangerous, feeding into cultural biases and supremacist entitlements I’d be genuinely surprised were you unaware of. Just read the comments you occasion to grasp a piece of my point.

Last edited 1 year ago by Teodor Calinoiu
Robert Eagle
RE
Robert Eagle
1 year ago

Your comments are verbose, tedious and wrong

Last edited 1 year ago by Robert Eagle
Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago

Huh? Wot’s that you say?

Last edited 1 year ago by Betsy Arehart