The relationship between beauty pageants and feminism is not exactly the most amicable. But law student and reigning Miss Roanoke USA Kiara Imani Williams makes a convincing argument that pageants and feminism aren't as incompatible as some people think. And the essay raises an important point in feminism about not conflating women who participate in un-feminist things with being un-feminist themselves.
Williams, who herself identifies as a feminist, says in an essay for Huffington Post that she is tired of having her feminist credentials challenged because she participates in pageants. And to those who question why she, as a feminist, would want to participate in something that seems so sexist, she has a very simple answer: "I compete in pageants," she writes, "because I like them."
Williams explains in her essay that she's well aware of the many problems with pageants, including the fact that they "glorify a European standard of beauty" and that "walking across a stage in a two-piece is not necessarily indicative of one's commitment to living a healthy lifestyle." But in her opinion that doesn't mean she shouldn't be allowed to participate in something that she enjoys, despite its flaws.
"Why, may I ask, is it okay for 'feminists' to demand that women be given the right to choose their own path," she writes, "then to place demands on the acceptable pathways to feminism?"
It's an important question to consider.
Questions of what counts as a "feminist choice" or what sort of life choices a "good feminist" should make have been plaguing feminism since...well, probably forever. Feminism is a large, complex, and constantly evolving set of ideals and principles. And given that one of the most basic tenets of feminism is that women should have a right to make their own choices, free of gendered obstacles, then is it ever feminist to criticize another woman's choices? Or does that mean we would never be able to hold other women (Phyllis Schlafly comes to mind) accountable?
Personally, I've always been a big fan of the idea that, when it comes to feminism, it's most useful to critique the systems under which women are oppressed, rather than the women who participate in those systems. After all, in the fight for gender equality, other women are certainly not the enemy — systems of oppression are. And it would probably save us a fair number of headaches if we would stop trying to conflate the two.
I've always been a big fan of the idea that, when it comes to feminism, it's most useful to critique the systems under which women are oppressed, rather than the women who participate in those systems.
So are pageants feminist? Definitely not. Can pageant contestants be feminists? Absolutely!
Ultimately, neither Williams nor any other pageant contestant needs my or anyone else's approval to participate in pageants — or to do so while calling herself a feminist. But it would be nice if we lived in a world where all feminists could both oppose pageants and support pageant contestants, where we could criticize institutions but defend one another's choices, even if we personally don't understand (or even agree with) them.
Because pageant contestants are not and never have been the same as the pageants they participate in.
To hear more about Williams' thoughts on feminism and pageants, including the things she's learned from being a pageant contestant, you can (and should) read her full essay here.