"I couldn't help but wonder..."

Nearly two weeks have gone by since I've become an official pageant contestant. Since the beginning of the blog, I feel like I've had to tread this line between expression and competition. If I veer too far into [critical] expression, I risk unofficial elimination. If I say nothing at all, then what is the point of this blog?

One of the biggest questions I ask myself about being in this pageant is: how does this affect me as a feminist? I think the short answer is that it shouldn't/doesn't. Yet, now I feel like I need to pose rhetorical questions à la Carrie Bradshaw in order to make this entry meaningful and worthwhile.

I've been thinking a lot about what this pageant is supposed to be about, aside from being a cover-up for a fundraising event for the Taiwan Center. The mantra that I've been hearing from Day 1 has been "You will become confident". The pageant CEO firmly believes confidence will lead to life success, as she tells us in the first few minutes of Saturday training. When she first immigrated here as a single mom, Pageant CEO worked as a janitor. Her son was still young, and in attempts to not worry him about their now lower socioeconomic status (I'm not sure what exactly she did in Taiwan before), she would change her clothes, put on make-up, and do her hair all nice before she got home. Eventually, through inspiring conversations with her mom over the phone, she learned to hold her head up high and...be confident.  We land on the happy ending when she meets and marries a doctor from USC.  By the way, this is where the story ends.

Confidence, it seems, is the key to a happy ending.  Pageant CEO's vision of a happy ending has marriage as its key feature (whether or not she deems this as the ultimate success for a woman in general is inconclusive, and speculation about this can be saved for another time).  What I want to dissect is what happens after her story.

After learning a few steps of choreography for, oh, 3 hours, we take a break to watch a different Taiwanese pageant she had directed before.  What I thought would be a fun glimpse into how everything would eventually come together, turned into catty commentary hour.  Pageant CEO spent some time showing us which girls had the best posture, made direct eye-contact with the audience, and had the best strut.  I take all these components to mean exuding confidence, the purported goal of being in the pageant.  However, it wasn't long before we came across some girls who were pageant failures.  And by pageant failures, I mean disliked by Pageant CEO.  Dress choices were critiqued, hair cuts were deemed terrible, and even talents were no good simply because they weren't very feminine.  One girl, who appeared very confident to me, was criticized because she refused to get hair extensions and "looked like a tomboy".   Even worse, she was in this pageant for enjoyment. The underlying theme to every failed contestant was that they didn't listen to my directions.

This is where the dichotomy of pageantry becomes apparent.  It wouldn't be the first time I've heard defendants of beauty pageants ("scholarship pageants", <insert other euphemism here>) say that it's all about empowering/enabling women.  Even on the surface level of being in the pageant, it is something that we are told is true, so I do not doubt that pageant enthusiasts truly believe that they are helping girls become confident individuals.  It is everything else in between the lines that makes me skeptical of its effectiveness.

How many former pageant contestants have become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, leading scientists, or politicians?
I know what you're thinking...

Okay, let me rephrase that to serious politicians.

I know I will be making a sweeping generalization when I say that it seems like the post-pageant career of many women is to be the "face" of something, be it a philanthropic organization or...a Republican campaign for presidency.  These women have learned the confidence to represent something other than themselves.  They can stand proudly in front of an audience and recite exactly the lines they were taught.  They will dress correctly and be nice to look at, and maybe people will believe that what they have to say is important.      
I know there must be some exceptions (because even I don't know everything), so if someone could please do me the honors of finding these exceptions, I will be forever grateful.

Despite what this post might have led you to believe, I am not in this pageant to tear it apart from the inside; I am actually hoping to improve my poise, posture, and public speaking skills.  I want to learn a fun dance in heels, speak about my accomplishments, and most importantly meet other young Taiwanese-Americans girls. To be quite honest, the girls I've met so far seem intelligent and talented enough to be more than just the face of a cause, and I know they all have the ability to be more than just a pretty face.

And now for the missing piece that links everything together:

What do you guys think?  What does "success" mean for a post-pageanter?  What does it mean to have been successful while in the pageant, other than just vague "empowerment" disclaimers?  

These are questions my friend Rachel and I have been discussing (and Rachel brought up) and I think it's time to open the floor to everyone.

Please post all comments, criticism, and discussion; I'm sure I've left a lot of gaps to cover.


  1. I'm really happy to hear your positive commentary on the other contestants! I hope this pageant helps them become confident and empowered, whatever their vision of empowerment is. Even if their ultimate goal is to marry a rich husband and become a housewife, we (as feminists) must respect a woman who exercises her right to make choices. ALSO, I hope you win, duh, so that you can become the first pageant-winner-turned-CEO-or what ever you want to be. Good luck!

  2. It's very strange that the exact goals of the pageant are unclear. This seems to be the case at every level.

    Your fellow contestants seem unsure as why they are doing this. The CEO and other pageant proponents reference vague ideals. Ultimately the judgment of a contestant's value isn't strictly in line with said ideals (which raises the question, what DOES assign value to a contestant?). It seems that no one really has the answer.

