Feminism, Pop-Culture | Posted by Julie Z on 01/19/2011

Beauty Pageants: What You Should Do Instead

Teresa Scanlan: The 17-year-old Miss America

Teresa Scanlan: The 17-year-old Miss America

I usually don’t pay attention to beauty pageants anymore. My reasons for hating them are pretty obvious and I’ve written about them here before. They blatantly objectify women. If they’re boosting “self-esteem,” as pageant promoting talking heads often claim they do, then it seems to me that said confidence is mostly based on being held up as a figure of immense beauty in a global society where beauty is valued above all else. And while confidence is great, that’s a pretty shallow and transparent thing to feel confident about. And I get that a woman should be able to do whatever the hell she wants (within reason) and that entering a beauty pageant is a choice, but if we cut the shit the “ugh” factor here is a little too intense to ignore.

But this past weekend, I did pay attention. Why? The new Miss America, Teresa Scanlan, is my age (17). This probably shouldn’t catch my attention as much as it does, considering that in this day and age beauty queens are practically bred in the womb (not quite, but I’m sure somebody’s working on making that happen). But it got me thinking: I’m 17 and I know quite a few 17-year-olds. We all lambast beauty pageants, whether or not our motivation in doing so is strictly “feminist.

It basically comes down to this: none of us can figure out why beauty pageants are relevant anymore. And especially when looking at this 17-year-old who clearly has dedicated her life to competing in such pageants, we’re all wondering why she chose pageants rather than activities like the ones we do.

Even if you take beauty completely out of the equation, and look at  pageants as a scholarship program based on an individual’s talents in the areas of public speaking, physical fitness and health (heh), the development of a “talent,” and raising awareness about an issue near and dear to your heart, there are about several thousand better options than entering the archaic practice of beauty pageants. Don’t believe me? Here are a few FBomb approved options (all of which could probably end up in some sort of scholarship).

Public Speaking

Join Speech and Debate. I don’t know if every high school is as crazy about this club as mine is – we have multiple coaches and it’s generally a cult, including literally car loads of tupperware bins full of preparative literature based on the topic the student will be debating. But from what I understand it’s an intense commitment that demands the development of time management skills and responsibility from its participants. Also, rather than asking questions like “Who is your role model?” or “Puppies v. Kittens – DEBATE!” (too far?), speech and debate focuses on topics like, “In the United States, should juveniles charged with violent felonies be treated as adults in the criminal justice system?” and “Should the United States federal government substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey?” So, you know, important stuff that requires deep thought and research. Also, you get the benefit of being part of a team! So much better.

I mean...our talents are pretty much on par...

I mean...our talents are pretty much on par...

Physical Fitness

Join a sports team. I joined my school’s tennis team my freshman year and continued with it through junior year and while I bitched about it a lot at the time (in addition to the time commitment, my general adverse attitude towards moving became a problem after a while) I have to admit it was a great experience. Working towards a goal athletically is so much different than working towards one academically, and as an academic person I found it really interesting to experience the intensity of physically pushing myself in practice and in the midst of a match. And not to hit the “team” thing over the head, but being on a team is a really valuable experience. In addition to being lazy, I’m mostly a misanthrope (I’m really painting a charming picture of myself, aren’t I?) and being on a team taught me how to work with other people, which really translates to many different parts of my life. And while learning how to be independent and achieving personal goals is also great, I can only imagine what participating in pageants – where you are constantly judged as an individual and pitted against other girls – does to you over time.


It seems like most beauty contestants’ talents are music related (like this admittedly badass talent), so I say learn an instrument or form a band. Join a music school like School of Rock or go to camp at Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls! Learn more about the Riot Grrrl Movement for badass female role models / references. Or, if you want a super awesome talent that I could only dream about having, join a Robotics Team like Rock ‘N Roll Robots and create a robot that can take over the world. That’d be sweet.

Raising Awareness

I could literally offer suggestions under this category for years, but even just in looking at my own high school’s roster of clubs, I’d offer up joining clubs (or better yet creating one if your school doesn’t have one) like Amnesty International or The Gay Straight Alliance (GSA). There are probably a lot of awesome organizations in your area, as well. For example, in my community there’s this organization called Gen Eff that trains local high school students to raise awareness amongst their peers about their health care rights and encourages them to take an active role in the politics of health care. There’s also a local organization called Expect Respect, which is devoted to raising awareness about teen dating violence through a play performed by students in high schools around the area.

