It is the 2015 final of the Miss Amazing beauty pageant in Los Angeles, young women from across the United States, nervously make their way onto the stage to hear the judge’s final decision. They are dressed elegantly in beautiful, prom style dresses, with their hair professionally done. The winner is 22 year old Tiffany Johnson from Iowa, who looks radiant in a sparkling pink dress. With tears in her eyes, she accepts the pink trophy (at least three feet tall) and shares an embrace with the runner up, who is thrilled to congratulate her fellow contestant and one of the many friends she has made while taking part in the competition.
Until recently, none of the women on stage had ever expected to be competing for the title of beauty queen and Tiffany is no exception. Unlike your typical pageant winner, Tiffany did not have to pay an entry fee, as much as $500 in other beauty pageants. She did not have a modelling career prior to taking part and unlike many beauty queens, who make a lifelong career out of pageants, which start with their parents entering them as young children, Miss Amazing is Tiffany’s first pageant.
Another thing that makes Tiffany different from other pageant winners, is that she has Down’s syndrome and so do many of her fellow contestants. What makes Miss Amazing truly deserving of it’s name, is that it is a beauty pageant exclusively for girls and women with disabilities.
Miss Amazing is the brainchild of Jordan Somers, herself a former Beauty Queen, who has volunteered with children with special needs. In 2007 she put her two loves together to create a pageant which aims to boost the self-esteem of disabled women and girls “through utilising the skills of pageantry.”
Beauty pageants have existed since the late 19th century but have had a lot of bad rep since the rise of second wave feminism, attracting criticism for objectifying women. Their organisers have been accused of parading women around to be judged like animals.
Feminist groups express concern that they teach girls that beauty is all that matters and give women a false hope of achieving unrealistic beauty standards. Another criticism with standard beauty pageants is that they create a “wholesome image of womanhood” that is oppressive. Zara Holland, a former Miss Great Britain, had her title stripped after engaging in consensual sexual contact on a reality television show.
In 1984, the then Miss America, Vanessa Williams, resigned from her title under pressure from the Miss America organisation, after nude photographs of Williams were published by Penthouse Magazine. Organisers are happy to make women sexual objects by having them parade around in skimpy outfits and bikinis as part of the competition but winners are shamed into retirement if they do not keep a wholesome public image afterwards.
When Beauty Pageants involve children, they go from oppressive and hypocritical to downright horrific. As reality shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras have revealed, pushy parents are at the forefront of the dark reality of child pageants, living vicariously through their children by forcing them to take part, some beginning their pageant “career” at just a few months old. Children are made to look like miniature adults by getting spray tans, caked in make-up and made to wear false eyelashes. Their costumes (which can cost thousands of dollars) are padded around the chest area to create the illusion of breasts and their photographs are photo-shopped heavily, so that they no longer appear human. The behaviour of the parents if their child does not perform to their standards can be considered abusive. As a result, there are calls to outlaw child beauty pageants in many parts of the western world.
These are all valid criticisms and Somers agrees wholeheartedly; “I’m usually one of the first to recognise the negative aspects of pageantry. I spent many years critiquing the structure of these programs” she tells me. “Truly, if people do believe that having a woman model a swimsuit is a way of proving her healthy lifestyle, they must first take a look at the women who have turned to crash diets and obsessive exercise before defending the competition. It sickens me that many have turned a blind eye to how common these harmful practices are among pageant competitors.”
And yet Miss Amazing is a world away from all of it. There is no unhealthy rivalry between the contestants, on the contrary, the contestants enjoy getting to know each other and sharing their talents. Lea Schultz won the title for her state, Illinois, but more important to her was seeing that there were so many other young women and girls with Down’s syndrome taking part, an experience that she described, rather fittingly, as “Amazing”.
Rather than pay a hefty entrance fee, contestants simply donate five cans of food, which are then later redistributed throughout the local community by the winner. This how the organisation gets contestants involved in volunteering, just one way that the pageant aims to improve on many social skills to help enrich their lives. In addition, contestants are given an opportunity to build conversation and public speaking skills so that contestants are able to present themselves to others in a confident way.
“All areas of the competition remind competitors of their goals, who they are, and what makes them a special person”.
Not only has Somers created a pageant exclusively for girls which are so often left out by the rest of society, but she believes that pageantry itself can be used as a tool of female empowerment rather than oppression. “Through pageantry, I think we all have an opportunity to provide a vehicle for girls and women to first of all, develop critical communication skills that will help them excel in their lives and careers. When I think back to my experience competing in pageants, I recall my 12 year-old-self practicing speeches about the effects of bullying and contemplating potential interview questions related to current events. Miss Amazing aims to provide a welcoming environment for all girls and women with disabilities who want to join a supportive sisterhood and become the best versions of themselves. Many participants in Miss Amazing have never had the opportunity to try public speaking or to experience an interview scenario. I think this is true for many girls and women without disabilities as well.”
Traditionally, Beauty Pageants have been organised by men, either as a means to promote business or to simply provide entertainment for other men but now a new kind of pageant is emerging that gives the term a whole new meaning. Miss Amazing is for women with disabilities, Miss T-Girl UK is a pageant for transgender women and Miss Plus-Size UK is for plus size women. What was once a man’s game is starting to become a contest organised for women by women.
“Pageantry also has the potential to offer a platform for women to increase awareness of the diverse ways that women of different sizes and colors can shape our world. That’s exactly what Miss Amazing wants to accomplish for girls and women with disabilities.” Somers continues; “By claiming the spotlight to publicly define themselves on their own terms, girls and women with disabilities are asserting themselves into the narrative about disability and womanhood. I am sure that many little girls watching Miss USA this year were inspired by Deshauna Barber who is U.S. Army Reserve officer. What an awesome opportunity to show that women across the world are diverse and can fearlessly express femininity and strength in unique ways.”