51% #1661: Beauty Pageants And Feminism | WAMC

51% #1661: Beauty Pageants And Feminism

May 20, 2021

On today’s 51%, we speak with Miss New York USA about how beauty pageants can lift up young women. And we’ll hear from Miss Wisconsin Earth about how she’s representing plus size women on the stage in a time of changing attitudes about pageants.

25-year-old Andreia Gibau is 2020’s Miss New York USA. Gibau is also an immigrant from Cape Verde, a small collection of islands off the west coast of Senegal.

“The house that I lived in, didn't have a roof,” Gibau said. “I went to school, you know, wearing the same pair of shoes all year, and [had] a backpack and a notebook and that's all I really had. We didn't have magazines, we didn't have TVs. So I never thought that I could be successful. I never knew anything outside of the poverty that I was that was living in. And of course, at that time, I didn't know that I lived in poverty, because I had nothing to compare it to, up until I immigrated to the United States.”

Gibau speaks Portuguese, Cape Verdean Creole, Spanish, and English. Gibau was Miss Teen United States 2015 and Miss Earth USA 2017. She placed in the top 16 at Miss Earth in the Philippines. But Gibau says when she first came to the United States at age 7, living in Boston and feeling like an outsider, she was filled with self-loathing. Gibau has been in seven pageants now since her first at 19. She says it was pageants that first made her feel like she had worth.

“I immigrated to this country not speaking English and having like a deep sense of self hate because not being from here, I never felt like I belonged,” Gibau said. “And growing up, that was always something that I just strived to do. I always just strived to be like everybody else. I spoke four languages since the age of 10. And growing up, that was something I never talked about before because I always thought that people would see that as me being different and I never saw how that's a great thing that I have the ability to have -- and I found pride in that through pageants. And of course, like, it changed my life in terms of my parents had never traveled really up until I started doing pageants. And I won Miss United States in 2015. So I was able to introduce my family to, you know, a whole new world and give them opportunities that they've never experienced. And that's been really cool for me.”

Black Lives Matter

Gibau, who is Black, was elected at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement. She says using her title to fight racism was a scary decision to make.

“We get asked a lot of political questions during interviews,” Gibau said. “But a lot of us tend to shy away from always talking about politics or always talking about things that are really hot and heavy. Because a lot of the times we’re met with the, ‘You know, this is not your place,’ kind of thing, or ‘You’re a title holder, just talk about, you know, just the happy-go-lucky things.’ And so for me, I had to really look within myself and be like, ‘OK, Andrea, you have this title, you have this platform, that you can talk about things that are going to make a difference, you can talk about things that you feel are important because people are listening.’ And I have to remind myself like, ‘OK, I'm also an immigrant, I'm a black woman. And, you know, in the middle of what's going on in America right now, I would be doing myself and my community such a disservice if I didn't talk about this, all of this.’ And so of course, in the beginning, I was a little bit scared because I didn't shy away from it at all. I spoke my truth and I was very present about it, and all the topics of what was going on within the Black Lives Matter movement. But I was met with people who were super empowered by it. I had written an article on SWAAY.com, called, “An open letter to my dear white friends,” which just talked about, you know, how to navigate being a white friend of mine in this time that we're in. And I was super nervous about that article. But that article completely blew up. People were empowered by it. They learned so much from it. And from there, I was like, ‘Wow, I just really saw the power that my platform has,’ that I hadn't been able to really see before, in that way.”

Here are the opening lines of Gibau’s letter:

“To my white friends that have stayed silent during this fight for the fundamental reordering of society in which Black lives matter… You may be silent, but I see you, I hear you, and I am hurt.

Privilege is thinking something isn't a problem, because it's not a problem for you. You've been posting your selfies, your breakfast, your dog, the beach, and your video diary about enjoying the slight reopening of your state. But to me, all I see is you pretending that there is no problem just because it doesn't affect you.”

But Gibau says she had her doubts before her first pageant. Her only experience was watching the reality show “Toddlers in Tiaras,” which was not something she wanted to be involved in.

