What Its Like to Compete in a Beauty Pageant

Cynthia Bord

Photo by Ashton Mullins on Unsplash

A yearly family tradition we had was watching the national beauty pageant. All the pomp and circumstance was exciting to watch. But my favorite part was seeing the beauty queen being crowned. With her big smile and this great roar of victorious celebration with her crown and her scepter as she walks down a big glittery stage. I would grow up and become one of those beauty pageant contestants standing behind the winner, in a very neat row of young women, shaking on my hind leg as my hip was about to give out on itself in 6-inch stilettos.

For a child, though, such as I was at the time, those pageant girls were models for what I looked up to. It wasn’t just their beauty or talent, but their eloquence and grace.

I began my first pageant experience when the application period opened up at the same time that I had a gap in the summer during my sophomore year of college.

Here are some things I took away from my experience competing in my first national pageant and the subsequent ones:

  1. A beauty pageant is not about who is the most beautiful.
  2. Cutthroat competitors are not just for show.
  3. Pageant girls are products.
  4. A pageant is a company and as such, its sole goal is to make money.
  5. There is a lot of hard work involved.

Judges, despite popular belief, don’t judge contestants based on their beauty. If that was the case, what would be the point of even competing in the first place if you saw another competitor more symmetrical than you?

Despite the mismatched judging criteria from its namesake, the idea that beauty is a big judging category causes a lot of body dysmorphia amongst contestants.

Some women stop eating throughout the competition, while others exercise excessively and strain their bodies in the process.

They refer to it as preparing for the pageant show, even though it’s a mental and physical health problem. However, body dysmorphia and an obsession with meeting beauty standards are so widespread within a beauty pageant community that it becomes super normalized. Therefore, no one talks about it, and solutions are never considered.

It’s expected that beauty pageant contestants rapidly gain back all the weight they lost during the competition after it ends. This confirms that dramatic weight loss throughout a pageant (approximately 4–7 months) is unhealthy and forced.

In competition shows like America’s Next Top Model or Survivor, the contestants mutate into conniving, cutthroat people. It doesn’t mean competitors are inherently terrible people, but it often becomes a result of the competitive climate and circumstance.

This competition climate is no different in a beauty pageant, even though it seems like beauty pageant competitors are sweet, nice, and kind to one another, as these are desirable traits of a pageant winner and people that young girls can look up to, as I had.

Women will lie to your face, talk about your un-proportional hips behind your back with the other girls while they threw back equally underhanded and mean, and make passive-aggressive remarks. However, this sort of drama doesn’t help them in the competition. It occurs as a result of a competitive, high-stress environment. Also, women suck, especially when the pageant and media pit you against each other and compares the girls like livestock without a single regard for their welfare or mental and physical health.

But what’s more? In one of the pageants, I was a part of, I was not a contestant.

This particular pageant faced a national scandal with the previous pageant winner and some issues with plastic surgery, which was against the rules of the pageant entry. So, the national pageant was barred from being able to host the show in its home country. The pageant show was moved to the United States, where I resided.

A designer on the pageant reached out to me to bolster their contestant numbers. But I didn’t know it was a beauty pageant until I arrived at the venue. The designer encouraged us not to tell the actual pageant competitors that we were only models with no stake in the competition.

Pageantry is inherently misogynistic.

It plays into the idea that “sex sells” and the pageant “girls” are the ones who sell it. When you think of a beauty queen, the first image that springs to mind is probably a cupped palm wagging side to side from the wrist. She’s in her enormously puffy, shiny gown and wearing an equally shiny crown with a matching scepter (or that big stick that is shiny and has a big round thing on top).

The image is classy, right? But don’t forget, the people who own the pageant also direct pageant girls to parade around a stage in skimpy dresses and bikinis. The girls don’t benefit from this, literal, exposure. The pageant benefits from this by selling photos of images of the young women (some who are not of age) in bikinis and stilettos that cause scorching blisters to newspapers and media outlets.

A pageant takes much longer than a few hours on stage.

It lasts for several months in duration, from ad campaigns that the pageant girls do not get paid for to luncheons where the girls are expected not to eat. This is to maintain their physical figures for the actual pageant show and also to save money on the pageant’s part in having to pay for a regular portion of food for each pageant girl (what they view as subsidiary instead of a necessity).

The pageant keeping the girls away from food would be a pattern throughout the pageant process. Many girls, including myself, would fall ill as a result of excess heat throughout the day without proper ventilation whether from a cheap bus or a too-tight dress or 16 hour-straight days without a proper meal or decent rest.

And if the pageant girls are the products, then who gets the money for selling them?

One of the biggest realizations that came out of competing in beauty pageants was that its sole purpose is to make money. You can see this when talking to stagehands who are paid 4 dollars an hour without overtime. You also hear about it from the stage crew on how the pageant skimps on paying for venues, photographers, or food, despite the 500 dollars every pageant girl pays the pageant to enter the competition.

I was naive entering into my first beauty pageant, thinking it was a non-profit type deal that brought women together and lifted them up. Boy, was I wrong!
The CEO of the pageant I competed in encouraged animosity between the pageant girls, in part because it caused more tension and drama which led to a better show and therefore more profit for their company.

Pageants don’t just expect your hard work and dedication. They demand it.

The pageant company blocks out your entire schedule for a minimum of 3 months. They ask for payment in advance. Many pageant girls moved closer to the dance studio where walking and standing lessons would take place. In 6 inch heels with 10-pound ball gowns, you’d best believe it requires practice.

But 3 hours a day of posing and walking lessons 6 times a week for 3 months plus engagements? It was torture, especially when you had to keep a dazzling smile without a break for an hour or more.

Have you ever had to keep a smile on your face for too long whilst in front of 30 cameras taking the same picture, pose, and facial expression? If your expression falters, guess what, you have a picture in the national newspaper that’s distributed overseas the next day with a picture of your sad, sad face. And the alternative?

Your smile stays in place the entire time but your muscles tense up and it’s the same feeling as your leg cramping up for sitting down too long, but all over your face.

Like a boot camp, but without the grueling elitism associated with it. Other companies like the army or sports teams that require the same level of dedication and hard work are met with reactions of awe. Despite requiring the same amount of time and perseverance, it was embarrassing to tell people I had competed in beauty pageants because I was afraid others would assume I was an airhead.

For some girls, it meant 4 hour round trips before and after lessons every day because the studio was too far from everything else in the city. Others put down rent for a shared studio apartment with fellow pageant girls to save themselves from the commute.

In a beauty pageant, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than what you see in the pageant show and newspaper clippings. The relationships between the contestants and the relationship between the contestants and the pageant company are complex. All of this is inundated within a culture of misogyny, sexism, and capitalism that leaves little choice for a beauty pageant contestant except to operate like a cog within a broken system.

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writer on love, tech, and politics, lover of coffee and petter of dogs

New York, NY

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