A lot has changed since the first ever beauty pageant in the world was held in 1854. PT Barnum is the man who started it all, but his pageants were soon closed down after much public protest

Sixty years later, a more esteemed challenge paved the runway for beauty pageants as we now know them. According to Racked, "Atlantic City’s Inter-City Beauty Contest" (now Miss America) was the first live pageant. Contestants dressed in nothing but bathing costumes, were judged based on the magnitude of the audience’s applause. 

The Miss America pageant often found itself in hot water for both its exclusion of black women and other racist and controversial practices.

And right here at home our beauty pageants have raised a few eyebrows in the past for their own set of somewhat questionable criteria. 

READ MORE: “I lost 14kgs in 4 months to enter Miss SA” - local curvy model 

However, the announcement of this year's Top 16 Miss SA finalists has instilled hope in the future of beauty pageants in our country - a diverse group of hopefuls that represents more accurately what South African women look like. 

RANDBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - JULY 11: Miss SA 2019 Fin

In an interview with Channel24, Bonang Matheba - who returns as the host of the pageant - expressed the importance of this change in finalist representation, saying: "I love this particular pageant because for the first time in a long time, women who look like that (the contestants) are actually going to feel like, 'I'm included', it's going to break down a lot of stereotypes." 

READ MORE: Sibabalwe Gcilitshana on being the first queer woman in the Miss SA pageant

It is certainly a welcome change, considering how this group is not only one where women of colour now make up the majority of finalists, but it also boasts an incredible bevy of dark-skinned contestants, natural hairstyles including dreadlocks, an openly queer woman, and a contestant with a visible facial birthmark. It might seem superficial to even mention this last one, but paging through the yearbook of Miss SA alumni from previous decades will show you how this is quite a feat for any pageant. 

Given these 16 finalists for 2019, it's worth taking a walk down memory lane to see how far we've come in terms of both our admiration and critique of the 61-year-old Miss SA pageant. 

But first I want to share a brief anecdote of my personal experiences with beauty pageants:

In pursuit of a title

This is actually a subject matter quite close to my heart, so please be patient as I take you through this journey as briefly as I can.

I entered my first ever “beauty” contest when I was five years old. It wasn’t anything like Toddlers & Tiaras, though (thank goodness). All I had to do was submit a photo of myself in order to stand a chance to win a, wait for it… a Wimpy dessert. I won. What a treat.

I then started entering pageants again in my pre-teen years, knowing I’d do well every time I entered because I come from a family that affirmed me not just my outward appearance, but my abilities too.

And considering pageants for girls that age were not necessarily about choosing the prettiest girl but the most endearing, I kept entering confidently. Always a finalist. Never the winner. 

But at 12 years old I finally won 1st princess for the one that mattered the most at the time in mys small corner of the world - Miss East London Show Queen.

I started entering again when I was 15 - made top 15, but didn’t place top 5. And that’s when I quit – because that’s when looks started to matter.

After my long hiatus from pageants, I entered Miss SA (the ultimate goal) for the first time when I was 22. 

I instantly made Eastern Cape regional finalist, where they flew just a handful of us to Cape Town for an afternoon of parading around the Table Bay Hotel in bikinis and sarongs (it was rather cold that day).

I had fun, but I never made it any further and that was the last time I entered.

It was the last time because of the age limit, which has since been lifted. Oh, and my lacking height of course.

But after that last time, I actually started asking the bigger questions about the role of beauty pageants in society and the judging process as a whole, for example, the below tweets:

But enough about me. Seriously. Let's discuss the bigger questions around pageants.

Pretty hurts?

Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts music video shows the not so pretty side of pageantry – the eating disorders and the mental toll it sometimes takes on contestants along with the overall pressure to keep up with the textbook definition of a "female role model". 

Anyone who's ever entered a beauty pageant can relate to being Miss Third Ward at least once.

Be pretty, be slim, pay it forward and be book smart. Furthermore, don't have tattoos, piercings, a child or have ever fallen pregnant before. 

