Oct 4th, 2018, 05:03 PM

Pageantry and Feminism: Can They Coexist?

By Jacinda Carlisle
Image Credit: DorothyGuya.com/Dorothy Guya
Pageants are often scrutinized and controversial, but can they yield feminist and humanitarian efforts?

In this age of Toddlers and Tiaras and Miss America 2.0, the word “pageant” is often layered with scrutiny and controversy. Questions such as “Why do pageants exist?” “Why would anyone ever enter a pageant?” “Are pageants not exploitive and all about physical beauty?” and “But you support women. How can you support pageants?” ring throughout conversations.  

As an American living abroad, I am often asked if I competed in pageants. When uttering my response, it is generally met with one of two reactions:  glimmering eyes mesmerized by the world of pageantry or jaws drop and it is as if a scarlet letter has been bestowed upon me by Hawthorne himself.    

Here I am, declaring to the world, “Yes, I participated in pageants and my experience was evolutionary." For me, it is less of a question of how can you support both pageants and women and more of a question of how can you not? Let’s take a journey to explore why not all pageant experiences are created equal.

Know Your Why.

Growing up in a small southern town in the United States, pageants were the norm. I will preface this by saying “Not every girl in every small town wishes to participate in pageants, but many in my town did.” Although my  parents were encouraged to enter me into pageants at an early age, they understood the importance of waiting until I reached the appropriate age to comprehend why I wanted to enter.  We mutually agreed that if by the age of 11 the fascination persisted, we would revisit the conversation. 

As my parents are firm believers in giving back, they raised me with a social consciousness of doing what I could to help others and improve the world. They suggested I consider two things:  what value pageants could potentially bring to my life experience and the opportunity afforded to aid the greater collective. 

Like clockwork on my 11th birthday, after a discussion about what types of pageants might be most advantageous to my overall growth and a making a vow to use my voice for good, I entered my first state pre-teen pageant. Standing before a room of judges being asked my opinion was exhilarating.

The dazzling lights of the stage provided the spotlight needed to bring attention to world issues. "This," I thought, "is a door to expansion; a way to offer helpful ideas and solutions to society."

Although I did not walk away with the crown, my intuition acknowledged a valuable experience to be gained through pageants. Being a novice, a group of pageant aficionados approached my parents and I with an offer to train me for future competitions, and the quest continued.

Training = Growth and Results.  

Pageant training for scholarship pageants such as Miss America’s Outstanding Teen and Miss America involves a rigorous commitment. Mock interviews require you to stay abreast of current affairs, be well-versed and own your convictions on variety of topics. Selecting a pageant platform, a passionate cause with which to volunteer or implement a program and bring awareness to an issue or cause, promotes social activism. 

Exemplary scholastic efforts, talent and physical fitness preparations require self-discipline and contribute to personal and professional growth. The combined efforts of my supportive parents and team, as well as the hard work I put forth, enabled me to win a number of Teen and Miss titles including Top Ten at a Miss America state preliminary.

You now have a title. How will you use it? 

Pageant celebrity offers fame and opportunity, and in my opinion, also includes a responsibility to share, advocate and even if only in some small way by word or good deed, to make a difference. I became a confident young woman, as comfortable in conversations with my girlfriends as in discussing important matters with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I created and implemented a domestic violence and sexual assault program and have trained and spoken to hundreds of thousands on these topics. I have presented talks and facilitated discussions with young girls and teens on self-esteem, confidence and gender equality. Notably, I have received numerous scholarships as a result of my scholastic achievements, which have allowed me to continue my education.

Pageants and the empowerment of women.

Pageant experiences for many young women are extraordinary, and dare I say, life-changing. When pageants are carefully selected and entered into thoughtfully, they can be a great asset. Not only for the young lady competing, but to the society that benefits from the strengths, talents and goodwill she can contribute as a result.

Rather than being a source of belittlement or patriarchal, pageants are pillars of empowerment. Pageants allow women to exercise and vocalize our rights, not detract from them. If pageants allow podiums with which to express intelligent global perspectives on women’s rights, gender equality and other critical issues, the world is better for it.

In a progressive, emancipatory effort in support of women, for the first time in more than a century, The Miss America Organization decided to forego the swimsuit competition. During an interview with ABC’s "Good Morning America," Gretchen Carlson, chairwoman of Miss America’s board of directors said, "We are no longer a pageant; we are a competition. We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance.”

As a pageant contestant who competed in all phases of competition including swimsuit in the Miss America system, I support this change by the organization. It places the focus where it belongs:  on women being valued for our intelligence and activism and earning scholarships to fund our educations.

Another impactful competition encouraging women to soar is The Miss Universe Organization. More than a “beauty competition,” it highlights the activism of its contestants throughout the telecast. Its mission:  “Empowering women to develop the confidence they need to achieve their personal best. A confident woman has the power to make real change starting in her local community with the potential to reach a global audience.”

Pageants, feminism, public service and world change.  

So with all of this I say "I am a proud pageant contestant and a proud feminist." It is possible to be both and these worlds can in fact, coexist. For me, it is less about making a choice to be one or the other, but instead about embracing the power of being a woman and using my platform to harness that power for the world of public service.

I value this mission as much as I do the collection of tiaras, sashes and behind the scenes photographs from appearances; perhaps more so. I am a supporter of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements and the brave women stepping forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault.

I am a fierce advocate for children, particularly young girls who are not afforded their inherent rights to healthcare, meals, education and freedom from all forms of abuse. I have always believed in the power of women and will forever be a proponent of gender equality and human rights.

Having regularly attended sessions at the United Nations as an advocate for UN Women, it will be an honor to continue advocacy work abroad with UNESCO and other global organizations. I have pageants to thank for opening the doors to greater heights of social activism and providing a pulpit to which I am using my voice to fuel change and working to ensure equality for all.

Image Credit:  Miss America, Inc./Jacinda Carlisle

Image Credit:  United Nations/Jacinda Carlisle

Pageants have greatly contributed to the woman I am today:  a global humanitarian poised and ready to do my part in changing the world, by empowering one girl and one woman at a time. This work feeds my soul and for me, is what this platform I have been given is all for. And truth be told, it is the greatest title of all.