I used to be against beauty pageants. Now I take part -- because to deny personal choice is just as restrictive as sexism
A few months ago I would have been far more likely to be standing outside the Miss World venue protesting at the event than attending it. I first entered a Miss England regional pageant in April in order to research a project for a module on the history of gender at the University of Warwick. Like the women standing outside Earls Court yesterday, I believed that pageants were degrading and humiliating to the young women involved and I was adamant that my experience would prove me correct.
Miss Venezula, Ivian Sarcos, waves after winning Miss World 2011 at
Earls Court in London, on November 6, 2011. A record 122 beauty queens
from Albania to Zimbabwe took part in the pageant, which was broadcast
live to more than 150 countries. Pic/AFP photo
Yet I attended the Miss World ceremony last night as both, a title-holder and a strong advocate of the industry. So what was it that changed my views so drastically? It was predominantly through meeting other Miss England contestants across the country.
Far from being superficial or unintelligent, as I imagined they would be, I discovered a network of people that are motivated by the desire to contribute to their community and be a part of something positive. Young men and women come together to seek recognition for their accomplishments, represent views or causes that are important to them and participate in friendly competition to win the honour of representing their town, city or country.
I am often asked how my identity as a beauty queen and my identity as a feminist coincide. I believe wholeheartedly that pageants and women's rights can go hand in hand. I consider myself a feminist as I believe a woman should be equal to a man in the ability to make the life choices that fulfil her, whether this leads her to remaining at home with her children, sitting in the boardroom of a multinational company or by taking part in pageants and using her personal attributes to benefit herself and those around her.
Once the feminist movement begins denying personal choice to women by demanding they reject all conventional gender ideals, feminism becomes just as restrictive to women as sexism. There are, of course, superficial elements to a pageant but generally the purpose of Mr and Miss England and Miss World is to celebrate the diversity of appearances within the world, not to push a stringent ideal of beauty. Pageant culture as a whole seeks to help women embrace their unique beauty and be proud of their individuality.
Rebecca Mordan, who helped organise the protest outside Earls Court last night, is wrong when she says that women are reduced to the "sum of their parts". While physical attractiveness is an aspect of pageants, the mind and the body are not viewed separately. A contestant must demonstrate a wide range of abilities and qualities beyond their appearance.
Pageants award far more than beauty. There is an award, for example, for those who demonstrate an outstanding dedication to charity or show themselves to be particularly accomplished in the arts, sport or academia. The weight placed on the importance of intelligence within pageants is illustrated neatly by the number of women in Miss England and Miss World who have obtained, or are in the process of obtaining, degrees.
I did not win the Miss Durham title because I was the most beautiful girl in the room - I wasn't -- but I demonstrated that I was worthy of representing my city through being eloquent, confident and dedicated to being a positive role model to younger members of my community.
Not enough is done in this country to celebrate young people and to recognise their achievements. To have the opportunity to stand on a stage and say: "This is me, this is who I am and what I look like. I am proud of myself" is empowering beyond imagination. Across the world, people choose to enter pageants because of the personal benefits they gain through the experience. Every contestant gains confidence, friendship and a broadened mind. Having the opportunity to be involved in a pageant is the real prize, winning is just a bonus.