Images of Beauty Pageants I stumbled upon my first beauty pageant while on assignment for the Boston Phoenix. There had been much controversy that year over rewarding a mink coat to the Baby Miss pageant winner. I was drawn into an exploration of the human dynamics underlying the spectacle of the beauty pageant. I perceived, while catching fragments of conversation between the girls and their parents, an inner and outer world behind the scenes that compelled me to reach deeper in my image making.
That first time I spent five hours photographing. After that I would periodically seek out local contests for children and teenagers. On one level these doll-like girls appalled me. It seemed that their mothers were at the core of the objectification of their daughters. I would see these girls subjected to rigorous hair, face, and body treatments with several adults fussing over them simultaneously. Then I would catch the girls in certain off moments running around and in my eyes,” getting back into character,” and in their mothers eyes becoming,” hard to handle and unruly.”
I remember the quick, impatient physicality at that age and wonder how these girls feel locked up in their winning dresses, already feeling the pressure to win. There is no room for enjoyment in the process. The few free moments that these children squeeze in to run and play quickly
become squelched as their parents admonish them. To me, all these children are beautiful, especially when they are free to be themselves. After all, should not children be immune from the pressures of maintaining external “beauty”?
My images focus mostly on the younger girls and my identification with my own past memories of isolation and loneliness. I see girls who are forced to play the game, but who do not fit in. The pageant is not for everyone, and this sense of female competition is internalized at an early age. The feelings of inadequacy of the losers will be carried over subconsciously into their adult lives.On September 5, 1921, the most publicized beauty contest in the U.S. was inaugurated when Margaret Gorman of Washington D.C. was chosen the winner of Atlantic City’s first Miss America contest. By 1927 there were 75 contestants from across the country entering the annual event. The history of the beauty pageant tells us much about American attitudes toward physical appearance and women’s expected role. I hope to continue exploring the beauty pageant as a truly American ritual, and to contribute visually to a deeper understanding of its influence on our society.