Miss SA is proof beauty queens are changing, and not just into swimsuits

Gone are the days when pageant contestants were expected to shut up, smile and wave

04 August 2019 - 00:08
Kgothatso Dithebe, Miss SA top 16 finalist for 2019.
Kgothatso Dithebe, Miss SA top 16 finalist for 2019.
Image: Ingrid Alice

Somewhere between the heyday of Generation X and now, beauty pageants lost their lustre.

This has as much to do with the fact that some of them were owned by internationally accredited creeps like Donald Trump as it does with the changing way in which society views women.

Ever since the first modern beauty pageant in the US in 1921, they've acted as a glitzy meat market designed to highlight patriarchal ideas of what the "ideal" woman should be.

Nowadays, advocating for the place of beauty pageants in modern society is likely to get you digitally stoned by Twitter mobs and, given the history of these pageants, it's easy to see why. But the top 16 finalists of this year's Miss SA pageant have a different take.

"I entered Miss South Africa to be a voice for people who don't feel like they'd be accepted. We all know the stereotypes around beauty pageants are that you have to look and behave in a certain way. I wanted to show this doesn't have to be true," says Kgothatso Dithebe, who has a birthmark on her face that would, in previous years, have made her a non-starter in the competition.

This year Miss SA's diverse cast includes its first openly queer contestant as well as a pair of 'plus-sized' models

Looking around the pageant world, there is an argument to be made that things are changing. In 2014 Miss Spain was won by transgender model Angela Ponce and this year Miss SA's diverse cast includes its first openly queer contestant as well as a pair of "plus-sized" models (though the definition of plus-sized is dependent on whose measuring tape you're using). It seems a more inclusive era of competition is emerging.

"Pageantry has the ability to focus in on some really important issues and get your voice heard while empowering other women to do so. One thing we have wanted to do as an organisation is to have every young girl see themselves in one of the young women on stage," says Miss SA CEO Stephanie Weil.

"You don't have to be perfect," says finalist Loren Leigh Jenneker. "We were chosen based on who we are individually."

With all that said there's always the one rather sharp bone of contention that tends to stick in the teeth of pageant critics: the swimsuit section. In an age where the objectification of women is often seen in the dimmest of lights, you'd imagine that having an entire competition category dedicated to judging contestants on their ability to pull off a "summer body" is likely to be as well received as a raucous laugh during a funeral service.

"For me, being a role model requires some sense of vulnerability. It's a moment to express 'I am who I am, the way I am'. It's a chance to show I'm healthy in body and mind," says finalist Keabetswe Kanayne.

Keabetswe Kanyane, Miss SA top 16 finalist for 2019.
Keabetswe Kanyane, Miss SA top 16 finalist for 2019.
Image: Ingrid Alice

That sense of vulnerability, not just when it comes to swimsuits but in general, is an aspect of pageant life we don't often see. The standard conception of what goes on behind the scenes at pageants is something akin to a reality show. We imagine that once the lights go off it's all treachery, intrigue and general cattiness but, say the contestants, nothing could be further from the truth.

"All 16 of us had a feedback session to air our concerns - a couple of us, including me, felt comfortable enough to cry. I'd been bottling up my emotions but in that moment I let my walls down and the other contestants lifted me up when I was at my lowest point," says finalist Errin Brits.

"It's problematic that people imagine there's always cattiness with a group of women," says Kanyane.

Perhaps, then, our problem with pageantry is a problem with ourselves. In the way that we think there's nothing inherently unfeminist about someone choosing to be a housewife, there is nothing inherently problematic with a group of women choosing to enter a competition that has the ability to take the winner all over the country, and the globe, instituting some of the change she'd like to see. The competition criteria are what they are but, in the modern context, they're changing for the better.

Pageants aren't perfect but perfection is an ideal that comes in as many colours as a rainbow with multiple personality disorder - it's in the eye of the beholder. Women aren't all the same and a certain set of them embody a subset of ideals, and that's perfectly OK.

It doesn't take a sociologist to realise that not every woman will relate to Miss SA and its contestants, but not every woman has to. For the ones who do, Miss SA remains a source of pride, empowerment and joy. Who am I to tell them different?