Thursday, October 15, 2009

Miss California Pageant Eliminates Swimsuit Competition

They're taking the beauty out of beauty pageants.

Apparently the organizers of the Miss California Pageant want to turn the event into the style of a "runway show during fashion week."

I really have mixed feelings about this development. Yes, beauty pageants objectify women, they reek of phoniness, and they are hopelessly politically incorrect and dated. As far as I'm concerned, they should scrap them altogether.

And turning them into promotional vehicles for the fashion industry could be even worse than parading around women in swimsuits. At least the women are being judged by their actual bodies when they are mostly bare, instead of being judged by how well some designer's cloth looks on them.

No doubt that this is a knee-jerk reaction to the Carrie Prejean fiasco, which made the pageant industry look even more backwards in its neanderthal values. Surely there must be some other way for society to reward women for their achievements, rather than pitting themselves against each other in a false display of silicone-enhanced bodies and Cliff's notes prepared responses to judges' questions.

For all her bigoted views, at least Carrie Prejean had the courage to break with tradition and speak her mind. Her "opposite marriage" remark will likely go down as the most memorable line ever uttered at one of these events.

Pageant officials hate controversy. They prefer that their "winners" fit nicely into a mold which can be marketed to family values organizations. Mainstream America just loves a plastic Barbie doll.

So while the demise of the pageant industry isn't going to keep me awake at nights, I am a bit concerned over other ramifications of the removal of swimsuits by the California organizers. To me it's just another sign that we tend to perceive any displays of human flesh as something sexual. There's no doubt that putting women in bikinis on a stage isn't sexy, or appealing, but it's not sexual. If it is perceived as such, then are public pools and beaches next to be attacked for displaying too much skin?

As outdated as they now are perceived to be, at least nudist beauty pageants were honest. They were all about having the best bodies. No phoniness, no pretense, no politics, no talent competitions - just flesh. With the dawn of the feminist movement, these nudist pageants disappeared quickly, while mainstream public pageants have been dying a slow, painful death over the past three decades. The rise of child beauty pageants has been an odd development in this societal shift, raising the objectification of little girls, while at the same time attempting to reduce the objectification of grown women.

While people should never stop admiring beauty, there's something perverse about making nature's gift of sex appeal into a competition. Such obsession with mere physical appearance reminds me of Jack Nicholson's character Jonathan in "Carnal Knowledge", when his friend Sandy tells him "looks aren't everything, you know", and he responds with "believe me, looks are everything." Jonathan's obsession with looks eventually leads him to become a misogynist, never satisfied with any women he meets, until his only source of sexual arousal comes when his ego is stroked.

In a way, American Society has become Jonathan, constantly looking for the Utopian woman even in ways he could not imagine. Today he would be a plastic surgeon, trying in vain to create the perfect women to satisfy his own perverse visions. It's an endless stream of magazines, movies, books, internet sites and television shows which contribute to the media pageant of women's bodies, airbrushed and Photoshopped in wrongheaded efforts to sell this unattainable image to an insatiable public.

Even Carrie Prejean was not natural - the California pageant organization paid for her breast enlargement surgery. As despicably phony as this is, a recent pageant in Hungary required that contestants be surgically enhanced in order to make the cut. One young woman even had surgically adjusted toes.

So from my point of view, the banning of the swimsuit competition takes away the essence of what beauty pageants were originally designed to do - to honor natural beauty. As wrongheaded as it was in making beauty into a competitive event, especially in hindsight, at least it was honest. Adding talent competition, evening gowns, and scholarships to these pageants failed to obscure the fact that these pageants were really just all about a pretty face and a good figure.

Why do people watch pageants? A 1996 poll revealed that 87% of respondents voted to keep the swimsuit portion of the Miss America pageant when officials considered dropping it from the show. We are a voyeuristic society, no doubt.

We tend to turn everything into a competition, from ladies' garden clubs judging the best grown rose, to the American Kennel Club's dog shows. Movies, plays, television shows, books - they all have their awards. Even President Obama got a Nobel prize. Everybody remembers the gold medal winner, and nobody remembers who won the silver. Every college sells one of those "we're number one" foam fingers for sports teams, even though only one can make it to the top.

At least with beauty pageants, we are beginning to understand that that making physical attractiveness into a competitive sport is not only demeaning to the contestants, it's damaging to the perceptions of the viewers, the same way false images in magazines destroy women's self-esteem.

The more we drift from natural beauty into the distorted phoniness of the fashion industry, the more we lose contact with our own humanity. I fear this sanitizing of the pageant industry into an even more packaged product for mass consumption is even further dehumanizing the contestants, eventually to the point where we will no longer even need actual humans to compete, only a fashion designer's virtual fantasy.

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