“I remember going back and watching a former Miss Universe competition,” Gibau said. “And right away, I was like, ‘OK, I don’t look like these girls, there's no way that I could possibly do such a thing.’”

Gibau says every pageant is a little different. She talks me through the Miss USA Miss Universe competitions.

“You're judged in the swimsuit round, which what they're really looking at is not necessarily how you look in a swimsuit -- they're looking at how confident you are,” Gibau said. “And if the body that you're presenting on stage, if it's healthy, if you're confident in it. And we're also judged in an evening gown, where they're judging your stage presence, they're judging, again, your confidence and your ability to just connect and be elegant onstage. And, of course, the portion that nobody gets to see -- which is closed-door interview. We interview with the judges, where they truly are able to figure out exactly who we are, what we want to do with the title. And then the last portion is the onstage question, which of course is the, you know, moments that when one girl out of hundreds of girls that do so well -- we have that one girl that, you know, maybe mess messes up and fumbles her question -- and that's what ends up going viral.”

As someone who does not watch beauty pageants, I decided to look it up and see if the mistakes do, in fact, go viral. You might remember Miss South Carolina in 2007. Or in Miss USA 2013, Miss Utah’s response.

Tons of these videos are posted online with animations and parodies and even comparison videos asking, in bold red letters, ‘Who’s dumber?’

Professor Hilary Levey Friedman says there’s a reason why: people love to hate on pageant contestants because they don’t get to see who the women really are, or what they care about.

Friedman teaches sociology in the education department at Brown University and wrote the book “Here She Is, The Complicated Reign of the Beauty Pageant in America.”

“So here she is, uses beauty pageants to trace the arc of feminism and through American history starting in the 1840s and going up to the present,” Friedman said.

Friedman’s mom won Miss America in 1970 and Friedman has also been a judge in the Miss New Jersey pageant and Miss America's Outstanding Teen.

“And I am very involved in the organized feminist movement,” Friedman said. “I'm president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women. So this perspective about pageantry and feminism was something I felt like wasn't out there. And I was uniquely positioned to tell that story.”

More Than A Pretty Face

Friedman says the interview portion lends substance to the competition that the audience usually doesn’t see.

“You don't know what happened to that interview room. And that's a 10 minute interview with a panel of judges,” Friedman said. “And that happens before you see anything on stage. So it does give you a different perspective, you get to read the applications, the essays, the paperwork that the contestants have submitted about what motivates them and their life experiences. And so that definitely changes people's perspective, including my own, but people who I've judged with who were not involved in the pageant world before, they’re like, ‘OK, these young women have these issues that they're passionate about. And they're looking for a platform to express that to other people.’ And so that is something you get out of judging a pageant that's hard to see otherwise.”

Gibau says the competition people see on TV is just the tip of the iceberg.

“They don't get to follow what the winner -- once a crown is placed on your head, they don't actually get to see what the girl is able to do with that title that it's not just about looking pretty, but you're actually having such a big impact on other people and in your community,” Gibau said.

Gibau says for months leading up to a competition she has to study current events and absorb news like a sponge to get ready for one interview.

“When I was preparing for Miss USA, I would wake up in the morning because I used to do cardio in the morning. So like 30 minutes on the treadmill, I would be listening to “The Daily,” which is a podcast from The New York Times. And it just kind of goes into a specific topic,” Gibau said. “And then after that, I would read “The Skim.” And then throughout the day, I would literally have notifications for CNN, or Fox, or any media news outlet you could possibly think of, because I wanted to get not just things that I believe in, but also things to challenge my opinion, because that's really how you grow and that's also how I'm able to connect with all kinds of people. And then from there, I would have mock interviews with my interview coaches, I would sit down and talk about some of the issues that are currently happening and discuss both sides, discuss my opinions and how I feel about it. And also how to deliver it in a way that isn't going to demean anyone. Like state my opinion, but also not make anyone else feel left out or anything like that.”

