Beauty Pageants

Beauty  pageants or  beauty  contests are  competitions that  more  often  than not judge the beauty  of women. Although beauty  pageants rank  women according to physical  appearance, organized pageants also give awards  for congeniality or personality  in order  to emphasize inner beauty. Although beauty  contests have  existed in multiple historical and cultural contexts, modern, commercialized beauty pageants emerged in the  late 19th  and  early 20th  centuries in the  United States. Today, beauty  pageants for women are held  in most  regions and  countries of the world, and international competitions like Miss World  have also become increasingly popular. While there  has been limited  interest in male beauty  pageants since the early 1990s,  most  contests that  feature men  tend  to focus  on bodybuilding.


Beauty contests in the United States  began  to appear  as part  of a broader culture of commercial leisure  in the  late 19th  and  early 20th  centuries. Throughout the 19th  century, cities and towns—particularly on the northeastern coast—began to expand as a result  of industrialization and  immigration to the  United States.  As Americans spent  more of their time and money  on leisure activities, entrepreneurs like P. T. Barnum began to establish an entertainment industry on boardwalks and main  streets. Beauty  pageants emerged within  this  economy of commercialized entertainment in the 1880s,  when  beach  communities on the Mid-Atlantic coast began  to sponsor them  in order  to encourage tourism. Competition among bathing beauties also provided the  public  the  opportunity to see women’s bodies  exposed  to a greater  degree than Victorian norms allowed. Although public  decency campaigns often curtailed efforts to hold such events, beauty pageants nonetheless became a ritual of the leisure  culture in many beach  communities throughout the early 20th  century. In addition to beauty  pageants, numerous community gatherings such  as county fairs, holiday  celebrations, and  even football  games,  began  to feature competitions that  combined elements of civic virtue  with beauty.

Arguably  the  most  famous beauty  pageant, the  Miss  America  pageant, originated in the  tourist commerce of Atlantic  City, New Jersey, in an attempt to lure beach-going tourists after  Labor  Day  weekend. The  first  competition was held over two days in September 1921. Known  at first as the Inter-City Beauty Contest, the  name  of the  winner was crowned Miss  America  at the  next  year’s pageant. The  early pageant emphasized different styles of dress, in particular a bathing suit, as the  most  important criterion for the  competition. However, in 1935  the  pageant  added  a talent  contest, and  in 1939,  a Miss  Congeniality award  was added. Throughout most  of the  history of the  Miss America  Pageant, until  1970,  nonwhites  were either  excluded or chose  not to participate in the competition. Nonetheless, competitions like  the  Miss  Chinatown USA  and  Miss  Black  America pageants emerged in the 1950s  and 1960s.

As the pageant spread in popularity in the 1920s, Miss America  began  to sponsor preliminary competitions in states and territories that became elaborate public rituals  in their  own right. As the pageant gained  in notoriety, many Miss America winners went  on to significant earnings in endorsements and  guest  appearances. Due  to a lack of funds during the Great  Depression, the pageant was suspended for several  years.  However, throughout  the  1940s  and  1950s,  Miss  America  enjoyed increased popularity as a national symbol  during a period of wartime  and postwar patriotism. Although the  pageant officially encouraged the  most  prevalent and  socially acceptable image of woman as housewife and  mother, the organizers  of the  pageant introduced scholarships for women in the  1940s.  In 1951, Catalina Swimwear  withdrew commercial support  from  the  competition when that  year’s winner refused to compete in a swimsuit. The  following  year, the Miss USA  and  the  internationally expanded Miss  Universe pageants, sponsored  by Catalina manufacturer Pacific  Mills,  emerged as the  biggest  competitors to  the Miss  America  brand. Nationwide beauty  pageants that  emerged in other countries after the 1950s  tended to espouse the patriotism and national values of their American counterparts.

