beauty contests

views updated May 11 2018

beauty contests In its modern form, the beauty contest is an American product. The selection of a woman as a symbol of community solidarity and fertility has a long and continuing history in Europe and North America. In the latter half of the nineteenth century women were frequently displayed in publicly staged events in the US. These rallies and crownings met with little protest as long as the occasion and its organizers were ‘respectable’, since both American feminists and conservatives regarded women as special guardians of American morality. The public staging of a contest between semi-naked women, however, presupposed the development of modern popular culture, where low and high class values became mixed and bathing beauties could be shown in movies and advertisements. As early as 1854, the American showman P. T. Barnum tried to organize a beauty contest where women were to appear on stage and be judged on their physical beauty. This kind of beauty contest later in the century became widespread at carnivals and other working-class entertainments where physical display was accepted, but P. T. Barnum's 1854 contest was a failure because only women of ‘questionable reputation’ entered. So he invented the photographic beauty contest, where the appraisal of women was based on the photographs they submitted. The photographic beauty contest, which was acceptable to the dominant values of the middle- and upper classes, quickly spread, and was used by newspapers and city councils for promotional purposes. By the turn of the twentieth century, American Victorian morality was on the wane, and the limits to the appearance of women in public changed: women could be used in advertisements, modelling became a respectable occupation, and film maker Mack Sennett successfully introduced bathing beauties in his movies.

From working class to popular culture

Women's appearance in public in swimsuits did not happen before the early twentieth century. Bathing had long been unpopular in Europe and America, and immersion in seawater did not become an acceptable activity until the early nineteenth century, and then only for health reasons. A bathing beauty contest had been held in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, US, in 1880, but as this was a working class beach resort, this kind of contest only became widespread after the turn of the century. The prevalence of Victorian dress codes did not allow for the development of the tight, one-piece bathing suit before the early twentieth century. One of its creators, a professional American swimmer, Annette Kellerman, was arrested when she appeared in public in the swimsuit.

Eventually, all things came together in 1921, when the first Miss America contest was staged in Atlantic City. So as not to offend public morals, the sensual aspects of the contest were obscured by a week-long, elaborate festival with sports events, automobile races, orchestra, and choir competitions. The question of morals led to a rift between the Miss America organization and their main sponsor, a swimsuit company, when Miss America 1951 refused to appear before cameras in a swimsuit after the contest and was supported by the Miss America organizers. In protest, the swimsuit company aligned themselves with Universal Pictures and started the Miss Universe contest the year after, in 1952. The Miss World contest was initiated in Britain the year before.

Previously treated with suspicion, beauty contests proliferated in the 1950s, with civil associations like the Jaycees and Rotary organizing them. Through mass media the model of the contest spread all over the world, and today the International Register of Pageants lists more than 3000 pageants worldwide.

Politics of identity and power

Because the contestants represent their group, and the winner the community, beauty contests are often embedded in negotiations of identity and politics of power. In Fiji in 1956 the Jaycees started the Hibiscus Festival, which has been staged annually ever since, and has a Miss Hibiscus Quest at its centre. The aim is to promote tourism and provide a week of entertainment. In its early years, the festival provided the only possibility for the different ethnic groups to participate in a civil celebration together, and the festival became part of the English colonial state's nation-building efforts. However, as usual with beauty contests, the Miss Hibiscus Quest reflected prevailing cultural norms: in the early years, Europeans and part-Europeans predominantly featured as winners, and when the indigenous Fijians came to dominate the state after Independence in 1970, they won most contests. Not before 1979 was there an Indo-Fijian Miss Hibiscus, despite the fact that around 45% of the population is Indo-Fijian.

Similar cases are reported all over the world. In Thailand, the national Miss Universe contest has been used by the state in nation-building efforts since 1934, and is seen as promoting democracy and the nation, and elevating the status of women; in Guatemala, the Rabìn Ahau, the ‘Indian’ Maya Queen, is chosen to represent the indigenous, authentic past, whereas the country's modern national present is embodied by Miss Guatemala, always a Caucasian; and in the Philippines, Muslim gays dramatize through the Miss Gay Super Model conflicts and problems in creating a local identity confronted with globalized media, travel, and consumption.

A notable beauty contest, which is not built on the Western prototype is the gerewol staged by the Woodabe of Niger: a three-day celebration is held annually where young men dress up, paint themselves, and dance before a public audience. In the end, three men are selected by three young women as being the most beautiful.

Adapted to local needs, beauty contests take place the world over. Embedded in entertainment signalling ‘it's just for fun’, they provide a space for the negotiation of standards of beauty, gender roles, identities, and power.

Claus Bossen


Cohen, C. B.,, Wilk, R.,, and and Stoelthe, B. (1996). Beauty queens on the global stage. Gender, contests, and power. Routledge, New York.
Deford, F. (1971). There she is: the life and times of Miss America. Viking, New York.

See also beauty.

Beauty Contests

views updated May 14 2018


BEAUTY CONTESTS evolved from early-twentieth-century bathing-beauty contests, where women participated in swimsuit competitions in beach resort cities. The Miss America pageant, which became the standard for American beauty contests, began in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a promotional gimmick by the hotelier H. Conrad Eckholm. Early beauty pageants, and the un-married, made-up, and swimsuit-wearing women who competed in them, were often viewed as morally suspect and criticized by women's church groups and conservative politicians. Pageants became more respectable and legitimate

in the 1940s, when women's roles were changing, largely as a result of their work experiences during both world wars, and when pageant winners sold war bonds and won college scholarships.

By the 1950s pageants had become widely accepted. The first Miss World competition took place in 1951, followed by pageants of every sort. Pageant winners, or beauty queens, represent commodities, ethnic identities, festivals and fairs, sports, and geographic regions. There are also beauty contests for babies, children, mothers, grandmothers, and, occasionally, men. Despite their variety, contests typically include judges, talent shows, prizes, and bathing-suit competitions. Beauty contests became newly controversial in the 1960s as a target of feminist groups.


Cohen, Colleen Ballerino, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje, eds. Beauty Queens on the Global Stage: Gender, Contests, and Power. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Savage, Candace. Beauty Queens: A Playful History. New York: Abbeville Press, 1998.


See alsoMiss America Pageant .