So, you see, that’s why when beauty pageants offer up all of these reasons for why their pageants are still relevant and valuable, I just can’t help but scoff. There are so many more feminist-friendly options that are actually more competent at providing these opportunities and benefits for kids. So who knows – if Teresa Scanlan could do it all over again maybe she’d make the exact same choice and become Miss America at 17 again. But I know for damn sure that there are better options for the majority of us.

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  • Kristen @ at 12:37 pm, January 19th, 2011

    While I agree with you entirely that pageants epitomize many of the unrealistic beauty standards in this country, I also have something I feel needs to be said.

    Though I have never personally held a title, I have become friends with many competitors and title holders (including national level winners) and feel there are extreme misconceptions about the type of women that compete. Yes, there are the mtv-type and the scarily done up toddlers, many of the young women I know are simply incredible. They volunteer, raise money for charities, speak eloquently and are genuinely smart, kind and giving people.

    And for the record, many of them do participate in the activities you’ve listed above. Take Randi Strong for example, Miss Teen TN International. She works in a boutique, volunteers with countless charity organizations, plays varsity volleyball and intends to attend college for Public Relations. To top that off, I’ve never heard her utter a negative word about anybody she knows.

    Please don’t judge a queen by her crown, there’s so much more than what you hear in the onstage question that defines them.

  • david @ at 1:44 pm, January 19th, 2011

    I like this article because it’s about options and choices for women and the ones you recommend are excellent. It does raise questions about what seems to be your, “us vs them” view on things.
    What if someone did pageants, tennis, and debate team?

  • raynaroze @ at 2:24 pm, January 19th, 2011

    god i wish my school had all these clubs. you must go to a badass school. my charter school has boys basketball and cheerleading. thats it. oh yeah and yearbook. I have been trying to find a feminist organization in the dallas ft. worth area. but cannot. if you have any ideas please email me

  • A.Y. Siu @ at 3:08 pm, January 19th, 2011

    I don’t blame beauty pageant contestants. Society is constantly telling women they are valued primarily for their looks (with talent, skill, ambition, etc. all being secondary). This pageant is a scholarship (debate club is not a scholarship–sports is not a scholarship unless you are exceptional in one particular sport, and even then maybe not). It is real money.

    Believe me, if there was no scholarship money for beauty pageants and there was scholarship money for “Don’t care about your appearance but show your talents” pageants, you’d see a lot more women signing up for those pageants.

    The real question isn’t why do women participate in beauty pageants but why do people who have money set up scholarship funds for “You look conventionally beautiful and can also do some other things” for women?

  • david @ at 4:02 pm, January 19th, 2011

    From what I have seen in my life, it would appear that women care more about looks than talent, although I don’t know all the reasons or causes.
    Your ideas for better things are very good but you might be a bit harsh to make them exclusive rater than inclusive. You may be placing values on others and it’s a burden to live up to other peoples values sometimes. It reminds of how people tell boys not to play with dolls because it would be better if they played with trucks.

  • Kristen @ at 4:31 pm, January 19th, 2011

    Your first response hit the nail on the head, I consider myself to be a feminist and hold the majority of the core values feminists agree on, however I feel there really is an “us vs them” mentality. As women we shouldn’t participate in any type of shaming of other women, whether is be slut shaming or shaming of an activity somebody chooses to do, such as pageants.

    However it’s unfortunate that you slipped back into “mansplaining” in your second reply. Valuing my appearance doesn’t mean I don’t want my positive traits aside from that to be what I am foremost identified with.

    I’m sure you didn’t mean for your response to come out this way, but you sound somewhat condescending, as though pageant competitors are some type of uneducated victims of gender constructs in society and therefore can’t be blamed for what you assume are their shallow values.

