There She Is a documentary on a plus-size beauty pageant.
In the short documentary on plus-sized beauty pageants, There She Is, a moment sticks out. The winner is reflecting on her one-year reign as the American Beauties Plus Pageant winner and expresses disappointment that the red carpet hasn’t been rolled out in honour of her victory like she’d envisioned. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking moment after following the stories of two very lovely contestants who both admit they’ve struggled with self confidence and the negative judgements of others. It appears the stamp of approval offered by winning the pageant hasn’t brought any of the inner peace they’d hoped for (which isn’t that surprising given its focus on the outer). I feel like it’s an instant many of us, no matter our size, have experienced, that point when you realise chasing beauty is a quest with no actual true endpoint of “Yay, I’m finally fine!”
Plus-sized beauty pageants sell themselves as a celebration of a different ideal of feminine beauty. And it does seem there could be a small argument to be made for them serving a positive purpose. After all they offer an alternative vision of beauty, one that is not bound by the rather restrictive sizes of ‘from six to eight’. But do women really need more visions of beauty to be bound by?
On deeper examination it’s hard to see any sort of beauty pageant, plus-sized or not, as a step forward. Can beauty pageants really solve anything at all except to satiate our feelings of schadenfreude at seeing beautiful people sputter uncomfortably answering political questions? And the problem is right there smack bang in the title, no matter how much contestants and organisers might yammer on about ‘inner beauty’ and being ‘the total package’ these competitions are about looks. After all, if it was a pageant about non-superficial skills it would be called a ‘talent show’. Truth is it’s just more objectification that all sizes can now participate in, but dressed up in a sparkly sash of faux empowerment and inclusion.
It’s hard not to see the extension of these pageants as a cynical commercial ploy to make more money by diversifying the market to include those women who can’t enter the straight-sized competitions (much like what has been done by the Toddlers & Tiaras and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo led boom in child beauty pageants). And we’re not exactly talking about small change here. To enter the Miss American Beauties Plus Pageant is $575USD a pop (or as they weirdly list it on their website “ONLY $575” – my definition and theirs of ‘only’ obviously severely differs). And that’s before factoring in optional competition fees, outfits, hair and make-up, hotel stays and meal costs. You’re paying quite a pretty penny to have your prettiness professionally judged, it seems.
There’s also something a little gross about the competitive, there-can-only-be-one aspect of it all. In order for one woman to prevail as the winner (and from seeing the doco I’m not entirely sure even those who triumph are left with 100 per cent magically restored self esteem – one signed up for lap-band surgery after her win) there are a bunch of women who are the ‘losers’. How good can that leave them feeling if they’re in a competition specifically designed for them, to be told they still don’t make the grade? There’s nothing wrong with liking girly things or wanting to be pretty (and in my experience men like to look good just as much as women, so there’s not even anything intrinsically female about the desire). But to quantify it into rankings just feeds into the whole myth that every woman is in competition with every other woman in a zero-sum game. But in life (unlike in pageants) one woman doing well doesn’t stop another from also achieving, in fact it opens more doors for all of us.
For all the talk of positive role models spouted by the plus-sized circuit wouldn’t any young woman struggling with her weight be much more inspired to fulfil her potential (and in ways that don’t just include ‘looking good’) by visiting the cinema and seeing Melissa McCarthy or Rebel Wilson, or by picking up a book by Hilary Mantel, or by turning on the radio to hear Adele? These are women at the top of their game who are making the most of their talents in a very mainstream way, while either not focusing on their plus-sized status at all or examining it on their own terms (despite the critics who try to put the spotlight back on their appearance in the most revolting ways).
The aim shouldn’t be on making women – plus-sized or not – feel they’re beautiful, the focus should be on making women feel they can just be whoever they want and therefore devaluing beauty as the highest ideal a woman can attain. And no amount of sparkly silver tiaras is helping us achieve that.