Monday, January 30, 2017

Confidently Beautiful (& so much more)

       At last night’s Miss Universe pageant, Miss Canada secured a spot in the “top 9,” which allowed her to compete in both swimsuit and eveningwear.  She modeled a hot pink bikini, smiling all the while.
       The emcee enlightened both the live and television audiences about Siera Bearchell, announcing that her family suffered a tragic house fire years ago and that she is currently in her final year of law school.  Despite Siera’s obvious ability to overcome obstacles, her clear intelligence, and the mere fact that she is competing on an International stage, some still found it appropriate to criticize her physique (criticize seems too polite a word- let’s go with verbally attack).  They berated her, calling her “lazy,” “underprepared,” and claimed she had no business on the Miss Universe stage.  Besides what I see as a clear violation of human decency, these comments are a direct attack on the progress the pageant community has made in the last 100 (ish) years. 
       For most of my life, I have defended my involvement in pageantry, citing women empowerment, increases in confidence, scholarship opportunity, speaking experience, friendship, and overall self-betterment.  I feel offended by folks (including former and current titleholders) who claim that because Siera chose to enter a “beauty pageant,” she should expect the aforementioned criticism.  While I can’t speak to why Siera personally chose to compete in the Miss Universe Organization, I like to think that most (if not all) of my fellow pageant competitors participate for reasons that transcend the acknowledgment of physical perfection.  To assert that someone deserves to be publically shamed for her appearance (which by the way is healthy and in my opinion, gorgeous) simply because she chose to partake in the pageant is narrow-minded and presumptuous.  To believe that she cannot be "spectacular" or "inspiring" because she is not "unattainably beautiful," is actually heartbreaking.
       Yes- I realize that swimsuit is a portion of the competition and therefore, should be taken seriously by all contestants.  I have donned a bikini and modeled for more than ten separate panels of judges in the last few years.  
Photo: Richard Krauss Photography
       I understand that physical fitness and personal health is an important aspect of leading a successful life.  That being said, I argue that psychological and emotional health is equally as important.  Finding a balance between an appealing physical appearance and a positive mental state is not easy.  I have been there.  I have struggled to find equilibrium.  It is not my place to critique the choices one makes to achieve their ideal balance.  Pageant judges in the Miss America Organization are instructed to objectively observe and make conclusions about a contestant’s swimsuit presentation using the following instructions:

"The Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit competition is designed to see how well the contestant maintains a lifestyle of good physical, emotional and intellectual health.  The contestant’s sense of confidence and presence, as well as her drive, energy, charisma and composure are to be likewise considered."

       Please note that the Miss America Organization script in no way posits that a contestant should achieve any particular shape nor should she subscribe to a socially accepted version of the female figure.
     While I have never competed in the Miss Universe Organization myself, I did some digging to find this response to the frequently asked question, “What is the Miss Universe Organization looking for in a contestant?”  Their answer is as follows: “A contestant much be confident.  She must be able to demonstrate authenticity and articulate her ambitions as a titleholder.  The competitions showcase and evaluate the contestant’s aspirations and are judged by accomplished business leaders, philanthropists, and public figures.”
       Where does the MUO itself suggest that their titleholder must meet some pre-conceived notions of beauty?  I’m not denying that there isn’t an unwritten understanding that beauty impacts the competition results.  I just cannot comprehend how anyone defends hurtful comments with the argument that a person's physique determines how beautiful they are.  Don’t we want more for our society and our fellow females?  I’m proud of how far the MUO has come in promoting their contestants’ accomplishments and goals, independent of their body types.  Miss Canada’s placement as a semi-finalist means that judges took into account that not all of her bones were visible, and still saw her as a "top 9" contestant.  Perhaps they took into account that Siera tailored her health regimen for what best suits her desires- mentally and physically. 
       During my interview at Miss America I was asked how I felt about a “plus-size model,” Ashley Graham, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition.  I explained that I’m glad SI is promoting another body image and letting women know that all shapes and sizes are beautiful.  My answer was followed up with another question asking something to the effect of, “but don’t you think she promotes a negative idea of health to young girls?”  I replied that because I cannot accurately predict her personal diet and workout regimen by simply looking at her body in a magazine, I had no business in commenting on her health.  I could eat the same food and participate in the same workouts as 10 other women and we would all look different.  She promotes an image of acceptance and self-love and I can get on board with that.  Was this an answer the judges wanted to hear?  Perhaps not.  I still stand by it.  If Miss Canada feels confident in her swimsuit and found her personal balance of maintaining psychological well being while striving for physical health, who are we to comment?  The judges at Miss Universe saw her beauty and her positive light and they rewarded her for it.  It doesn’t mean that the public should feel free to call her “lazy” or “undeserving,” just like it doesn’t mean the contestants of smaller stature shouldn’t be labeled “anorexic,” and muscular contestants shouldn’t be deemed “too bulky.”  
       We are all fighting an internal battle- pageant girls are not immune.  Think before you type.  It’s a simple phrase that I teach to schoolchildren.  Treat others the way you wish to be treated- regardless of whether you’re speaking out loud or typing on a keyboard.  Understand that the women on your television screen are living, breathing human beings.  They deserve to be treated with compassion; regardless of what competition they join.

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