Gibau says education was part of her platform so the judges asked how she felt about kids having to take classes online during the pandemic and how that can impact them. They also asked her about disparities that exist now in education.

Friedman says she doesn’t understand why those parts aren’t aired, because she thinks it would be good for ratings. As a sociology professor she’s studied how TV shows become phenomena.

“Part of the reason a show like “American Idol,” for example, became so successful and still continues to be successful is that you get to know those contestants, and you're along for their journey and you get a backstory,” Friedman said. “And I think that's something -- I say, “Miss America” is really the first reality TV show. Back in the 1950s, when it started airing on television, it takes someone who no one knew before and makes them into a celebrity overnight. But the way the pageant has been broadcast and some of the other pageants like “Miss USA,” for example, you don't get to form that connection.”

Gibau says one question the pageant judges always ask: Why do you want to win? Her answer went something like this:

“I grew up in poverty, I grew up in an inner city,” Gibau said. “And I never thought that I could be really anyone. I'd never thought myself represented in the media, I never thought myself presented in people who were really successful. And because I grew up in an inner city, I never had the opportunities that other kids had. Whether it was, you know, just extracurricular activities, or even simply just the books that we got in school, like the books that I got were always torn up and had marks in them. And because of all of that, I just never for me could envision of life bigger than myself. And so one of the biggest reasons why I compete is to show other young girls out there that have a similar background that I that I do that no, you can make it. Who you are -- where you come from, who your parents are -- doesn't always have to dictate where you can end up in life. And for me, having the platform of Miss New York USA, I'm able to connect with so many people. I'm able to have a microphone and talk about something that I find so important and how people actually listen to it and care about it, that I wouldn't have had in any other circumstance.”

Gibau says pageants have given her the opportunity to travel the world and reach out to young women who may feel hopeless.

“From the age of 19 to now working with the different organizations that I've worked with -- including Best Buddies Special Olympics, I'm now an ambassador for “New York Cares,” I've helped raise over $75,000 just me alone,” Gibau said. “That's not even all the other women that also compete and are ambassadors for different organizations. I have my “More Than Enough” workshops that I do, that focus on empowering inner city girls and boys specifically, and equipping them with resources and networking opportunities. One of the mentees that I have from my organization, she was just able to get a full ride scholarship to college, and she's going to be the first person in her family to attend a four year university. And so that's kind of the impact that I've had on other people. And it's because I have, in a way, have had a crown placed on my head. It becomes so much more than that. It's symbolic of so much more.”

In the same way that little kids love to meet the princesses at Disneyland, Gibau says the sparkly crown may be what gets a little girl’s attention, but then she uses that to motivate them. 

“Kids have an impression of, you know, princesses and all of this stuff,” Gibau said. “And of course, that's not what we're wanting them to take away from us, we're not wanting them to just kind of see us as a princess or a little queen. But of course, that does grab their attention. And so then for us, we just use that opportunity to make it so much more than that, to kind of, you know, talk to them and uplift them and share with them things that they can actually hold onto things that will make them a better person things that they can we take with and grow with, and in the most positive way possible.”

Orchard: A common criticism of beauty pageants is that they damage body positivity efforts, and they make women feel like their worth lies in how thin they are, how beautiful they can look. And so it's been said that pageants lead to like body dissatisfaction, and even eating disorders and depression. So what do you say to those criticisms? What do you wish people knew?

“You have to look at the history of pageants,” Gibau said. “Because a good portion of what pageants have always been in the past and what people are so used to is when pageants were really run by men. And so because of that, they were sexualized in a way and so it became really just about how the woman looked, because that's what the men made pageants perceived to be.”

Friedman says this is true – in fact, she says the first man to create a beauty pageant was P.T. Barnum.

“Long before the circus, he had this museum in New York City,” Friedman said. “And one of the things he did at the museum in the 1850s was he'd have dog shows and chicken contests and those competitions. And he decided, ‘Well, if I'm doing this for these other things, we should have the most handsome woman contest.’ And it was one of his rare pop culture missteps, where he misread the zeitgeist. Because at that time, no “respectable woman” would appear in public to be judged, especially based on how she looked because a woman's body, you know, a lot of people thought that should not be in the public sphere. So after that, he quickly pivoted and turned that into what we would now call a photo contest. And that happened, and women submitted their photos.”

