BY: AYA TSINTZIRAS
A small town has made a big decision that has even bigger implications: the municipal council of Chivilcoy, a city with a population of 60,000 located in the Buenos Aires area, has decided to ban beauty pageants, concerned with their perpetuation of unfair body image ideals and influence on eating disorders. One in ten teenage girls suffers from an eating disorder in Argentina. So instead of pageants, Chivilcoy will give a community service award honoring youth between the ages of 15 and 30 who are contributing to the cattle ranching and farming-based economy. The ruling statement: “These beauty contests between girls, teenagers and young women reinforce the idea that women should only be valued and prized for their physical appearance.” It’s good news, but it begs the question: it’s almost 2015—why do we even still have beauty pageants?
Beauty pageants in America have a storied past, beginning with the first Miss America contest in 1921 in Atlantic City in which girls competed in their bathing suits. BBC broadcast the event for the first time in 1959 and it became a ratings gold mine in the 1960s and 1970s. Pageants have faced criticism from the start: in their early days, many claimed it was irresponsible for women to show off their bodies in public. Miss America has a dark history – in the 1930s, non-whites were not allowed to participate, until that rule was changed in 1970. The Miss America pageant was actually stopped in 1928 until 1935 when Lenora Slaughter was hired to be the director to institute some changes and legitimacy. She had the term “bathing suit” banned in 1946, and after 1947, the winner was crowned while wearing an evening gown instead of her swimsuit. That aspect has always been controversial; since each girl is asked questions about social issues, it’s a weird contrast between intellectual expectations and trying to look good in a swimsuit.
The real issue is that beauty pageants are attracting younger – much younger competitors, thanks to the popularity of the reality show Toddlers and Tiaras. In one disturbing episode, a mother dressed her toddler up like Dolly Parton, complete with a padded bra, which forced her estranged husband to seek full custody, claiming sexual exploitation. And as logic would have it, children are exhibiting signs and symptoms of eating disorders, too.
In 2011, University College London’s Institute of Child Health discovered that a large number of girls younger than 13 have eating disorders. A 2013 survey from a U.K. charity, Girlguiding, found that 87 percent of those surveyed (aged 11 to 21) believed that “women are judged more for their looks than ability.” Another 47 percent aged 11 to 16 did not like their appearance. A previous survey in 2010 had similar results: 47 percent felt that “pressure to look attractive is the most negative part of being female” and 66 percent cited the way the media portrays women as their reason for going on severe diets.
Once seen as a ritual, watching the Miss America pageant on TV has waned in popularity. ABC got out of its deal to broadcast the event after the ratings in 2004 sunk down to 9.8 million viewers. Compared to 1960’s 85 million viewers, that’s a huge drop. So why is the event still being produced? In a strange chicken-or-the-egg situation, the 2008 winner, Kristen Haglund, suffered from anorexia and used the attention she garnered to spread the word about the disease. But that seems counterintuitive.
Canada is no stranger to eating disorders, and a recent 75-page report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Status of Women proves how there is both limited awareness and limited resources for those struggling with anorexia or bulimia. Between 600,000 and 990,000 Canadians could be diagnosed at any time, and about 80 percent are female. What is the most deadly mental illness? It’s anorexia, with a ten to fifteen percent mortality rate. The report acknowledges that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact causes, but gives a few factors: genetics; early obesity or puberty; a tendency for perfection; and the surrounding culture and body image ideals.
Saying that the way our culture treats women as sexual objects and favors thinness is the reason why people suffer from eating disorders is a simplistic explanation and it’s also nothing new. But if we think of Miss America as a symbol, it doesn’t make American culture look good. And Miss World not having a swimsuit competition doesn’t do much to help. Consider Bravo’s recent reality show, Game of Crowns, a play on the popular and extremely violent HBO show Game of Thrones. This show features six women fighting to be crowned a beauty queen. If you’re a fan of the show, you are in the same maturity ranks as once-upon-a-time Disney Star, Nick Jonas. In an interview, he called the show “mind-blowing” and “entertaining.” While the comment does make me sad for the image-obsessed state of popular culture, I do realize that it comes from a musician largely appreciated for his looks.
In 2010 host Mario Lopez commented on the broadcast’s falling ratings, saying, “There are so many things these days, like Maxim, where you can check out beautiful women.” In a way he is right, objectification has proliferated across other mediums normalizing an unattainable standard, but with beauty pageants now catering to younger competitors, girls are calculating their value by their looks when they should still be enjoying recess.
And of course, cancelling Miss America and Miss World and its affiliated pageants wouldn’t stop every girl from starving herself. But with wait times for treatment, costly therapy and only 12 certified eating disorder therapists at Canadian hospitals, giving up a culturally accepted event of body image obsession would certainly help. A toddler in heavy face make-up and a tiara is not cute, especially if the costume is a primer for future body-image disorders or self-inflicted starvation.