This week I came across an interesting article exploring why we don’t hear about disabled beauty pageants in the UK. Having never heard of them before, I took to Google and quickly discovered Miss Wheelchair America, Miss Amazing and Miss You Can Do It, to name but a few.
Their missions vary from building confidence and encouraging inclusion to providing the opportunity to celebrate achievement. They do have one thing in common: they claim that their focus is not on ‘beauty’ alone. Perfectly admirable you might say. But I can’t help but wonder: if that’s the case, why have the pageant, frock and sparkly tiara at all? Surely, there is a more appropriate forum to celebrate achievements, skills and qualities than a beauty pageant?
One contest particularly celebrates young disabled girls. Many little girls (of which I was one) enjoy dressing up, so I can see the potential joy and fun on offer for these girls. Although my personal contempt for child beauty pageants applies irrespective of disability, I was more alarmed that the Telegraph summarised the disabled pageant as allowing the girls “to be seen as something other than disabled.” What a cruel message.
Turning to the adults, sexuality is a big part of this debate. Miss World began in 1951 as a bikini contest, but added intelligence, personality and talent elements during the 1980s under political pressure. The reason that pageants these days (disabled or otherwise) are at pains to stress that they celebrate stuff of more substance is because they know their days are numbered. If the beauty pageant industry is as progressive, inclusive and enlightened as it proclaims then why are there separate disabled pageants in the marketplace? According to the values of the mainstream pageants, disabled women should find themselves fairly represented as contestants and winners. I, for one, would love to see some data to check that’s the case.
In their niche pageants, I suspect that many of the female disabled contestants, by putting on some slap and parading around in front of the judges, seek to make a bold statement about themselves as sexual beings. Culture associates sex and sexuality with our vision of ‘perfect’ bodies. On that basis, I have to hand it to women with the gumption to literally present themselves for evaluation under the spotlight! However, in the fight to resist the pressure to suppress our sexuality, we must avoid unintentionally demanding to be equally objectified. Why on earth would disabled women demand access to an industry that women (and men) all over the world are calling for an end to?
Ironically, disabled women in the UK are in a privileged position by not being exposed to this old fashioned sexist codswallop. So, on this occasion, I personally will not be pushing for equality!
– by Sarah Rennie
Sarah, Sisters of Frida CIC steering group member, is a director at the Wisdom Factory CIC. As a former solicitor, her day-to-day research work is not to do with disability matters. However, Sarah acts as a consultant for select clients on internal equality working groups. She is based in Birmingham and is a Trustee of the city’s Access Committee.