What message do beauty pageants really send?

By Sophie Mak, Diocesan Girls' School
By Sophie Mak, Diocesan Girls' School |

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In Hong Kong we rarely hear the words “gender equality”. You might think this is because women in Hong Kong have pretty much the same rights as men. After watching the Miss Hong Kong pageant finals on August 30, I realised this is definitely not the case. Beauty pageants perpetuate sexist attitudes that degrade women, and this reflects a deep-rooted problem that we are facing in society.

Beauty pageant contestants face daily ridicule on the internet for everything they say or do privately or publicly. They are given degrading nicknames by the media and are numbered like racehorses during competitions. They need to wear skimpy clothing and are awarded marks for how pretty they look. They are judged on their beauty and body figures, as decided by male judges.

As the audience, we enjoy the entertainment aspect of these competitions; we applaud, we laugh and we vote, but we are not always aware of the message beauty pageants actually send. 

Firstly, beauty pageants teach women that their self worth comes from physical beauty. They encourage contestants to conform to normative beauty standards, fostering “destructive perfectionism and self-criticism”. Some contestants do so with the help of plastic surgery and eating disorders, which are bad for both a person’s physical and mental health. 

In a bikini contest last month, one of the contestants, Jessie Ma, was ridiculed by the media simply because she weighed 55kg. While it is a perfectly normal and healthy weight for a fully grown woman, she was already considered obese among other contestants who weighed from 40kg to 45kg. Another finalist, Ann Law, reportedly stuck to a strict diet (like many others) in an attempt to lose weight, and her skin turned an unhealthy shade of yellow as a result of her destructive eating habits.

Secondly, beauty pageants also contribute to the sexualisation of women in very direct ways, such as contestants complying with old fashioned standards of beauty and engaging in activities associated with traditional “sexiness”, like wearing heavy make-up that emphasises long lashes, full lips and high cheekbones and very revealing swimwear and dresses. 

Beauty pageants parade these women around, objectify them, and force them to submit themselves to be judged based simply on their physical appearance. While the Miss Hong Kong pageant claims to not only be about beauty, but also about wisdom, I hardly find it necessary to test someone’s wisdom by making her answer nonsensical questions while wearing a bikini, or to judge someone’s artistic talent by mentioning her body measurements every time she goes on stage.

This year’s winner, Louisa Mak, caught the public’s attention thanks to her outstanding academic background. Mak is a law graduate from Cambridge University who also got 10 As in the HKCEE in 2009. Throughout the competition, she was dubbed a frontrunner because she is not only beautiful but also smart. 

Many people even wondered why she would want to participate in such a competition, seeing as she already had such a strong background. Mak quoted Emma Watson to explain why she wanted to take part in the pageant. “‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’” she said, insisting that she hopes to be an influential figure who can positively influence society one day. She believed that the fastest way she could get her voice heard in society was by taking part in the pagaent. 

Just like Mak, other contestants had their own motives for taking part. Some wanted to gain more life experience; others saw the pageant as a way to crack the entertainment industry. These women all knew what they were signing up for and were willing to give up their personal freedom and even occasionally strip down to their underwear to take part. Their bravery and sacrifice should be praised and their determination to pursue their dreams should be commended. 

However, while everyone’s choices in life should be respected, these contestants need to realise what their choices mean for the rest of society. By giving in to these expectations, and using the pageant as a way to success, they are also perpetuating a kind of thinking that is detrimental to the progress of gender equality in Hong Kong. 

Beauty pageants are examples of how sexism continues to be a part of our everyday lives. They reduce women to objects to be judged and compared based primarily on physical appearance. This is a problem that everyone needs to work towards solving, not just women, if we want a fair and equal society.