33 New Things: Go To A Beauty Pageant

Every year, I make a list of new things I want to try.  Some of these things are difficult, some are easy, some are shockingly mundane.  You can read about past adventures here.

So.  This is probably my fifth attempt at writing this blog post
.  It’s hard to write about beauty pageants without my thoughts devolving into a 5,000 word diatribe about Beauty + Power + Society + OMGi’mablondewhitewomanwholikestobeonstagehowdoesthisapplytomeeeeeeeee.  I don’t know how to write about women wearing swimsuits for judges without sounding snarky and judge-y.

But I don’t think there’s any benefit to tearing down other women for the choices they make.  And a lot of the pageant contestants are craaaazy accomplished, so there must be something to it, right?  Or maybe not?  I don’t know.  So, in lieu of detailing my Feelings About The Pageant Industry, I’m just going to provide you with some observations and facts, presented without comment.

Facts and Observations from the Miss Minnesota 2013 Pageant

* The cheapest tickets for the final day of the pageant were $27.  Better seats cost $32 and $42.  A program for the event cost $15.

* 30% of each contestant’s score came from the interview round (conducted before the pageant.)  The remaining 60% was divided between the swimsuit and evening gown competitions. 10% of their score came from the final, live interview question.

*  Every single contestant paired her swimsuit with beige, patent leather platform shoes.

* There was no talent competition.

* Music of choice to accompany the pageant?  Dave Matthews, Sting, Hoobastank, David Gray.

* Family and friends supported their contestants with big, handmade signs – some with battery-operated lights.

* During the evening gown competition, the emcee read off each contestant’s proudest accomplishments.  A sampling:
– an award-winning thesis from Columbia

– All-American swimmer and lacrosse player
– produced and directed an award-winning short film
– Chili’s employee of the month
– finishing college in three years
– mission work in Costa Rica
– modeling contract
– triathlete
– founding a non-profit

– cheerleader for a professional sports team* Each finalist had to answer a question for the live interview section.  Questions covered bullying, the importance of education, the causes they would work to promote.  Several contestants ended their answers with “…so….” and “…..anyway….”

* Included in the prize package that the winner would receive:  multiple scholarships, hair extensions, cosmetic dentistry, spray tans, media coaching, headshots, personal training sessions, makeup brushes.

* Miss Minnesota 2012 was Hmong and before she passed on her crown, she spoke about how great it was that a girl who’d been born in a developing country, in a refugee camp, could receive an honor like this and represent Minnesota to the rest of the country and the world.

* The women who won Miss Minnesota 2013 and Miss Teen Minnesota 2013 both listed modeling contracts as major achievements.

So.  There are some facts about the Miss Minnesota pageant.  How do you feel about beauty pageants?  Would you ever take part in one?

Edited to add:
This pageant was part of the Miss USA pagents – the ones run by Donald Trump.  Sara competed in the Miss America circuit of pageants and had this to say:

Scoring is 40% interview (its private, with the judges, and often
intense) 30% talent, 15% swimsuit, and 15% evening gown. Thats for Miss
America system. Miss USA is 1/3 each swimsuit, evening gown, and onstage
interview. Also you can win major scholarships with Miss America. I
paid a major chunk of undergrad by competing.

photo found on m.beautypageantnew.com, credit future productions

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  1. The Dame Intl

    Honestly, Id rather like to see "brain pageants" so we can encourage and celebrate innovation and intelligence in women instead of brain washing women that beauty is their main or only ticket to success.

  2. xandra

    I've always felt distanced from the whole concept because well, I just don't *get it* and think it's a bit antiquated. Yet I was fascinated to read about your experience – i love gaining perspective on things that are out of my comfort zone and try not to judge too much.
    xandra ★

  3. Kelley

    I don't think I would every do a beauty pageant. I have mixed feeling about it, I'm not really sure how to feel. lol But they do make me feel a little uncomfortable to think about. I know that for sure. lol

  4. And Kathleen

    I'll admit … I'm filling in the gaps with lots of judgment and snark. But to be fair, it is called a BEAUTY pageant. The whole premise is to be judged based on what you look like and everyone who enters these competitions understands that. I would go so far as to say maybe they should eliminate the interview questions altogether and unapologetically base 100% of the score purely on aesthetics. Maybe instead of a pre-interview they could take measurements and vitals.

    It's easy to assume these women are placing 100% of their self worth on what they look like and the results of a pageant like this. But maybe that kind of external validation is dangerous even in something like a "brain pageant" too. Oh man… it's hard not going into a diatribe on what it all means even in your comments section! So I'm going to stop.