She says that led to baby contests – which were enormously popular -- and because babies have to be carried out to be judged, by their mothers, that paved the way for women to appear in public.

There aren’t really beauty pageants for men, but there is something else: The NFL.

Friedman says the NFL is a form of hyper masculinity, and you could say that pageants are a form of hyper femininity.

“Men have been able to use athletics, for example, as a pathway to power in all sorts of ways, whether that's in the business world, or in politics,” Friedman said.

Friedman taught a class called “Sports In American Society” at Brown and remembers showing the class a Sports Illustrated cover story –

“‘Who's the most handsome quarterback?’ Or ‘who are the most handsome NFL players?’”

She asked: Imagine if they did this for female athletes.

“We're coming up on the 50th anniversary of Title IX,” Friedman said. “And that has changed so much. And as those opportunities have been created and opened up for women, participation in pageants has gone down. And I think that makes sense, right? And that's a good thing, because women have so many more options. In the 1950s, there were not as many opportunities. Now there are. And all of those pathways to power need to be explored for women.”

Gibau says pageants are opening up in all sorts of ways.

“I think pageants are way more accepting about different body types and different types of women than the modeling industry,” Gibau said. “You're not just seeing the, you know, one size kind of woman you're seeing women that is the size double zero on the same stage as a woman who has a size 12, a size 16.”

Skinny Does Not Equal Healthy

One of those women is plus-size model Emma Loney, Miss Wisconsin Earth USA. The 24-year-old started doing pageants at 16. She’s been in 15 pageants and held six state titles. She says the people who watch beauty pageants typically don’t want to see a plus-size woman on stage, and that made her want to do it even more.

“Being a plus-size title holder, there's not a lot of women that look like me that compete in pageantry, especially in these bigger systems -- there isn't that representation or different body types,” Loney said. “So for me specifically, I'm really trying to show that women can feel confident and feel beautiful and empowered in the body that they're in. And they don't have to change themselves in order to feel beautiful and conform to those societal norms and expectations that I myself grew up facing.”

Loney says pageants are a way for women to grow their confidence.

“When I was younger, I was constantly told by a parent that I was overweight, I needed to change myself, no one’s ever going to like me looking like this, I'll never find love. I won't be able to do the career I want to do. The list goes on,” Loney said. “I was constantly being told that, and it was really hard, especially when they’re someone that's older than you, that's a parent figure that's telling you those things. As well as in school sometimes being told, hearing underneath people's breath, or comments or rumors, the, you know, the middle school into high school, people just saying, like, ‘You're not good enough’ for the simple fact that you're bigger. And I did let that get to me. I tried to lose a lot of weight in a fairly unhealthy way.”

Loney says when she first started competing in pageants, she thought she needed to change herself to win. But she says when she lost weight, she was miserable.

“Just continued to nitpick everything about myself, didn't feel confident, didn't feel happy,” Loney said. “And I said, ‘You know what, like, this is what you look like, this is what's going to be healthy for you if you want to continue to be in pageantry and show up as your most authentic self, you need to do that. And if that's not something pageantry wants, that's fine, but you're going to be so much happier in the long run if you're representing who you are and not trying to conform to everybody else.’ So now sitting here today looking back at everything that I've gone through I wish I had this same sense of, ‘It's okay to look like this. It's okay to be healthy and not look like other people I’m competing against or other people just in the world. You can be different and you can feel beautiful and even though I weigh more than I did years ago I feel so much more confident today.”

Loney’s first year of college, her sister was hospitalized for an eating disorder.

“That was only about a year after I had myself lost a bunch of weight pretty unhealthily,” Loney said. “And seeing my sister almost starve herself to death was absolutely heartbreaking. And I knew that I needed to not only educate myself, but educate other people about the severity of eating disorders, and how dangerous they are.”