In 1955,  the  Miss America  Pageant was first televised  for a national audience. The  telecast  attracted significant numbers throughout  the  late 1950s  and  1960s. Several  Miss America  winners have gone  onto become actresses and  some  have enjoyed celebrity  status. In  the  1960s,  changing attitudes toward women’s status  led to a resurgence in women’s activism  known as second-wave feminism. This  era of women’s liberation movements saw a number of organizations openly protest employment practices, the  legal status of women, the  social  treatment of women, and  the  representation of women. In  1968,  a group of feminist activists held  a prominent protest in Atlantic  City, where  they crowned a sheep  Miss America.  Protestors also disseminated a widely read  pamphlet that  criticized  the pageant’s organizers for demeaning women, racial discrimination, and  uncritical support for  the  military.  The  protest attracted a large  amount of undue media scrutiny, and  ratings  and  interest in the program declined throughout the 1970s. In many  other countries, women also protested the  pageants as an affront  to the dignity  of women and public  piety.

Although ratings  for the  telecast  dipped in the  1970s  and  1980s,  changing attitudes saw some  unconventional candidates crowned. Some  Miss America  winners  made  headlines by supporting feminist causes. In  1984,  Vanessa Williams became the  first African American to win the  competition, although she gave up the  crown  when  nude photographs emerged. Arguably  the  most  famous winner, Williams  went  on to become a top-selling musician and  a widely recognized actress. Since  the  1990s,  the  Miss  America  foundation has  devoted much of its attention to women’s scholarships, although the beauty  competition remains the centerpiece of the organization.


The  expansion of beauty  pageants to other countries also saw the emergence of a global  beauty  pageant circuit. The  spread of competition and  the  media  scrutiny of the pageants led many competitors to spend more  time in training. In addition, a large network of commercial support from cosmetics and clothing manufacturers became a major  part of beauty  pageants.

Beauty  pageant circuits have  become common for  many  competitors, who spend tremendous amounts of time  and  effort  on  preparing for  the  competition. Although the most  prominent beauty  pageants feature adult  women in their early 20s, nationwide beauty  pageants for children and  teenaged girls have been common since  the  1960s.  Criticism has  focused on  inappropriate attention to children’s bodies  and  undue pressure based  on  physical  appearance. Since  the sensationalized murder of child beauty  contestant JonBenét Ramsey in 1996, children’s  beauty  contests have  also  come  under tremendous  scrutiny because of their  potential for abuse  by sexual predators. In recent years, dwindling television ratings  and the rise of professional modeling has seen a major  decline  in popularity for beauty  pageants.

Gay and Male Culture

With  the decriminalization of cross-dressing and  homosexuality in the 1960s,  female  impersonators and  transgender women began  to organize drag  pageants at bars  in cities like San  Francisco, Los Angeles,  Chicago, and  New York. Early gay rights  activist and notable performer José Sarria organized the Imperial Court System in 1965  as a nonprofit foundation for gay liberation organizations in the San Francisco area. The  structure of the  Imperial Court System  spread  to numerous other cities and  remains a major  fundraiser in the LGBT  (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) community. Since the late 1960s, male and drag beauty  pageants have become a prominent feature of many gay male cultures in the United States. One  of the earliest  of these,  Miss Gay America,  was first held in 1971 in Nashville, Tennessee. In the  early 1980s,  Miss  Continental became a major  beauty  pageant for transgender women. In addition to drag pageants, the last 20 years has seen  a number of tongue-in-cheek male beauty  pageants. Often, such  pageants emphasize a subcultural aspect  of the gay community, such  as International Mr. Leather or Mr. Bear USA. The  competitions often  support local LGBT  charities. Most  gay beauty  contests are campy,  tongue-in-cheek parodies of female beauty  pageants.

Since  the  1950s,  there  have been  a number of contests that  have been  viewed as the male equivalent of female beauty  pageants. However, most  of these,  like the Mr. Universe competition, tend to focus on bodybuilding rather than male beauty. Since  the  1990s,  there  have been  various  attempts to promote mainstream male beauty  pageants. The Manhunt International competition originated in Singapore in 1993  and  represented one  of the  earliest  attempts to establish a contest based on  male  beauty  and  charm, modeled heavily  after  female  beauty  pageants. The Miss World  organization also began  to host  a Mister  World  pageant in 1996. Despite  serious efforts  to gain wider  recognition for male beauty  pageants, they attract  little recognition from any mainstream media  sources.

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