  • Liz @ at 9:40 pm, January 19th, 2011

    Great post! Now if you could only print it out and slip in the mailboxes of the parents on Toddlers & Tiaras…
    I’ve known a few people who do pageants and they’re a range of interesting people, but you’re right… there are a lot of better things to do. I recommend watching GENUINE KEN, which is a new reality show/beauty pageant (hosted by Whitney Port-omg!) about a bunch of dudes competing to be crowned “Genuine Ken: Best Boyfriend in America.” It is truly bizarre. I watched the first episode on hulu today because Michael Buckley was a guest judge. It is sort of a train-wreck of odd, but at the same time, morbidly interesting to watch. I’m probably going to end up watching all of the episodes. (When I could be doing the wonderfully more productive things you have listed in this article… ) But in any case, it’s sickly interesting to watch and see how the show is constructing gender and maleness and boyfriendness and see how the contestants are judging each other. I might be trying to read too much into the gendered aspects of the show to try to justify watching… but in any case… check it out.

  • Liz @ at 9:41 pm, January 19th, 2011

    PS: I never thought I’d say this, but Miss America could definitely use some more ventriloquism. That was fantastically amusing.

  • Halle @ at 10:52 pm, January 19th, 2011

    I just have to say that that ventriloquism/yodeling video was amazing!!! Miss Arkansas obviously has a great sense of humor and a hilarious talent!!! On another note, I was surprised to hear that your school is involved with debate. I love arguing (all friendly of course ;) and I have been trying to start a debate club for years but my school is not too welcoming to clubs/activites other than sports and those already in place.

  • jULIET @ at 11:32 pm, January 19th, 2011

    just a note:
    i used to do school of rock and i plan on joining the willie mae rock camp.

    school of rock is awesome and if you’re into that sort of thing and can afford it it is an amazing experience! you meet lots of amazing people and get to play real gigs :D

  • Laurie Penny @ at 5:20 am, January 20th, 2011

    I think more women should participate in beauty pageants. I used to be against them, but now I realize they are a wonderful way for young women to develop their skills at landing a husband. I encourage all the young women reading this to sign up today for a pageant.

  • Taylor S. @ at 9:41 am, January 20th, 2011

    Robotics is such a rewarding thing to be a part of!

    I’m on one this semester, and it really helps with teamwork, programming literacy, and critical thinking.

    Plus the Lego Mindstorm kits are relatively cheap. We need more lady robotics specialists!

  • jULIET @ at 12:53 pm, January 20th, 2011

    i do robotics as well (the FIRST league) on an all-girls team (FeMaidens!) and it’s great! Lots of amazing people.

  • Tessa @ at 7:18 pm, January 20th, 2011

    speech/debate is AMAZING! I do it and love it :)

  • Julie Z @ at 11:30 am, January 23rd, 2011

    thanks everybody for the feedback and it’s so great to hear about all the stuff you’re all doing – for real somebody needs to teach me about robotics that sounds amazing.

    I just wanted to note that I really don’t have anything against the actual GIRLS who compete in pageants. That’s totally their choice and if they feel that competing is a rewarding and valuable experience then all the power to them. I just question the societal values and standards that promote an activity that really is primarily based on beauty and wrote this post to offer some alternatives that take all of the admittedly valuable aspects of pageants, minus the beauty portion.
    I don’t believe anything is either black or white (beauty pageants are neither all good or all bad) – there’s “gray” to everything and I’m sure beauty pageants are no exception.

  • David @ at 7:29 pm, January 24th, 2011

    I think you misread my second post when I said, “From what I have seen in my life, it would appear that women care more about looks than talent, although I don’t know all the reasons or causes.”
    I maybe should have said, “many women” or “most women,” but it is still, what I’ve seen in my life; and see it today. Mansplaining is a new concept to me, I’m sure it’s a positive thing.

  • A.Y. Siu @ at 12:03 am, January 30th, 2011

    Mansplaining is a new concept to me, I’m sure it’s a positive thing.

    It’s not a positive thing.

    Read more here:

  • CMS @ at 6:52 am, November 7th, 2011

    once again, people want to judge women negatively and hold them back. if you ever competed, you would know that pageants ARE a sport…..a sport that takes a LOT of practice and a lot of talent. I challenge each of you to get up in front of hundreds of people in a ballroom and nail a speech, nail a question that you had no idea was coming, perform a talent, keep your body healthy etc etc. there are ALWAYS extremes in ALL things and pageants are no exception. did you know that Oprah and Diane Sawyer were pageant girls? put that in your pipe and smoke it….these women knew that an ability to present themselves was so important to their success. Let’s start getting behind women and their choices instead of going back in time and making pre-determined opinions about what they should or should not be doing. Every thing you say they COULD be doing is exactly WHAT they are doing in the pageant world!

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