Reigning beauties – why are beauty pageants so popular on the Rock?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

The Gibraltarian lady whose face I recognised (though not her name) asked me to “like” her business page on Facebook. I often get requests from strangers to “like” this or “share” that on any of the social media sites I use. A quick glance at a profile will tell me all I need to know before agreeing to such requests.

But in this lady’s case her business page appeared to be fighting for attention with the numerous profile photos of her participating in beauty contests. It’s also clear she started on the beauty pageant carousel at a very young age.

I was a little taken aback by a photo where she looks not much older than a toddler; her pretty, infant face, crowned by a sparkly tiara, she’s wearing jewellery, make-up and the huge, self-satisfied smile of a winner.   She probably stopped smiling when she saw that she’d got far more “likes” for her beauty queen photos than she did for her business page.

I’ve often wondered why, there are still so many young girls in Gibraltar who seem to love entering beauty contests? How come there’s such a mind-boggling array of beauty pageants (“Dream Girl of the Year,” “Miss Glamour” anyone?) in a place the size of the Rock? There’s a beauty pageant for everyone it seems from the very young right through to the adult Miss Gibraltar and there’s even a Mrs Gibraltar (so the competitions are no longer exclusive to unmarried women.)

Every year, for no obvious reason, a seemingly endless procession of young beauty queens and their attendant princesses almost overshadow the Three Kings at the popular Cavalcade. They parade through Main Street waving at the crowds from the back of an open-topped car, shivering in their skimpy dresses and tiaras. The event is no doubt one of the highlights of their reign and a chance to bask in the warm glow of the cheering crowds lining the route.

Christina Hodel at the University of Kansas carried out a study on young girls and beauty pageants in September 2014: “The more hyper-feminised the girls are, the more likely they are to win,” Hodel said. “And, winning means approval that they are not only beautiful, but that they did everything right.  So we are telling the girls that if you want to succeed, you really have to be someone who looks like a sexy adult female,” Hodel said.

What message does this send out to young girls who will be the women of tomorrow? If from a young age, Gibraltarian girls participate in activities that focus on physical appearance, it can instil the idea that physical beauty and superficial charm are the keys to success. Thus self-worth and self-esteem are inextricably linked to attractiveness.

My criticisms of child beauty pageants are not limited to the hyper-feminisation of girls or the early sexualisation of children, which in themselves are reasons enough to oppose them. Yes, admittedly it’s a question of consent (by parents in the case of children and choice by the adults who enter the competitions.)  What really irks me is that beauty contests judge “being pretty” in the same way that one might judge “being a talented athlete” or “being a violin virtuoso.” Miss Gibraltar or Miss World aren’t “good at” being Miss Gibraltar or Miss World they are simply rewarded for fitting a particular mould, the judges’ idea of what is beautiful. Yes the contestants also do some charity work which is always a good thing. Some may even continue the charity work once their 12-month reign comes to an end. Most do not.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with being beautiful and playing “dressing up.” I’d like to think that parents of young daughters encourage them to believe that there are other activities and talents to focus on that are rewarding and will prove more useful throughout their lives – more so than winning a beauty contest. (NB. looks are fleeting, brains are forever.) Disclaimer: Just to be clear, I’m not in any way disrespecting the choices made by past participants of beauty contests or their parents.

Described by organisers as “one of the highlights of the Rock’s social calendar” Miss Gibraltar is the big one, with the longest tradition (it’s been going since 1959) the biggest prizes and the most media attention. It’s front page news when the first contestant signs on to take part each year and there’s a big build-up in the local press to the show itself which is televised. I remember in the seventies as a young girl how my parents would often host drinks and dinner for family and friends getting together to watch “the Miss Gibraltar Show.”

Time and again during the interview process, I hear Miss Gibraltar contestants describe it as “their childhood dream” or “a long time ambition.” Fair enough, but why don’t we hear about any other ambitions they might have, aside from winning a beauty contest? Surely, being crowned Miss Gibraltar isn’t the height of some girls’ ambition?

It saddens and perplexes me that in an age where beauty contests the world over are increasingly seen as outdated and superficial, they are such a “big thing” in Gibraltar.

The point I’m trying to make is that when I see the prominence given to beauty queens in the Rock’s social calendar, it feels slightly at odds with the times we live in. It’s not representative of the many Gibraltarian, professional women whose route to success had nothing to do with rehearsed poses, smiles, heavy make-up and diamante crowns.

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16 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Well said, Ms Wade, though I think some concepts take a long time to reach realisation and is very much dependent too on the traditional and cultural tradition of the country in question, Let’s not forget that in this part of the world, spain etc.. women are still pretty much seen as good mother’s and wives rather than predominantly successful and independent career women, which again influences their propensity to ‘doll up’ as it were and play the dutiful sickly sweet feminine role. Sad but true.

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  2. Hear, hear. In such a small community, where such pageants are of such importance, I wonder what message is sent to those who are not conventionally “pretty” or who are over weight? There does appear to be a weight problem amongst some young people here, the subject of another blog post perhaps, but I wonder how these young women feel? Perhaps a heightened sense of being unworthy? Food for thought..

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    1. Thank you Rani for your comments. “Food for thought” is a great compliment on any article. That’s exactly why us journalists write them, to encourage debate.

