Stepping sideways, not forward: Beauty pageants won’t save Indigenous women & girls

Ashley Callingbull, the first Canadian and first Indigenous woman to win Mrs. Universe.
Ashley Callingbull, the first Canadian and first Indigenous woman to win Mrs. Universe.

On August 29, 2015, Ashley Callingbull, from the Enoch Cree Nation in Alberta, became the first Indigenous woman and first Canadian woman to win the Mrs. Universe pageant. The internet exploded with congratulatory messages and articles about this “groundbreaking achievement”.

An Indigenous woman winning a beauty pageant is not a groundbreaking achievement.

Beauty pageants have long been critiqued by feminists for reinforcing patriarchal standards for women and girls, reducing women to objects, and encouraging women to compete with one another. These critiques remain relevant today, perhaps more so than ever in our hypersexualized, increasingly pornified culture. Some might argue that the Mrs. Universe pageant isn’t really a beauty pageant, but a competition that celebrates women and that works toward important causes, such as ending domestic violence. However, as the Mrs. Universe pageant website states,

“We believe that physical beauty is just a part of the whole allure of a person. The idea of all this international event and the activities going through the whole year is that mature women, who have already achieved a lot in their life, who have built their own families, have become mothers themselves, who are independent, due to their own efforts, are the women who can use their beauty for the sake of a big cause.”

Mrs. Universe is a beauty pageant, about beauty, full stop. The pageant recognizes this fact on it’s own website. For women, the definition of beauty is contained in our physical bodies and in how well we’re able to meet a male-defined, racist, impossible beauty standard. This means, among other things, that we can’t take up too much physical space and that our bodies must be thin and slender — sometimes more slender, and in this moment, slightly more “curvy” — but whatever the trend, it’s always within a very narrowly defined range of acceptability. Beauty pageants reinforce these and other patriarchal standards related to our bodies, including the length and type of hair we’re supposed to have on our heads and on our bodies, the lightness of our skin, the makeup we’re supposed to apply everyday, and the constrictive and uncomfortable shoes and clothing we’re supposed to wear. All of these impossible standards that we’re supposed to strive for are designed to control women and girls and make us more sexually appealing to men.

Beauty pageants not only reinforce these harmful ideologies about women and beauty, but also reinforce the roles we’re supposed to play as women in a patriarchy. Pageants reduce women to our physical appearance and reinforce the restrictive behaviours women are supposed to exhibit. How we look, and how well we meet the impossible beauty standards set for us should be our biggest concern and top priority. Our other qualities — what we think, feel, believe, do — all of those things that make us fully human, don’t matter. What matters in a patriarchy for women is male-defined beauty, and that means being as sexually appealing to men as possible. This is what we, as women and girls, are to aspire to: beauty and nothing else. Beauty pageants celebrate this idea, and require not only physical beauty, but that women behave “as women should” — moving “gracefully” across the stage; answering questions in a positive, non-threatening manner; constantly smiling, even if a woman’s face hurts. Not only do beauty pageants reinforce sexist beauty standards, attempt to control women’s behavior, and reduce women to their physical appearance, but they reinforce the idea that women actually like these standards.

From the time we’re girls we’re taught to see other girls — and as adults, other women — as our competition; the prize being male attention. As women, we’re constantly judged on how we look, act, and speak, and rarely do we “win.” We’re too loud or too quiet, we’re too sexual or too prudish, we’re too successful or not successful enough, we’re too smart or too stupid. Beauty pageants encourage women to see each other as competition — they literally judge and rank women according to a sexist criteria as participants vie for the highest score.

I understand, as an Indigenous woman, that we don’t often get to see ourselves represented in the media. When we do, we’re portrayed as victims of violence: murder victims in the mainstream news media, or perhaps as a recent picture on a missing alert. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to want to celebrate an Indigenous women’s representation in the media and as the winner of an international beauty pageant. But we need to pause and look at the business of beauty pageants critically; we need to think bigger and look at the role beauty pageants play and what they say about our culture. Representation in a harmful system that restricts women’s bodies and behaviours according to a sexist criteria, reduces women to objects, and that encourages women to compete with each other is not enough.

An Indigenous woman winning a competition that reinforces harmful patriarchal standards for women is not a groundbreaking accomplishment. It is more a step sideways than a step forward.

It’s important here for me to note that this isn’t a critique of Ashley Callingbull or any of the individual women in the Mrs. Universe pageant; this is a critique of beauty pageants in general and the media’s response to an Indigenous Mrs. Universe. Why should a woman have to meet conventional beauty standards to be heard? Why should a woman have to win a beauty pageant to be given a “voice?” We have our voices, and many strong and courageous Indigenous women and girls have been using those voices for years. Ashley’s voice should be heard and her courage in sharing her story — a story so common to many Indigenous women and girls — is admirable.

But our goals as Indigenous women and girls need to be larger than winning beauty pageants. Widening the definition of “beauty” to include Indigenous women (or fat women, or women with physical disabilities) is not enough when the purpose of this standard is to control women and girls and reduce us to objects. We don’t need a more inclusive patriarchy that will objectify and sexualize Indigenous women, fat women, and women with disabilities just as much as it does white, thin, able-bodied women.

Instead of encouraging our girls to smile until their faces hurt, we should be working together to dismantle beauty pageants and the patriarchal values they reflect and promote.

Cherry Smiley is a feminist activist and artist from the Thompson and Navajo nations. She is a co-founder of Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry and was the recipient of a 2013 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Person’s Case and the 2014 winner of The Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy. Follow her @_cherrysmiley_.

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