How Does Pageant Culture Affect Participants’ Self-Esteem?

Two young girls with long hair wear white dresses and apply lip gloss in front of a mirrorI was recently asked for my thoughts on pageant culture and its relationship to self-esteem. First, let me say I don’t have a lot of experience with pageant culture. Much of my knowledge is based on what I’ve seen on television and in movies, and obviously some of this may be extremely exaggerated and over-the-top. Perhaps real-life pageant culture is less dramatic, cutthroat, or superficial than the scripted shows and examples the general population may be familiar with. And perhaps there are many positive aspects for both the winners and losers in pageants.

But my gut reaction is to feel skeptical about the ability of pageants to favorably impact self-esteem, and I tend to have a negative (though admittedly biased and inexperienced) view of pageant culture on the whole.

As somebody who teaches self-esteem workshops but lacks personal experience with pageants, I found the question about the relationship between pageants and self-esteem intriguing. Here, I share some of my thoughts regarding how pageants could potentially be harmful to the pursuit of healthy self-esteem. I remain curious to learn more about both the pros and cons of pageant culture and its impact on individuals, and I hope others will share their thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

While there are many aspects to pageants besides “beauty” (such as talent, skill, intelligence, personality, and aspiration), the focus seems to be on appearance, glitz, and glam. What is “pretty” and “in shape” has largely been defined by advertisers and the media—and by their questionable standards, the faces and bodies that tend to be the norm in pageants, whether it’s Miss America or Toddlers & Tiaras, are “ideal.” The problem with this is body image can play a huge role in self-esteem, and this intense focus on appearance can give off the impression appearance is everything.

On the contrary, appearance is only one factor among the many different qualities and traits that make us unique and beautiful. Looks are not necessarily something we have much control over. Thus, many people who may not fit the perceived ideal are susceptible to feeling inadequate, flawed, or simply not good enough.

Our society is filled with messages that tell us we should look a certain way or have a certain type of body to be accepted and desirable. The ideals portrayed in advertising and media compel us to make comparisons and fixate over whether we measure up. Pageants render the same type of pressure, along with the added elements of an actual competition and being judged.

Healthy self-esteem is about accepting yourself the way you are. It involves an ability to acknowledge you are uniquely made up of both strengths and weaknesses. It requires you to have a realistic understanding that nobody is perfect; rather, we are all diverse individuals made up of varying gifts and flaws. Healthy self-esteem includes the internalized messages “I am good” and “I am enough.”

While some pageants take into consideration other components via talent and interview categories, there is an overwhelming message that one must first and foremost be physically appealing. Participants may go to great lengths to alter or enhance their appearance. From heavy makeup, to fake eyelashes, to hair extensions, to some pretty extreme things such as plastic surgery and unhealthy dieting practices, many pageant participants engage in behaviors focused on changing themselves to become “more perfect.” The pursuit of perfection is the antithesis to healthy self-esteem.

Healthy self-esteem is about accepting yourself the way you are. It involves an ability to acknowledge you are uniquely made up of both strengths and weaknesses. It requires you to have a realistic understanding that nobody is perfect; rather, we are all diverse individuals made up of varying gifts and flaws. Healthy self-esteem includes the internalized messages “I am good” and “I am enough.”

In contrast, pageants seem to instill messages like “I should be flawless,” “I have to be thin,” and “I need to look and act a certain way to be judged favorably.” When our thought patterns include these rigid and restricting statements, we are set up to feel inadequate and ultimately terrible about ourselves. The idea we have to put so much effort into our appearance and actions to be accepted sends the message we are not good enough as is. This feeling of not being good enough or acceptable creates the foundation of insecurity and low self-esteem.

I especially worry about the effects of pageant culture and its overarching messages on young girls who may not have the resilience, maturity, or life experience to keep the competition and judging in context. If these girls are not also being taught loud and clear messages about possessing inherent worth, appreciating diversity, and understanding beauty, strength, and ability come in all shapes and sizes, they are at real risk of facing a lifetime of problems with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety.

Perhaps children can be protected from some of the harmful messages and skewed values of pageants if their parents are countering them with healthy conversations and diverse experiences. Cynically, I’m not sure the parents who understand and strive to instill these principles are the ones interested in introducing their kids to pageant culture. But, lacking any real experience with pageant life, I may be missing some of the benefits and am open to hearing other perspectives.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Megan MacCutcheon, LPC, therapist in Vienna, Virginia

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Kylee

    February 23rd, 2017 at 12:00 PM

    I did pageants when I was a little girl and I guess I was ok with them but it was more for my mom than it ever was for me. She would get so invested in it, not like the toddlers and tiaras thing, but I always knew that this was something that she was really committed to and would take it to the end of the line if it meant doing more pageants. Luckily for me I think they got a little too expensive for me to continue so I never had to outright say that I wasn’t that into it, the money just became a big thing. I wouldn’t say that it hurt my self esteem but there for a while I was a little insecure about myself especially about going out without makeup because I had been made to think that this is what makes a girl pretty.

  • Bev

    February 24th, 2017 at 10:40 AM

    There are those women who will adamantly maintain that being in pageants was the best thing that they ever did, but my suspicion is that they are the minority. For most of us I think that it placed a high amount of pressure on us and made us feel like we could never be quite good enough.

  • Sherra

    February 25th, 2017 at 6:10 PM

    Everyone is going to have a different experience with this and that’s ok. For me and my sisters I actually think that doing pageants helped all of us a great deal. It taught us about poise and discipline, things that we might not have learned otherwise. It taught us how to do makeup and hair, but I think that it also gave us the confidence to know that this wasn’t how we had to look all the time. It certainly kept us in shape physically, and for us that was a good thing too.
    So this might not be the right thing for your kids, and that’s ok, there are lots of other things for the to get involved with. For us though, it taught us about and exposed us to so many different things and I am very grateful for those experiences.

  • Maesi

    February 26th, 2017 at 9:59 AM

    Everyone has a different experience so I think that this is one of those things that make you have to look at the individual and know whether this is good for them or not.
    I think that there will always be those children who are very receptive to the atmosphere whereas there will be others who see it as a burden.
    Know your child and always try to remember that you want to do what’s best for them, not necessarily what’s ideal for you.

  • janie

    February 27th, 2017 at 12:16 PM

    There are even some boys in some beauty pageants, so you know, things are changing.

  • Brayden

    February 27th, 2017 at 3:27 PM

    WHY NOT GO TO THE PAGEANT CULTURE AND ASK THEM?

  • Jessa D

    February 28th, 2017 at 2:36 PM

    Don’t even get me started on this topic. Do you know how terrible it is to show young girls from such a young age that this is what they should or shouldn’t be. You are setting them up to think that cute and pretty are the things that everyone is paying attention to when I want my girls to be smart and thoughtful. I want them to care for others and do service in the community. How many pageants are out there promoting those notions?

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