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental disorder. People with anorexia usually die from medical conditions and complications associated with starvation. And by comparison, people with others eating disorders usually die of suicide.

“I always did battle with food growing up,” Loney said. “I would see my friends eating cookies, snacks, whatever -- I was a varsity cheerleader. Everyone would have snacks all the time after practice. And because I was bigger, I felt like, if I'm seen eating this food, like, that's gonna be like, ‘Oh, that's why she's big,’ or ‘That's why she's plus size, because she's eating junk food.’ Even though my friends that were smaller were eating a lot of it. And I think we just have such a negative connotation with anybody that's bigger eating food that is considered unhealthy, even if a skinny person is eating it, because just because we're bigger like that, ‘oh, that's the reason they're big.’”

I tell Loney that I remember the year I went through puberty and got hips. I hated my body. I wanted to be stick thin, narrow like the runway models I saw on TV. That all changed for me when Beyoncé got popular and celebrated her muscular thighs and curves.

“All it takes is one person to be that representation and show a country or world of women, ‘Oh, this actually is OK. Like, it's OK, I look like this,’ and teaching young girls that they don't need to hate themselves in a world where we were taught to hate all of these changes, and all these things that our bodies are doing just because we were female, and it's toxic,” Loney said.

But Loney says even with the body positivity movement in the U.S., pageantry is lagging behind. She says there are many plus sized models and every brand has sort of plus sized inclusion with extended sizing. But -

“There still has yet to be a plus size woman compete at Miss USA,” Loney said. “And that's what I am hoping to be one day, I would love to be the first plus size woman to compete at Miss USA. And I really think putting a plus size woman on that large of a pageant stage would make the statement that shows young girls that, ‘OK, my body can be accepted too, it's okay if I look like this too.’”

Loney says there is hope. She says she just competed at Miss Earth USA and placed in the top 12. She says that means the judges saw her as more than just a plus size person, they saw her as a contender – intelligent, and not just a body.

She says after competitions women come up to her and thank her just for being there, because it makes them feel represented as beautiful. No matter their size.

Loney says there are a few things that skinny women like to say to plus size women – and they need to stop.

“Don't automatically compliment someone for looking skinny,” Loney said. “Especially if they're plus size like, ‘Oh, that dress makes you look really thin,’ or, ‘That's really flattering on you.’ Because that's implying that they only were able to look good because their outfit made them look thinner. Like they couldn't look good in the other outfits because the outfits made them look big. And that the only way to look good is to look thinner.”

Loney says there are parts about pageants where her self-esteem definitely takes a hit. Like the sideways glances she sometimes gets from other contestants backstage, or when she sees she scored perfectly on the interview but low in swimsuit. But she says it’s still worth it. She’s built lasting friendships and found a power in herself. Despite pageants not being very inclusive.

“I find it really just empowering to challenge that, to be different, and show up and say, ‘You know what, like, we need this.’ I know that it hurts sometimes, I know that it's hard sometimes. But being able to try to be the change that I want to see, is really empowering for myself,” Loney said. “Being a woman, to me, is always pushing for change, pushing for representation and showing that women can really do anything that they set their mind to.”

Loney started competing in Wisconsin but is now in law school at Northern Illinois University.

Loney says being an agent of change is why she’s studying to be lawyer. She has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and psychology and she wants to specialize in criminal law. She plans to be on the Supreme Court one day.

To Swimsuit Or Not To Swimsuit, That Is The Question

We can’t talk about feminism and beauty pageants without talking about the elephant in the room. Or rather, the bikini and 5-inch heels in the room.

Miss America has nixed the swimsuit competition while other organizations are keeping it.

Gibau says the swimsuits should stay.

