Winners like Chelsie Kryst show that beauty pageants are moving (slowly) into the world of modern feminism, but the concept of a pageant is still outdated.
I’ve always been completely fascinated and yet, simultaneously, completely turned off by beauty pageants.
Sure, I love a fictional pageant, like the ones in the classic Sandra Bullock rom-com Miss Congeniality or the more recent film adaptation Dumplin’, based on the book by Julie Murphy. In those films the pageants are full of warmth, women standing up for each other, and a focus on inner beauty.
In the real world, pageants are seemingly still obsessed with physical beauty. The swimsuit competition is still a crucial part of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, while the weight of contestants is a key talking point – Icelandic beauty queen Arna Ýr Jónsdóttir quit the pageant circuit after being told she was too fat to win any more contests, while President Donald Trump, who owned the Miss Universe pageant until 2015, said of a former winner that “she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem”.
As a feminist, it’s difficult for me to accept the continued existence of pageants like Miss Universe and Miss USA, which I believe have the objectification of women at their centre.
But if there was anyone that was going to get me to change my mind, it would be someone like Halima Aden, who became the first woman to wear a hijab in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, or the just crowned Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst.
Kryst is a full-time lawyer, who runs a fashion blog that centres affordable, professional clothing for women. She was named winner of Miss USA 2019 this week.
One of the more famous parts of the pageant is the question portion, and Kryst’s answer did not disappoint.
Asked if she thought the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements were “too much” (there’s a whole other article to be written about why this question is unacceptable), Kryst said: “I don’t think these movements have gone too far.
“What #MeToo and #TimesUp are about are making sure that we foster safe and inclusive workplaces in our country.
“As an attorney that’s exactly what I want to hear and exactly what I want for this country. I think they’re good movements.”
It’s an impressive answer, simultaneously dismissing critics of #MeToo and #TimesUp, summing up why the movements are so important, and signalling her commitment to seeing them succeed.
Kryst also showed her commitment to diversity when asked for one word to describe her generation. Choosing “innovative”, she expanded on the answer: “I am standing here in Nevada, in the state that has the first majority female legislature in this entire country. Mine is the first generation to have that forward looking mindset, that has inclusivity, diversity and strength, and empowered women.”
As Miss USA, Kryst will spend time making public appearances, and if she continues to speak like did during the competition, she’s sure to reach a lot of young women.
However, while as individuals she and the other Miss USA contestants (past and present) are inspiring, the fact is that the competition as a whole is still problematic.
Miss Universe, which owns Miss USA, describes itself as a “global, inclusive organisation that celebrates women of all cultures and backgrounds and empowers them to realise their goals through experiences that build self-confidence and create opportunities for success”. It might do this, but it also continues to promote a narrow ideal of beauty – slim – which contributes to the wider idea that only women with perfect bodies are to be valued.
If you need evidence, turn to a blog post from former Miss Universe Paulina Vega. This week, she shared that after completing her duties as Miss Universe, she signed with a modelling agency in New York. Three months later, having gained one kilogram, the agency said that she would be now classified as a “plus size” model. Yes, you read that right, one kilogram.
Vega said that she now feels happy because she’s working in healthy environments, continuing: “I do not define myself by what changes: the shape of my body or my weight. Today I live according to my standards of beauty and health, and now I feel in the right place.”
Fashion is slowly changing, Vega wrote, adding: “I just hope that as a society we continue to question the brands, media and industries that continue to idealise bodies that are not real or necessarily more beautiful than others.”
One of those brands is Miss Universe, which is all about the idealisation of bodies. Contestants like Kryst show that there’s more to the beauty than looks, but until the pageant learns that, I’ll continue to question its existence.
Image: Miss USA