The Problem With Plus Size Beauty Pageants
Last year, I was supposed to take part in a plus size beauty pageant. It wasn’t something I ever intended to be a part of, I stumbled into it accidentally at a plus size fashion event, but it seemed like a good idea at the time so I went for it. I’m not going to give specifics about the particular event I was going to take part in, but I am going to talk about plus size beauty pageants as a general event and my feelings on them.
When I applied I didn’t expect to get in, so I was incredibly shocked when I got an email telling me I had made it through. The email told me I needed to pick what region I wanted to represent, and gave a whole load of instructions on what to do next. At first I was excited, wow, someone thinks I’m pretty enough to be in a beauty pageant! I’ve never felt pretty enough, but here was someone validating me. Those thoughts alone show how problematic the events are.
One of the big things that immediately caused me concern was how much money I had to put forward to even take part in the event. They advise looking for sponsors, but finding sponsors who are willing to pay hundreds of pounds for you to take part in exchange for ‘exposure’, because that’s really all you can offer, is a hard one. Pageants are an expensive thing. They all have an initial outlay that allows you to take part, then there are the outfits for each round, the hair, the make up, they even offer pageant training! I was baffled by all the information but joined some Facebook groups about plus size beauty pageants to learn more.
The first thing I learnt is that there are a lot of plus size beauty pageants, and that they all seem to intermingle with each other. There are people who do the circuits and enter every pageant, who also offer training and tips on how to do well in them. None of these pageants are free to those participating in them. With hindsight, this really bugged me. Without the people entering the pageants, there isn’t a pageant, so why are those entering paying for the privilege? I understand that the event itself costs money to put on, event hire, staff, website hosting etc, but it seemed to cost a lot of money to be allowed to take part. There are a lot of pageants, and there is a lot of money within the pageant circuit.
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The second thing I realised, is that just because these are plus size beauty pageants, doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own beauty standards that need to be adhered to. At first I was excited, thinking that these are fat bodies being celebrated, but then I began to think about it more, and the more I thought, the more uncomfortable I was with the whole concept. We absolutely should be celebrating plus size bodies and how beautiful and awesome they are, but a beauty pageant is still a beauty pageant, even if it includes a wider spectrum of sizes than the norm.
The more time I spent in the Facebook groups the more I realised that whilst these pageants celebrated plus size bodies, they celebrated particular types of plus size bodies more. Small fats size 14-20 were clearly favoured, hourglass figures were prominent, women who presented in a feminine way were also favoured. When I looked around these groups, I was the odd one out, still. They were far more diverse in terms of seeing women of colour being celebrated, but every body I saw did not look like mine. They were the acceptable fats we always see in the media, I was very much the exception to the rule.
The other thing I noticed in these groups was the weight loss chat. It was constant. Most of the pageants have a rule of a minimum of a dress size 14, and the amount of conversations I saw about how to get around this rule was incredible. It was incessant. I was genuinely surprised by this, but the ideal dress size in the groups was a size 14-18, and people were doing their utmost to be as small as possible by the time the pageant took place. These pageants might seem body positive on the surface, but the never ending diet talk and pressure to lose weight was everywhere.
I only saw evidence that these pageants were for cis-women, I have no idea if trans women would be allowed to enter or not, so I can’t speculate on that.
Charity work in your pageant sash was encouraged, and in fact, I suspect necessary to attempt to win the pageant. While at first glimpse these seems like something good to be encouraged, advertising yourself and your pageant seems very self serving and almost like taking advantage of charities and their causes. It didn’t sit right with me.
When I decided that I didn’t want to be part of the pageant any more there was no option for a refund, no mention of one ever actually, just a thanks and goodbye, join us again next year! Whilst I felt very iffy about the idea of the pageant, the reason I dropped out at the time was because I was unable to drive to the pageant for health reasons, but this did not matter to the organisers. On the subject of health, it was also in the rules that heels must be worn in certain rounds. Not all people can wear high heels, and not all people are able bodied, I don’t know if exceptions would be made, but when I mentioned not wearing heels, I was told I had to.
Looking back, certain things stick out to me about these pageants. The question of how ethical it is to charge an entrance fee to the people that you are relying upon to even have the pageant exist in the first place really bothered me. Pageants as a concept bug me. It is still about beauty and beauty standards, and adhering to those standards, not about pushing boundaries and celebrating what actually makes people unique and wonderful. There are winners and there are losers, and we are still placing a focus on beauty, even if it is a slightly bigger beauty than we are used to. We are still displaying bodies for the audience’s viewing pleasure, we are still being judged on our beauty, we are expected to conform and smile and pose, and I am just not OK with that.
There are plenty of plus size women who feel like beauty pageants have changed their world for the better, and that’s awesome. But I can’t help but feel like the world of beauty pageants is what needs to change, because being body positive and learning about self love is so much more than what a person looks like.
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