Criteria that had me questioning the integrity and role of pageants. 

Is it about congratulating the queen for winning the genetic lottery? Is it about fostering healthy role models for young girls? Giving back to the community? A door of opportunity into the modelling industry? Or is it just a recreational activity previously reserved only for tall, slender, light-skinned/racially ambiguous cishetero women? 

READ MORE: This transgender beauty queen is breaking barriers

Ever since the traditional beauty standards of global beauty pageants started being called out for their controversial criteria, we welcomed more inclusive, diverse pageants such as Miss Wheelchair World, the environmentally themed Miss Earth SA, and Miss Plus Size is Me South Africa.

Well-intended, but the titles (with the exception of Miss Earth) still somewhat have connotations of othering. 

These kinds of pageants also remain peripheral in comparison to those that reinforce conventional beauty standards with their weight and height restrictions, hair texture policing and many others. 

Of course, no one has to enter any of these competitions, but even as someone on the outside looking in you can't help but feel a little uneasy about the archaic nature in which beauty contests were executed up until recently. And this is why we applaud the progress seen in such competitions - from Miss America ditching the swimsuit leg of their competition to Miss SA welcoming a more diverse selection of women. 

So if pageants are really all about inner beauty as they purport to be, would there be a need to create the above-mentioned peripheral contests? Would a curvy woman, a paraplegic woman and a transgender woman all not be able to enter the same competition then?

Perhaps we're slowly approaching this kind of an all-inclusive pageant format as we've seen from the faces fronting various campaigns in the fashion and beauty industries. 

READ MORE: This new beauty campaign's ambassadors are a mental health advocate, queer activist, cancer survivor and sex educator - we love

The silver lining on the bejeweled Enhle Crown

The race for the crown has actually helped a lot of women find their confidence, paid for varsity tuition in some cases, awarded cash prizes which helped winners build homes for their parents, contributed to the betterment of hundreds of charities and worthy causes, and even gave young girls women to look up to when they would have otherwise not had a role model.

One must also commend the Miss Peru 2018 contestants who used their platform to share statistics on hate crimes against women in their country.

The Daily Mail reported that instead of parading their waist and bust measurements, these ladies used the mic to say "my measurements are..." before sharing a harrowing stat on either femicide, harassment or gender-based violence.

In 2017, Miss Mamelodi Sundowns, Sharon Rose Khumalo, opened up to the media about being intersex and didn't have her title removed as some people unjustfiably expected.

Daveyton, a township in the East Rand, has a pageant for members of the LGBTQ+ community in an effort to make the area safer where homophobic hate crimes are commonplace.

The annual winners of the Beauty With a Purpose humanitarian project of Miss World have single-handedly done more for children in need in their respective countries than our own government ever could.

The Miss South Africa pageant also takes pride in their humanitarian work, where doing charity work forms part of the judging process.

So a lot of good has definitely come from pageantry ever since that fateful year of 1984 when Vanessa Williams was crowned the first black Miss America, thereby opening the door for other women of colour across the world to one day wear a crown too.

Keep the pageants and normalise inclusion

After sharing the good that has come from years of beauty pageants, it would seem rather myopic to declare that we do away with them completely.

I don’t think beauty pageants are completely unnecessary. I just think they could be carried out better.

And I know they're no longer as aspirational as they used to be when we were youngins or even teens, but there's some value to be kept from them.

The problem with beauty pageants has never been the contestants who enter nor their ambitions - it's the rigid criteria that expects women to only be a certain way and when they don't fit this mould, renders them a "reject". 

Not forgetting that the history of pageants was racist, patriarchal and colourist, so seeing so many dark-skinned women, fuller-figured women, queer women and women proudly wearing their afros and dreadlocks out is the representation we've been waiting for, and the kind that young South African girls can feel affirmed by. 

Also, as of 2020, we can look forward to the inclusion of trans women in the Miss SA pageant. 

At the time of publication of this article, the Miss SA pageant could not be reached for comment.

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