  5. Kim

    My now very masculine, very much out lesbian cousin did the pageant circuit when she was in high school. Go ahead and think it was because she wanted to fit the idea of "womanness." It wasn't. It was because she grew up in a crap household without any money for college. And the scholarships were super appealing. My mom made her dresses. And she got to go to college.

  6. Whit

    I write for a prom and pageant boutique for a living though glam and sparkle aren't really my thing….As much as I want to see all the pageant girls as a bunch of ditzy ladies in stripper heels, *most* {not all, but most} are very smart, accomplished women who just happen to be gorgeous. And the scholarships can get pretty crazy.

  7. lc  |  rebuild

    Interesting. I think I was very society-warped from a young age. As a 6-year-old brunette Lauren, my greatest dream was to be a tow-headed Jennifer. As a kid I would have LOVED to be in pageants and I remember always watching Miss America, to my mother's chagrin. A bit later on, a strict devotion to Sweet Valley High strengthened this mindset.

    Anyways, I grew out of that, but I still find the pageant world fascinating because it is so beyond the realm of anything I've experienced. NPR did a story on the economics of beauty pageants a few days ago:


  8. Kristie

    Wow. I think the 60/30/10 split says a lot about our society and I'm fairly sickened by that.

  9. Megan

    Wow. I guess the facts speak for themselves. It's strange to me that we still have competitions like this, and that these young women would place so much in such a fleeting thing. The real kicker is that after the beauty pageant, they receive more beauty products, all fake things. As if to say, despite their beauty, their crowning achievement, it's still not enough. And why can't we give women scholarships for their intelligence and hard work, rather than something as subjective as beauty?

    Then again, maybe it's just a case of sour grapes…

  10. ***************

    Thanks for this, Sarah! As the big sister of a pageant winner (granted it was a small town "scholarship" pageant, not a "beauty" pageant, but it still included an evening gown competition) I appreciate that you mentioned that there are multiple reasons young women participate in these things, and that we shouldn't rush to judge them for their choices.

    My younger sister, like Kim's cousin, did it for the scholarships, because our family is poor and she needs help to get through college. She's also super smart and creative, so she was able to showcase that in the talent and interview portions of the pageant.

    When I went to the pageant to cheer her on I was definitely irked by all the ridiculous expectations and judgement, but I was also really proud of her for making a choice to do something she wanted to do and then totally rocking it like the smart confident young woman she is.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! I know a lot of women (some good friends of mine) who have done pageants, for lots of different reasons. And really, I was a theater kid/dancer/singer when I was in high school, so I totally understand enjoying being on stage and performing.

      I've attended small town pageants and pageants that were significantly more talent/interview/intelligence based and that gave out scholarships to 'real' schools (these scholarships were to acting and modeling schools, not accredited universities) which sort of "made more sense" to me. But this was a straight up 'beauty pageant.'

      Also, this was part of the Miss USA pageant circuit (the one run by Donald Trump and feeds into the Miss Universe pageant) so maybe that had something to do with it. Maybe the Miss America pageants are better?

  11. Sarah Russell

    I competed in a local pageant for the Miss America system when I was in college, partially because I was curious about the whole thing, partially because I wanted the scholarship money and partially for the chance to have someone put a sparkly crown on my head and tell me I'm pretty (feminism is complicated, okay?).

    I didn't place, and I can't even begin to describe how surreal it was to walk across a giant stage in beige platform heels while literally being judged on my physical appearance. It wasn't for me – especially considering that the general attitude in my area was that you had to invest far more in your competition wardrobe, coaching, talent prep, etc than I ever could have recouped in scholarship money.

    That said, I have no issue with other people choosing to participate in beauty pageants. We have things in this world that reward brains (they're called scholarships), so if some women choose to use systems that reward physical beauty (which is often just as subjectively defined as "brains") as a way to advance their goals, more power to them. For me, part of being a feminist means the ability to choose my own path in life, while granting other women the same privilege.

  12. Midnight Cowgirl

    I've competed in a few pageants but still consider myself as an outsider to the industry. A few years ago, I had the privilege of participating in your True Story series, and your breakdown of the pageant got me thinking. I hope you don't mind me sharing a few more of my thoughts.

    Each pageant system runs a little differently – some have talent events, others have fitness instead of swimsuit, still others require business presentations, etc. I think it is easy to look at pageants and focus on the superficial, but pageants are about more than just sequins and bikinis. Depending on the system, a girl might enter for the scholarships, the opportunity to travel, the public speaking experience, or the chance to launch a modeling or acting career.

    I think it is strange that a girl who competes in pageants is often written off as shallow, but her peers who act in the school play, perform in the band or orchestra are applauded for their talent. In the end, the pageant itself is just a piece of performance art full of costumes and choreography.

