Feminism, Pageantry, and You: Part 1

Betsy Leimbigler

What exactly am I doing here?

What will my friends think of me?

Can I still be a feminist?

Wow, there is a LOT of girls in Montreal for these interviews.

The thoughts that whizzed through my head as 20 or so girls clad in business attire (myself included) crowded around a conference table at the first round of interviews for the Quebec delegates and took our seats. There were many more groups of 20 girls after us, and the interviews spanned a few days for the organizers. Apparently there were near a thousand applications, finally whittled down to 56.

Yes, Miss Universe Canada. Yes, pageantry.

How did I get into this? I had a lot of questions, and this is my three-part story of why I trucked through it, what stereotypes were challenged, and how my perceptions changed.

The director of Miss Universe Canada sat at the head of the table, regarding us both warmly and sternly. This was a professional and no-nonsense man, who took great pride in the organization of Beauties of Canada and its image. His eyes seemed to burn into our retinas as he told us slowly and clearly at the beginning of the interview, “your answers are not really what matter. I know what kind of person you are within five seconds of you speaking.” He proceeded to rattle off some controversial questions to us hopefuls, many of whom were caught off guard.

I reeled, and thanked my lucky stars that I hadn’t gotten a question concerning things I’d never really given a thought to. “Does a woman need to have children in order to live to her potential? What is the biggest issue in Canada today? What is your take on abortion?” It wasn’t the hardest interview, but I was intensely aware that might have been the most competitive one I’ve been to. I’ve done successful interviews for some very competitive things, mind you – jobs, modeling go-sees, scholarships – but this one was curious in that I had no idea into what territory I was venturing.

Buck. Teeth. I was made fun of for not having braces in grade 5.

Mind this Betsy 

I would like to take a step back to introduce myself at this point. I grew up as an awkward, tall child with no fashion sense and always two years younger than everyone in my grade. I was always more interested in finding satisfaction in reading books faster than anyone, and competing against the boys who always claimed to be better in science. As a result of my parents’ moving, I had to constantly fit into the various schools I had to switch between. Fashion? Beauty? Not in this lifetime, I thought. While many girls in my middle school wore shiny new clothes, I took my humble self upstairs to the games room with the other kids who somehow didn’t do middle school dances –my reason being because you can’t dance when all you own is a green sweater. I suppose you can, but let me specify – you can’t slow dance with a boy in Canadian public middle school to the backstreet boys.

I’m really into John Steinbeck, languages, running, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and more. I spend a lot of time in the library. To this day, I still can’t stand shopping, especially shoe shopping – it’s the worst, I simply can’t do it.

I can maybe last about half an hour, but after that my eyes glaze over and I become a whiny, impatient, drooling, spaced out and totally bored mess. I got into modeling at age 17, after following up with someone who scouted my gangly self in a high school musical. Modeling is an interesting industry,and one that is very different from pageantry – and not the focus of this article. Professional modeling focuses very much on standardized measurements and a certain look according to a certain market, as well as properly walking in high heels for the catwalk in order to show off the clothes one is presenting. Pageants tend to emphasize the individual with focus on walking routines on a stage to present evening gowns and bathing suits. Pageantry has recently been coupled with charity work and emphasis on healthy body image.

Illyria design at Ottawa Fashion Week

Feminism vs Pageantry?  

I’m writing this because I have something to say about our general conception of pageantry and feminism. I am and always have been a feminist. I believe in equal opportunity rights for both men and women. Quite frankly, I believe that the possession of a sexual body part should not be a hindrance to any opportunities in society. It infuriates me to think of the subjugation of women in patriarchal societies and times bygone and even inequalities that women face today around the world. I am not about trolling for reparations from all men because of history, as that type of negative and destructive thought is not going to solve much.

I am maddened to hear about victim blaming in cases of sexual assault, I fully support the ideology behind Slutwalk – that the way a woman dresses is never an invitation to harassment – and I am sensitive to women’s struggles in the workplace and issues surrounding women in powerful positions. I have developed a strong and experience-based opinion on pageants, which is now something that is related to my identity.I hear a lot of negative stereotypes about pageants.

Am I Dumb and Empty? 

People may tend to jump to conclusions and assume the girls who participate are shallow, dumb, and completely self-obsessed. Having participated in a pageant, a small portion of my identity is attached to such slights – meaning that I am on the receiving end of the butt of these comments, and that I need to validate why I did such a thing. These popular attitudes and these stereotypes had to have come from somewhere, but applying them to all girls who have gone through a pageant is a dangerously narrow-minded thing to do. I have friends who have told me that their perception has changed since I’ve participated, which I think is great, but I want to hear more of that.

Speaking at the Bloor red carpet event.

I can say this because my own preconceived notions were challenged throughout my participation. I do still find myself in positions where I must defend my reasons for having participated in a pageant. Some feminists who would have lauded my professional accomplishments may ridicule me for have participated in a pageant, which I find to be ironic considering the employment of such a myopic view.

Activist Mary Beard recently published a piece entitled “Point of view: age, beauty and Miss World,” a mild account of her change in perception of pageants. She accredits the decline in pageant audience numbers to the edgier reality TV shows or “licensed child abuse” shows which make pageants look tame by comparison. Beard accepts the changing face of pageants: that the women participating today are ambitious, well-educated and actually good role models. However, in lending her legitimate seal of sceptical approval, she continues to deride their participation, asking “if you really want to be an international lawyer, as so many of these women claim, why don’t you just work at it, rather than enter a beauty contest?”

Wait, you mean evening gowns and intelligence are incompatible?

I should be tolerant of stupid rhetorical questions. But attacking a woman’s freedom of choice to participate in a pageant and questioning her mental capacity in a demeaning way simply because she is a contestant is counter to the message of feminism. This is the problem with questioning a woman’s motive for entering a beauty contest. Perhaps the woman in question has many different interests and wanted to show how multi-faceted she is. Perhaps networking in a forum with other intelligent women sounded like a learning experience. Perhaps the woman in question, like myself, wanted to challenge herself to learn first-hand what participating in a pageant was like in order to break stereotypes.

Participating in a pageant is not just about beauty – it is about learning how to act in the eye of the media, how to interact with people, and how to present oneself on a stage and in an interview. Subtle things, like how to stand up straight and how to walk confidently in heels. Big things, like how to have confidence in yourself. I embarked on this journey without knowing or really caring about any of these things, but participating made me realize how pageants are much more than what you see in brief youtube clips or generalizations. It has made me realize that judgment must be reserved until the facts are discovered.