Beauty Pageant Contestants Remain Underfed

Beauty pageants continue to promote thin beauty-now misleadingly spun as “fitness”-and they are propagating the thin ideal to developing countries.

Miss World 2000 Priyanka Chopra

MINNEAPOLIS (WOMENSENEWS)-At this moment, young women all over the world are striving to lose enough weight to win a beauty pageant.

A few of these women have just now reached their peak level of competitive thinness in preparation for the season's biggest beauty event, the Miss World Pageant on Saturday. An international television audience of more than a billion people, a large portion of which lives in Third World countries, will view the contest. It was in the news recently when Muslim rioting in Nigeria, provoked in part by perceptions that the event is sexually immoral, forced its organizers to move its venue from that country to London.

But despite the intense disapproval they evoke from many quarters, beauty pageants are still very much with us, even here in the United States, where popular interest has been waning in recent decades. The 16 million people who watched Miss America's crowning in September, though fewer than a year before, still helped ABC to its strongest Saturday evening in eight months. And last May the Miss Universe Pageant attracted a television audience of 11 million, a 40 percent increase over the previous year's telecast.

Beauty Pageants Reminiscent of Dog Shows

The selection of Miss America is the final outcome of 1,200 state and local pageants in the Miss America network, and these constitute only a small part of the vast subculture of beauty competition in the United States. The 81-year-old pageant that first assumed our country's name has spawned numerous imitations that have bestowed on thin women grandiose titles like Ms. America, Mrs. America, Miss USA, Mrs. United States, Ms. American United States, Miss International, Ms. Professional Woman International, Queen of the World, Miss Globe, Mrs. Globe and Miss Earth. On a more cosmological scale, there's Miss Sun Queen, Miss Milky Way and Miss Universe.

In addition, there are numberless regional, state and local pageants awarding such titles as New England Star/Sweetheart, Miss Rice Belt USA, Apple Festival Junior Apple Princess, Underwater Queen, Miss Effingham County Fair, Miss Fire Ant and Miss Rural Electrification. There are ethnic pride pageants, Internet pageants, modeling pageants, fitness pageants, petite pageants, children's pageants, pre-teen pageants, teen pageants, senior pageants, swimsuit pageants and pageants for the disabled.

Then there is the National Dream Girls USA Pageant, where winners' titles include Senior Grand Champion, Junior Grand Champion and Tiny Grand Champion. If these honors remind one of a dog show, the resemblance is more than superficial. Dogs are paraded in front of judges, evaluated on their temperament (at Miss America, think "Presence and Poise in Evening Wear"), and required to meet precise appearance criteria. For instance, the American Kennel Club requires a female golden retriever to be 21.5 to 22.5 inches in height at the shoulders. Dogs deviating more than an inch are disqualified-a rule reminiscent of the unwritten but stringent weight requirements that beauty pageants demand of participants.

America's Thin Ideal Influencing Increase in Eating Disorders Abroad

A Johns Hopkins study published a few years ago found that more than half of Miss Americas since 1970 have had a Body Mass Index below 18.5, placing them in the undernourished range according to World Health Organization criteria that define BMIs between 20 and 25 as normal. The recently crowned Miss America 2003, Erika Harold, is 5 feet 5 inches and 120 pounds, giving her a BMI of just under 20.

Though Harold is hardly anorexic, she is yet another embodiment of the thin beauty ideal that Miss America and the like unremittingly promote. They do so in a country where millions of girls and women suffer from eating disorders and tens of millions of normal, healthy girls and women endure daily pressures to think of themselves as unattractive and overweight when they are neither.

And with help from the mass media, the thin ideal is rapidly spreading to other parts of the world. A recent Harvard study of Fijian schoolgirls found that vomiting for weight control quintupled within 38 months after Western television programming was introduced into that culture. International beauty pageants such as Miss World and Miss Universe, perceived by some developing countries as a means for increasing international cachet, are contributing significantly to the trend.

Eating Disorders Aren't Among Pageants' Many Causes

Pageant response to criticism on such issues has often been to obscure them with public relations efforts and empty, pro-women pronouncements. On its homepage, the Miss America Organization prominently boasts of having a "tradition for many decades of empowering American women." The Miss Universe Web site proclaims that the pageant is "playing a critical role in making the next 100 years ‘The Century of Women.'"

In a time-tested public relations strategy, major pageants such as Miss America, Miss Universe and Miss World have also been associating themselves with social causes. Whether altruism or public relations, these efforts-which have raised millions of dollars and are targeted at issues such as AIDS, school violence and breast cancer-are obviously not without merit. Some of this year's Miss World contestants boycotted the pageant when it was slated to be held in Nigeria because a woman accused of adultery there had been sentenced to death by stoning under Muslim law. The Nigerian government vigorously asserted that it had never allowed such a sentence to be carried out.