    For instance, while it might seem odd that every contestant wore beige, patent leather platform shoes, they were probably required to wear them: 1) beige makes your legs look longer. 2) pageants like the Miss USA system often pick a mandatory shoe color for swimsuit – when I competed, we all had to wear silver shoes. I think if a person approaches a pageant like one would a recital or even a football game the oddities become less irksome. Pageants aren't held to give ammunition to feminists for their doctoral thesis. (Although I am tempted to ask why so many self-proclaimed feminists are offended by beautiful, smart women putting themselves forward in society. Isn't feminism about women taking hold of their dreams, whatever they may be?) That being said, there are certain pageant systems that I do believe are a blight on society, and people should speak out against them.

    While a pageant competition is easy to make fun of, the real work begins after a winner is crowned. The winner will attend events like state fairs, local parades, autograph signings at the local outlet mall, etc. Suddenly, the winner's sash becomes a target sign attracting every sleazy guy and irate feminist, and all Miss Beauty Queen can do is smile. In part, the reason I no longer compete in pageants is because I'm tired of spending lots of money when the reward is at best a year of non-negotiable servitude.

    OK, that's the end of my tirade. I look forward to reading about more of your adventures 🙂

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thanks so much for sharing your insight – totally helpful!

    • Hannah

      I was also going to comment to say that, while the idea of everyone picking beige would be pretty funny, they were probably a requirement. Beige as an attempt to mimic bare feet maybe? Although, on a semi-related note, I'm ready to see the platform heel trend fade out.

  13. Anonymous

    Wow, what can I say… first and foremost I am always worried about the message that we portray to our children. And the one I see in beauty peagants is: you have to be unnaturally pretty and put lots of money in it and wear the most unatural smile (that would scare everybody off in a usual social situation) to win it. And only women do it.
    I understand why people do it for the scholarships, but if the organisers would want to grant young women opportunities to go to college they could certainly find a way that selects the girls by their qualification for studying and not their superficial (artificially enhanced) beauty. But I guess you can't make nearly as much money with that… – And where are the males? Oh, I remember, they only get scholarships through sports and school/social achievements…
    Kudos to your professionality, Sarah!
    And always remember: The very most variance between a man and woman can better be explained by the persons personal background/upbringing/education/personality than by the gender!
    whoa, hot topic : )
    Best wishes,

  14. Kaleena's Kaleidoscope

    Well, it seems a lot of people have already covered what I was going to say, but I'll go ahead and share my experience… Seven years ago I competed in my small town's local pageant and won, and subsequently I went on to compete at the Miss California competition. While the whole experience was a bit insane, it was incredibly valuable and I wouldn't trade it back for anything.

    For one thing, I earned over $12K in scholarship money and was able to put myself through college and graduate without student loans. I spent my year of service as an active leader in the community and it helped develop my public speaking skills, gave me a chance to do some beneficial networking, and I was a positive role model for a lot of children, particularly when I started an after school performing arts program. I made some life long friends and gained some valuable skills.

    My experience was through the Miss America Organization, though, which is more on the side of "brain pageant" than the Miss USA pageant, since its judging criteria heavily includes interview, talent, and community service. The MAO girls tend to look down on the Miss USA girls because we think we're "sooo much smarter and more accomplished". Who's to say if we are, really? All we know is we are JUDGED on those things, where as the Miss USA pageant is more focused on appearance.

    I can't say that I would ever do a full-on beauty pageant, like the Miss USA pageant. It all does seem a bit silly and shallow, and I much prefer the idea of a competition that includes brains & accomplishment. But to each their own, right? I mean, if there were cat pageants I would totally entire my little furballs with total enthusiasm, even if some people might think that a little weird…

  15. Girliest Nerd

    Beauty pageants are a symptom of a sick society. They reinforce the idea that a woman's worth is intrinsically tied to her appearance. Men have no real counterpart to this… and don't say that it's because women don't appreciate beautiful male bodies or whatever because that is patently false (reference: Magic Mike box office receipts)! 🙂

    FWIW I would never blame the women who take part or those who do what they have to do.

  16. Samantha

    When it comes to pageants I could write a book. I grew up doing pageants (age 7-16) and many of coaches competed in the Miss America system back in the 90's. They were very closed mouth about their experience but all hinted to the same thing about the competitions (and not all of my coaches knew or socialized with each other).

    As a kid I competed in several pageant circuits and must say that the show Toddlers and Tiaras isn't far from what I experienced in the 90's. Sadly even the meltdowns and parent shit-talking was something I witnessed more than once at every pageant I was at. I did enjoy competing but as I got older and started to realize how much kid pageants effected me did I fully understand what they can do to a kid.

    If you want to really consider how screwed up pageants are check out the ones that happen in South America. Plastic surgery is pretty much a requirement.

