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The Toronto Star’s fearless feminist columnist/feature writer, Antonia Zerbisias, wrote recently about beauty pageants and some of today’s high-profile women who have spring-boarded to their current positions from their pageant participation. Antonia believes we shouldn’t knock beauty contests because it has helped some women get ahead and she gives some interesting reasons and examples.

I feel differently about this. For those who think of feminists as an homogenous group with identical opinions on everything, this is a good example of how committed feminists can look at issues differently — and still hold a feminist view.

I wondered if I would agree with Antonia if the women she cites in her column — Carole Taylor, Helena Guergis, Sarah Palin, among others — had used their pageant success as a springboard to work toward advancing the cause of other women. It can’t be said that they did. The women Antonia names fit themselves very firmly into the status quo or, in some cases, are actively working to diminish women’s rights and take away many of the advantages women have gained over the past few decades.

Over the years, I have written numerous columns about beauty contests. I went to my archives and chose this one to share — a fairly radical column, more radical now than when it was written more than 20 years ago. (The only change I’ve made was to remove the name of the beauty queen in the story. It was 20 years ago. Who knows how she would feel if she saw this piece again?)


“When they called her name, Mary Smith* , Lunenburg’s Queen of the Sea, thought it was a dream. But when she opened her eyes and the tiara was atop her head and the sash fell gracefully from her shoulder, she knew it was real. She was Miss Nova Scotia . . . ”

Was this 1902 in Godwin’s Lady’s Book? Or maybe a 1910 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal? Not at all. This was written by Stephen Forest of the Truro Bureau of The Chronicle Herald and was published last week, August 29, 1989. Was Stephen kidding?

How far have we come, after all?

I’m regularly badgered to write a column about beauty contests. And I always ask, what more can there possibly be to write?

Beauty contests are standing-room-only affairs at all fairs and exhibitions; they command front page coverage in local newspapers; in the big time, they take over prime time and earn millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

So what’s the appeal in these rather silly contests which are, we assume, heartily sanctioned by our male-ordered society but are usually organized and attended by women? We know that they’re ridiculed in most circles and mocked by stand-up comedians and in sitcoms on television.

Not long ago, a man I know went to one in his hometown and described it to me later while laughing so hard he could hardly get his words out. This particular one involved 13 and 14 year-old girls tottering across a stage in high heels and bathing suits, talking about what might make the world a better place. This guy almost died laughing.

So what’s going on?

In centuries past, Chinese mothers bound their little girls’ feet in accordance with a tradition that made their daughters marriageable. Although it may not sound like something we would do, those mothers were aware that the fate of an unmarried female was much worse than painful, deformed feet and so foot-binding became not only a necessity for survival but a psychologically desirable ritual.

Mothers and daughters shared the mutilation with the mutual understanding that to please the male was the only true choice each of them had.

Our own male-pleasing rituals, those day-to-day habits that we have either to show we’re available or to maintain our position vis-a-vis our man, are less drastic but no less conspiratorial. Even though we now believe we can make our own choices — based on many things other than appearance — it’s still a rare woman who has given up the tools of an earlier trade: cosmetics, lotions, razors, tweezers, mascara brushes, three inch high heels, diets.

The extreme example of our homage to the male-pleasing ritual comes in that archaic form of entertainment, the beauty contest.

Unlike my male friend, I don’t see anything funny in the spectacle of young teenagers being put on ludicrous display. I don’t see anything funny in the comedians who make fun of the big time beauty contestants doing their baton act and speaking out on behalf of world peace and a clean environment. I find the first pathetic; I find the second embarrassing. I guess I just don’t have much of a sense of humour.

But I think the beauty contest has become a psychologically desirable ritual — in some women’s circles anyway — and has evolved into a symbol of women’s traditional dependence on catching a man: the young girls lined up in a competition to be judged on who has the best hair, the best skin, the best teeth, the smallest waist, the shapeliest legs.

At the local level, it’s just tacky. When they tart it up and put it on television, it’s tasteless and really harmful to the continued progress of women. In the end, it serves its purpose very well, by trivializing women and the role most women want to fill — in the workplace, in our relationships with others, mostly in how we feel about ourselves.

Supporters are, of course, quick to point out that looks are not the most important thing in a beauty contest — which they insist you call a pageant. They say that poise and personality count for a lot too.

Oh, please. Who cares?

*Not her real name.

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