    Is this a symptom of the changing role of pageantry in modern society, or was this fuzzy criteria always integral to subjective competitions like pageants? And how rare is it for an institution to be in place that cannot clearly state its purpose?

    These are some great questions for those on all sides of the "pageant" debate and I haven't seen any satisfactory answers. I hope that the further you get into all of this, the more insight you can bring us about these issues.

  3. To be honest with you, I had no idea Sarah Palin was a former beauty pageantess and could not recognize her from those photos. Thank you for educating me.

    Like with the pageant CEO, I often find women who claim to be enlightened, empowering women, but who ultimately make single-minded criticisms about other women's femininity. Usually I just change the channel when this happens (eg. Tyra Banks). I think this is as a result of the heavy-handed influence of male-centered ideology. It is important for women--like any human--to feel confident in their identity and acknowledged for their talents, no matter if it matches socially-accepted ideals. Unfortunately, even when an individual believes this, they may not apply it to how they view others.
    Anyway, it really doesn't matter what the pageant CEO thinks of these women post-pageant and you shouldn't let her criticisms alter your expression of femininity--whatever form it takes on. Ya dig?

    as you know, I've just recently become interested in make-up. In the past, I've always believed make-up was a waste of money and time. I also thought that the use of make-up would make a person less confident of the "real" them. However...now I'm thinking that this is a narrow view of make-up. Make-up can be fun, doesn't have to be a daily ritual, and can still be used to reject the status quo of what is beauty. As long as the individual enjoys it, nothing else really matters.

  4. Han Tan, I've actually been wondering a lot about these single-minded criticisms when it comes to beauty. Say we were just talking about evaluating a female person's "beauty" in the sense of aesthetically pleasing. Why are we reliant on the heterosexual male-driven standard of the "ideal woman" in making this evaluation?

    Can we have an art form that relies on the human body that challenges these social standards? For instance, you sited make-up as being able to push the envelope. "Fashion" as art in general has succeeded in creating a space where one is free to break social norms while still having artistic value.

    But when we talk about a person's "beauty" we are suddenly restricted to social norms as soon as we create a competition or evaluation process. (American's Next Top Model is an excellent example. The fashions themselves can push social norms of beauty, but the models cannot).

    One could argue that "beauty" is just too loaded a term when applied to the human body, inextricable from social norms and thus useless as a mechanism to challenge them. I don't think this is the case, but what better area than a beauty pageant to examine this question.

  5. I’m irked by your Pageant CEO's narrow definitions of beauty and confidence but it doesn't really come as a surprise.

    Pageants haven't evolved too far from their original purpose of simply showcasing women that society deems desirable. Nowadays, they tend to celebrate only one (traditional) aspect of femininity: the beautiful, graceful, diminutive, and poised. Oh, and throw in a talent, a personality, and a social cause. That’s the limit of a pageant. It is what it is.

    I don't think there's anything wrong with celebrating that side. It’s okay to just want to be girly and dress up. I think every girl deserves to feel beautiful. That’s probably why a lot of girls enter is because they haven’t been able to express that side of themselves yet.

    It becomes a problem when a girl thinks that the ONLY way to feel beautiful is to wear heels, get hair extensions, and use 4 ounces of liquid foundation or that the only way to succeed is to use your feminine charm (as your pageant CEO seems to suggest). It’s okay as long as girls understand that the pageant is its own microcosm with its own rules and standards and that in real life there are so many other ways to gain validation and/or confidence.

  6. I don't remember if I have recommended this article or not, but it would be a good read for you (and anyone else interested in this idea of a socialized, standardized beauty)

    Moskalenko, Lena. 1996. “Beauty, Women, and Competition: ‘Moscow Beauty 1989

    It's about a feminist scholar who enters a beauty competition. She reports on beauty treds over a period of time and how the beauty standard to be thin etc. became more prevelant in a country that had just been through a period of communist rule in which beauty was not emphasized . I wish I could be a little more specific, but it's been a year since I've read it. Anyway, it's enlightenling.

    However, it doesn't come up on google scholar. I can search my computer at home and send it to you if I have it.

    On a less scholarly note, Tina Fey made a great point in "Bossypants" about beauty trends in the US since the 70s, when people had apparently no muscle tone, to present: "Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass...the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to achieving this is Kim Kardashian, who was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes. Everyone else is struggling."

    oh, Tina.


  7. Fascinating commentary, Nikki... I think that if you continue to keep your eyes wide open and stay true to yourself, it could be a rewarding experience. Good luck!!

  8. I like this blog, & all the comments too. I have to agree with everyone who commented above.

    Everyone has different definitions of beauty, but who knows how you will be judged on pageant evening since it depends on how the judges perceive your confidence & beauty. Although the Pageant CEO was criticizing the previous pageant contents, I think she's commenting based on her own opinions of what "pageant beauty" is in order to coach you gals about what she believes lead you to the winning crowns. Beauty in pageantry is most definitely different that the general definition of beauty. There is a lot of stuff that goes into all of it & the preparation as you are experiencing. :P Go Nikki! :D