“I think we should 100% always keep it because it's so exhilarating, we to get to that moment of being on stage in a swimsuit, in front of hundreds of people is a level of confidence that not many people have,” Gibau said. “I think that so many things come from a really young age in terms of how people think. Growing up, in school, girls are routinely criticized and pulled out of class sometimes because their skirt is too short or their bra is visible or you know, they can’t show their shoulders -- but we never expect the same from men. And a lot of the times people who say that are men and so it's just kind of like, us being on stage in a swimsuit, we are taking back that power of making that decision for ourselves because it makes us feel good and we see nothing wrong with that.”

Loney agrees. She says swimsuit is her favorite event.

“People are often surprised by that because I'm considered a plus size contestant that, ‘OK, wouldn't you be like terrified to compete in swimsuit,’ But no, I love swimsuit. I love being on stage in swimsuit. I love modeling swimwear. I shot with a lot of swimsuit brands, I love it.”

Loney says what needs to change is how the swimsuit competition is judged. She says it should be about more than just how fit a woman looks – but how she feels in her own body.

“A person can be extremely thin and fit that stereotypical view of fit and healthy but be extremely unhealthy,” Loney said. “Just like a person can be plus size and be considered and viewed as extremely unhealthy that person could be very healthy.”

Friedman says more competitions are shifting toward a fitness competition where the contestants do a workout on stage.

“For example, Miss Teen USA does not have a swimsuit competition, they have fitness competition, Miss Earth and Miss World have like actual obstacle courses,” Friedman said. “What used to be known as Americans Junior Miss now called Distinguished Young Woman, the contestants do a fitness routine on stage, like jumping jacks and planks and all of those things. So I think a focus on what the body is capable of doing, rather than just how it looks, is an interesting move. But it still matters how you look, right? Like, there's just no question about that.”

Friedman says you can change pageants to an extent, but we should support a woman’s choice to love all parts of a pageant and to want to show off.

“There are going to be people who say, ‘But you know, this is what I love. I love the rhinestones, I love the glitz and glamour, I love the pretty dresses, and all the other things like community service and talents that come with it.’ And that's an OK choice too, right,” Friedman said. “Like, if we're thinking about feminism, to me, feminism is being able to have all the options open to you and pursue like, what you are most interested in. And for some people, it's this and for others, it's different things.”

Miss Here To Stay

No matter the changes they might undergo, Friedman says pageants are here to stay.

“Miss America is celebrating its 100th anniversary,” Friedman said. “There are not that many cultural institutions in the United States that have been around for that long, you know, other than the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, those kinds of things. But without some changes, I worry about what that long-term picture looks like.”

Gibau says pageants have a lot to offer the country – because women are getting bolder by the day and she says pageants can reflect that.

“Women are starting to be more unapologetically themselves,” Gibau said. “Women are finally starting to take back power in their bodies -- who they are, who they want to be. And, you know, on all different levels of their life, whether it's career or personal lives. I think pageants are a great mirror to that because that's what we've kind of always been about in the last few years specifically, and when we're talking about where we see pageants going, it's celebrating all kinds of women. And I hope that you know, going forward, we see pageants as more of the platform that it actually is, than just seeing the pageants for being the physical beauty of these women on stages.”

In June, if Loney wins Miss Illinois, she goes on to Miss USA, which has never had a plus size winner.  

But even if pageants don’t change a thing – if they all keep the swimsuit competition but refuse to air the interviews where the women talk about social justice issues, if pageants still only show about one plus size woman per competition and she never wins, if we never hear an openly gay or trans woman speaking about fighting for LGBTQ rights, and if we never see a woman in a wheelchair sparkling in an evening gown – and women STILL want to do these pageants… women have had so few avenues to financial success… can we really fault them for using the tools they were given to grab some power?

Thanks for joining us for this week’s 51%. Thanks to our story editor Ian Pickus. Thanks to Tina Renick for production assistance. Our executive producer is Dr. Alan Chartock. Our theme music is “Lolita” by Albany-based artist Girl Blue. 51% is a national production of Northeast Public Radio. If you’d like to hear this episode again or share it with your friends, sign up for our podcast or visit wamc.org. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook @51PercentRadio

Remember, the future is fearless.