Five Pageant Ponderings

I’m seated in an excitingly yet ominously dark theatre at NIDA, flanked by my pageant guide Julijana Nikolis on one side and a loose railing on the other, waiting for the finals of Miss Grand/Supranational Australia to begin.

From nida.edu.au

I’ve never been to a pageant before and make it a point to not judge something unless I’ve experienced it first-hand. I also see this as a type of due diligence given that I’ve interviewed three pageant competitors so far and may very well interview more in the future.

Plus I’m also well-aware that there is a certain stigma associated with beauty pageants and many of my friends either “don’t get it” or view them quite negatively.

And so here I am, enveloped in fake dance-floor smoke on a Sunday night, sitting on that proverbial fence, open-minded as can be and waiting to see what transpires.

So what conclusions did I come to? Well, lots (although I’d almost call them musings rather than conclusions), but here are five of the ones that keep circulating in my mind:

1. (Physical) Beauty is the most dangerous quality a woman can possess — for themselves.

Beautiful women are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Sure there are some that are superficial (that applies to the rest of the human race as well), but for the vast majority they don’t know whether they are being treated preferentially because of their beauty or unfairly because of their beauty. It’s rarely in between.

Interviewing with actress and model Tammy Bartaia

Beauty is almost ALWAYS noticed. And what I’ve found is that people either idealise and worship it or they scorn it and deride it.

And so if you’re a beautiful AND intelligent woman who has goals and drive in her life, a lot of the time your walls will need to be constantly up (which is exhausting) or you need to trust (which leaves you vulnerable)… not a position I would ever envy.

2. We don’t trust beauty.

Pageants often have an advocacy, that is something they stand for, e.g. world peace, ending domestic violence, feeding the homeless etc.

And many of the pageant competitors at this event spoke eloquently and with true passion and purpose.

Interviewing with Tasha Ross

BUT, as one of the competitors (and one of my friends) alluded to, you can have all the sincere passion and intent in the world, but because you are a “pageant girl” (or in some cases “just a pageant girl”), what you say is often taken as being shallow, with no real intent and/or capability to effect real change behind it.

And that’s sad. And it only affects girls as far as I can tell.

We don’t seem to question that an attractive man can be successful and make a real difference. But put a beautiful girl up there, have her say exactly the same things, and suddenly she’s just a mouthpiece or she’s just doing it as a tactic to get something or because it’s what the pageant requires.

And doubtless that’s the case sometimes. But again, there seems to be an underlying current of belief in society that a woman can be beautiful or intelligent, but not both. She can be successful or feminine, but not both.

Is this changing?

3. End result trumps intent in the short-term.

I’m finding myself in a heated discussion with a friend. He’s doubting the validity of the charity work done by pageants because “they’re just doing it to win the pageant”.

Now, I’m sure that’s the case with some individuals. To claim otherwise would be naive.

But, at the end of the day, the homeless man that gets fed doesn’t care how he got fed, just that he did. Or the woman that’s admitted into safe housing to get away from domestic violence doesn’t care about your intent, only that she and her children are safe.

Julijana Nikolis volunteers with Hands and Feet, an organisation dedicated to feeding Sydney’s homeless.

So say what you will, at the end of the day, most of these pageant competitors have done more for charity than any armchair critic ever will.

And yes, intent matters, but that’s the long-term play. Just like substance is the long-term play to style’s short-term play.

But (a) no-one knows an individual’s true intent except themselves and (b) if charitable work is getting done… it’s getting done. And that’s a positive.

4. You can train confidence.

When the contestants have to answer questions from the judges, it’s immediately apparent which girls are confident and which are not. But to hear the stories, you’ll discover that many of the contestants would never have had the courage to be on stage doing public speaking like that if it hadn’t been for pageants and the associated training.

Alicia Van Schoonhoven went from the shy girl hiding behind her mother’s legs to speaking in front of over 700 people.

And if confidence is in short supply… especially for young women… and it’s an opportunity to let them have a voice… these are net positives, right?

5. Pageants are a net positive.

The conclusion that I come to is that pageants are a net positive. Given the multiple stories I’ve heard of girls who would never have found their metaphorical voice without them, it’s a pretty easy conclusion to come to.

Am I a fan or proponent of all components of the pageant system? Of course not.

For a start, I’d do away with the swimwear section (if for no other reason than how you look in a bikini in no way influences your advocacy capabilities) and I’d like the contestants to answer more involved questions that don’t allow for neatly-packaged politically correct answers (asking a contestant whether she would support an anti-gay marriage stance is kind of a no-brainer).

I do also believe that there’s an inherent need for the girls to conform to a certain image (I’m not talking so much physically here as I’m talking about the need to appear ‘perfect’ by polite societal standards). To my mind being a role-model is incredibly important, but I never trust ‘perfection’ (I’d love to hear a contestant drop a curse word as an example… OK, maybe not in competition).

At the end of the day though, pageants train confidence and teach competing (and losing) with grace and dignity. That’s a net positive.

The fact that it’s not for everyone doesn’t detract from that fact. Nothing is for everyone. And I’ll take a well-intentioned pageant queen trying to make a difference over a cynical armchair critic any day. And every day.

Because being a believer and being positive takes courage. Cynicism isn’t intelligence. It’s the offspring of fear.

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