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  3. Thank you for writing this article. As a nutritionist I work with many Westside girls and have been growing increasing concerned about body image issues. I believe the pageant culture is fueling the ‘skinny and pretty’ idealism which can have a devastating effect on self-esteem.

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  4. The ironic thing about beauty pageants is that when they first started all those years ago, winning afforded many girls an independence and freedom (amongst the opportunity to travel, meet new people and experience new cultures) that they might not have otherwise had. They were days when further education prospects were near enough impossible so many girls were able to broaden their horizons somewhat if they won. Today times and attitudes have changed.

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    1. Thank you for your comments about my piece Nicole. Yes it’s ironic as you say that winning a beauty pageant may have opened opportunities for some. There have however been educational opportunities in Gibraltar since before the Miss Gibraltar show for those who wanted to go on to higher education. My aunts, for example, went to teacher training college in the late fifties and early sixties.

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      1. As it so happens Helen my mum was first princess to the very first Miss Gib back in the late 50’s. Some lovely stories of that event and how it came about. Things were very different then and even though some further education was available it was for the very very few. Most mothers did not work (and I’m talking my grandparents generation) so there was only one wage/salary per household and subsidizing your child through further education was not possible. Govt grants were non existent as well. it was a whole different world. Even through to my generation ( which I suspect you are nearer to?) we not only had to meet university requirements for a place, we also had to meet GoG’s too which meant that only the top Creme de la creme had access to grants.
        Don’t get me wrong I’m totally with you on pageants today, but when you talk to women of what life was back then you realize what an important role Miss Gib played in offering women more freedom and choice in a very patriarchal dominated community.

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        1. Hi Nicole, thank you for your informative comments. You make some very pertinent points which, taken in the context of what life was like for women then, are entirely valid and germane to the story. Yes it was only the very brainy who went to study (my aunts went in 1950s and early 1960s and they DID have government grants.) Yes I also had to obtain the 13-points required for a GoG scholarship when I went to university in 1983. Precisely because life and opportunities for women have moved on so much since the 50s and 60s in Gibraltar, the thrust of my article was questioning why the beauty pageants so popular in that era are still such a big thing for girls (young and not so young) today? I am genuinely baffled by the phenomenon. The good thing is that people are debating the issue and asking themselves the same questions!

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  5. Excellent piece and expressing thoughts I have long wanted to air. Miss Gibraltar is OK, if you like that kind of thing but the pageants for young girls I don’t like and am not convinced the children do either. And certainly the little girls who don’t have the necessary looks may conclude they are second rate. We are not sending them the right message.

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  6. Whilst I am not necessarily happy with the fact that the Miss Gibraltar pageant is seen by many as the highlight of Gib’s social calendar, there are some issues in this piece that could be further analysed:

    • The contestants are put through quite a gruelling and lengthy period (over 6 weeks) of intense rehearsals and training. The training covers public speaking, not just toward the few minutes when they speak on stage, but also for the 20 minute interview when the judging panel gets to “know” them individually. This is valuable training that will be useful to them for many other aspects in their life, such as job interviews, not only for the pageant.
    • The whole rehearsal period that I mention requires them to be present at daily 2 to 3 hour rehearsals, which they MUST attend as per the contract they have signed. This, I believe, is good practice for commitment.
    • Whilst they are attending these rehearsals, they obviously also have to get on with the rest of their life; their job, family, friends, etc. So they need to learn to: prioritize their tasks, keep to a schedule, meet deadlines & plan efficiently. Again, all this will be useful training for the future.
    • Living a healthy lifestyle is a goal set by the organisers, in order for the contestant to show themselves off at their very best. The healthy lifestyle tends to linger on for years after the pageant is over.
    • The whole Miss Gibraltar contestant experience can be character building. They meet people from all walks of life and get to attend events that they would not otherwise have the opportunity to go to.
    • Young ladies who have not got a great deal of self confidence, often use this pageant as a means to overcome that, and to break down their self-imposed barriers.
    • “…looks are fleeting, brains are forever.” Being a successful athlete is also quite fleeting.
    • “…I’d like to think that parents of young daughters encourage them to believe that there are other activities and talents to focus on that are rewarding and will prove more useful throughout their lives – more so than winning a beauty contest.” Wouldn’t reading be more useful than playing football? Does this mean we should not encourage our children to play football?
    • The Miss Gibraltar pageant now sends its 3 top winners to international pageants. These pageants are broadcast to millions of viewers. Just the mention of the name “Gibraltar” is good PR for Gibraltar plc, and value for money.
    • Attending these international pageants, these young ladies act as ambassadors for Gibraltar. The Miss Gibraltar “ambassadors” learn more about Gibraltar and how to put their knowledge across to the hundreds of people that they get to meet.

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    1. Thank you Donna for taking the time to comment on my piece. You make some interesting points about what the girls get from entering beauty contests (eg interview technique etc.). Being an ambassador for Gobraltar is always a good thing. All of the above can be learnt as improvement techniques by girls/women without necessarily entering a beauty contest.

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  7. Hear, hear, well said. There is no real self esteem to be gained from these competitions. Only superficial. We must focus more on teaching all children that they are wonderful, worthy people. Young women are definitely more than just beauty queens – if only they would realise this.

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