But thin beauty contestants are not rushing to adopt eating disorders as one of their causes-though the death rate of young women with anorexia has been estimated to be 12 times that of young women who do not have the disorder-or in any way challenging the arbitrary beauty ideal that got them where they are.

Hiding Thinness behind "Fitness"

As another public relations measure, pageants have in recent years obscured the unhealthy issue of thinness with a health-and-fitness spin. The swimsuit event is currently called the "Bluepoint Apparel Swimsuit and Fitness Award" at Miss Universe and "Lifestyle and Fitness in a Swimsuit" at Miss America. But if these are fitness competitions, they are the only ones yet conceived in which participants wear 3-inch heels and parade and turn in front of judges.

Before each contestant's swimsuit appearance in September's Miss America telecast, she was shown in a video segment exercising and discussing "healthy lifestyle." So no one discussed strategies for rapid weight loss, a frequently reported practice of pageant contestants, such as that of swimsuit winner and Miss America 2001 Angela Perez Baraquio, who went from a size 7 to size 2 in the four months before her crowning. Since 1990, the average Miss America has been 5 feet 7 inches, 121 pounds (BMI 19.0). According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average 20-29 year old American woman is 5 feet 4 inches, 142 pounds (BMI 24.4).

The fitness spin further affronts women. They were not thin enough to be beautiful; now they are not thin enough to be fit.

The false idea that fitness equates to thinness is a seductive one in our culture, but top athletes fall within a wide range of BMIs, just as pageant winners would were their competitions actually interested in evaluating fitness or empowering women. The BMIs of the 2002 USA Basketball Women’s World Championship Team, winners of the World Championship in September, range between 19.7 and 27.9, averaging 22.9.

Sue Bird, a guard on the team and a recipient of abundant male attention, is 5 feet 9 inches, 150 pounds, giving her a BMI of 22.2, well above that of any Miss America since the 1920s. As historical and cross-cultural studies thoroughly demonstrate, beauty-like fitness-exists in diversity.

Beauty pageants, which are not going away any time soon, invalidate women's natural beauty. Because they are unsophisticated and degrading to women, it is tempting to ignore them. But doing so gives them free rein as they continue to touch the lives of millions of women and men in America and, increasingly, throughout the world. So they need continued pressure to move in new directions.

Stephen Huey, Ph.D., is a psychologist practicing in Minneapolis. He is writing a book on women's beauty in America.

For more information:

Journal of the American Medical Association
"Is Miss America an Undernourished Role Model?":

The Pageant Center:

December 11, 1962: Women for Peace Make Mockery Of ‘Red' Charges

(WOMENSENEWS)-The largest female peace action in the nation's history took place on November 1, 1961, when women in 60 cities walked off their jobs and out of their kitchens to support the idea of disarmament, urging the government to "end the arms race, not the human race." The anti-nuclear activists continued their work the following year, forming what they called an "un-organization," Women Strike for Peace.

The FBI was watching. Early in December 1962, subpoenas arrived at 14 homes, calling Dagmar Wilson, the organization's founder, and 13 others to appear before the powerful House Un-American Activities Committee, best known for blacklisting Hollywood artists. Anti-American, in those Cold War days, meant Communist. On Dec. 11, the proceedings began with accusations that the "fight for peace," led by Moscow, aimed to destroy the U.S. government.

In contrast to previous witnesses' defiance, panic or capitulation, the women's conduct in the supporter-packed hearing room was merrily subversive. They brought their children. When one woman was called to the stand, all the women stood. The committee chairman outlawed standing. Then he outlawed applauding. When a woman left the stand-after either bantering with her questioner or taking the Fifth Amendment-she was handed a floral bouquet and people ran out to kiss her. None of the male politicians could understand the leader-less "un-organization" or each woman's refusal to vet the political beliefs of anyone who wanted to join the peace movement.

Women Strike for Peace survived and grew. As protests against the Vietnam War exploded a decade later, the middle class white wives and mothers who made up its core met a very different kind of opposition, more challenging than the once powerful House Un-American Activities Committee. Radical feminists, bent on de-constructing fixed gender roles, criticized the belief-and political strategy-that women's moral authority as peace advocates derived from their motherhood role. That's another story.

— Louise Bernikow is the author of nine books, including "The American Women's Almanac." She takes her women's history slide show to communities and campuses all over the country.