    Sorry to be so negative, but this was my experience. I wrote about it once on my blog:
    It is a bit of a break down on what happened during a pagent.

  17. Kate

    I guess the problem I have with the idea of pageants is that you have to be conventionally attractive to win, and if you are not (or don't spend loads of money and time transforming yourself), you are basically worthless.

    I have no problem with the people who want to participate in these things to get scholarship money or speaking experience or whathaveyou. I think if you can work that system to your advantage, then that's great for you and if you're comfortable with it, you should. College is expensive, after all.

    But I have a big problem with the fact that in the end, you will not have the advantage if you are not 'pretty'. And to base a prize on something people largely have no control over (genes are genes, and the media decides what's 'pretty') is awful and continues to send all the wrong messages to everyone, male or female, young or old.

    Also, on a vaguely related note, my god, Donald Trump is awful.

  18. Kate

    The closest I've ever come to a beauty pageant was in college when I represented a club in the homecoming queen competition. I hated it and realized that while I liked being onstage in a pretty dress, anything more was not for me!

    I think you should see about doing a police ride-along next – I'm really interested in that! I'm two weeks away from being a certified law enforcement officer in the state of Missouri and I'm currently trying to find a job as a patrol officer. It's an amazing career and I already know I'm so excited about doing it. I've done four ride-alongs at this point and it's always a really interesting experience.

  19. Julia H. @ Live Young and Prosper

    Props for how you chose to write this post. I definitely agree that none of us have a place to judge the decisions other women make, anddddd I also definitely agree that if I had to write a post about a beauty pageant, I would have been dying to wrote all sorts of snarky comments. By giving us just the facts, you let us interpret it on our own–and, trust me, I think you still got the point across 🙂

  20. Dee

    I was thinking about this the other day, as I read a blog post about the national costumes worn during the Miss Universe (?) peagant. One of the things I noticed (But wasn't surprised by) was that all of the women in the peagant looked pretty much the same. The biggest difference came from skin tones and slight variations in facial features but other than that it was pretty much the same body, same long hair, same conventionally pretty face. This isn't to blame the women that participate in these peagants but rather the narrow beauty standard that is reinforced year by year, everywhere in the world. The beauty standard that makes girls in Medellin, Colombia ask for nose and boob jobs on their 16th or 18th birthdays (yes, I had friends who did that), and girls in Brazil to relax their naturally curly hair because that's what is seen as beautiful in (mostly American) television and movies. So I don't have a problem with these beautiful women choosing to join these peagants, I'm just uncomfortable by this industry that makes its money selling an ideal that's still centered on mostly North American or White European standards of beauty.

  21. Allison

    I'm super late here, but wanted to share my experience for anyone who happens to see this post as late as I did 🙂

    I competed in a local Miss America Org. pageant after my senior year of high school because my mom basically made me (I was 18, but still living under her roof until I left for college, so I humored her). Her good friend was on the board of directors, and thought I'd do well and enjoy it. I went in with a terrible attitude, but ended up having a great time.

    I'm still friends with a few of the girls I competed with, for one thing. I chose a platform I was passionate about, prepared my talent (dance), pulled out an old homecoming dress and swimsuit, and splurged on a skirt suit (which I wore whenever I needed such an outfit in college)- and honestly didn't have a clue what I was doing. I was terrified before the interview, but it went well, I thought. I placed in the top 5 and was awarded a $2,000 scholarship (to any accredited school).

    I didn't think I'd come back. The $2,000 was great, but I had (and still have) mixed feelings about the whole thing… but I stayed in touch with the girl who won, and was amazed by all the things she did throughout the year in our county. So when I got an email about registering for the next year, I did. I placed 1st runner up, and the following year I won.

    I have somewhat mixed feelings about winning a contest based in large part on the fact that I won the genetic lottery and am "conventionally attractive", tall, and thin. But the largest portion of the score in the Miss America system is the interview, and the judges I had in every pageant I competed in asked real, tough questions. Specific questions about current events, elected officials, the platforms of those running for office, my own platform, etc. I succeeded in part because I keep up on the news, and have and can articulate opinions. Interviewing in the MAO made grad school interviews much less intimidating- all they were going to ask me about was science! No politics! No world events!

    The year I spent as a local title holder was full of speaking events, which I'm certain improved my public speaking skills. I also got to help several schools set up or re-start career days, science fairs, math nights, and reading weeks. I spent so much time with kids in my community, and I loved every minute of it.

    I get why people don't like pageants. I didn't like them before I competed, and I still have mixed feelings about a lot of it. The Miss USA system never appealed to me because of the higher entry fees and the awards being all about beauty and modeling (vs. scholarships in the MAO), but I won't judge a woman who decides that she wants to compete in any system.

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