If she is pretty and slim put her in a pageant, so says conventional wisdom or simply the promoter next door with an agenda, in keeping with the flawed notion that the beauty queen world should be a parade of pretty women with very little else to offer.

Is that exploitation? The idea that women should be lined up in a show of flesh and be made to look and sound silly is, but that is far from what pageantry currently characterizes.  There is often that woman, and these days, man next door, comfortably positioned in the pageant arena; a vulture seeking nothing but the feel of crisp sponsorship dollars in her/his hands, unconcerned about the women or girls that are cajoled into participating.

Often we see the string of young Guyanese girls plucked from the protective folds of their homes and thrust into the limelight of an apparently glitzy world that consistently hides the cruel truth of pageantry– bitter feuds, damaging jealousy, exhausting sponsorship hunts, sexual favours.

When a woman can organize a pageant with babies (girls age 14 and 15) in a remote part of this country and ship them down to the city for interviews without telling them what it means to have a platform in a pageant, the pageantry world has sunk to an all-time low.

“What is a platform?” The question rolls off the tongue of the bewildered child who is sashed and waiting to compete for a title. She has no idea what a platform is and truth is they all don’t have a clue. The nation’s children are suddenly caught up in what is now being condemned in local circles; the exploitative nature of beauty pageants.

There is a flood of pageants locally. At every crack and corner of this country there is a pageant and not surprisingly as there are so many little girls for whom the ideal is to one day wear a crown, stand in front of thousands and be named a local queen. In the correct context, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It becomes wrong if it’s the only goal those little girls have in life.

Pageantry should just be a stepping stone to greater things – a means to an end, so to speak. The little girl’s ideal should be to one day embody the characteristics of a strong Guyanese woman, showcase Guyanese beauty and emerge a national ambassador.

Beauty pageants are not all exploitative. To generalize them as such is insulting to pageants that offer women an avenue of professionalism, a platform to further a cause, greater self and cultural expression and healthy competition. The denigration label that is attached to all beauty pageants is similarly, an unfair one.

Remember Amina Lawal, the Muslim Nigerian woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery in 2002? The Miss World pageant rallied around Lawal as several countries pulled out in protest of the sentence and amid growing international attention the Nigerian government promised that the sentence would not be carried out and Lawal was spared.

Lawal’s right to live is one of several causes beauty ambassadors stand up for — there are also HIV/AIDS, poverty, human and women’s rights, world peace, an end to the violence against women and so on. There is a host of issues that women are advancing under the banner of their sponsors and their countries.

In an interesting book on the subject of beauty pageants, writers Collen Ballerino Cohen, Richard Wilkes and Beverly Stoeltje point out that beauty pageants are not only about femininity but that they also offer women the opportunity to project various identities and cultures. They argue that the presence of women on the global beauty stage allows for cultures to remain visible, adding that pageants showcase values, concepts and behaviours that exist within various groups.

What was interesting in their analysis was the point that there is no single definition of beauty, and that beauty includes deportment and citizenship. In essence, they argued that a Guyanese beauty queen on an international stage projects a beauty that is unique and recognized for what it is, and that by mere representation she keeps the culture visible.

Why then are beauty pageants so frowned upon in this country? Perhaps because their recent history has been shaped by a series of unfortunate events. Beauty queens are afraid to be candid about their experiences in local pageants and when questioned barely offer up bits such as, “I am glad it’s behind me”, which says the experience was bad.

One queen said, “I did it because I always wanted to; not knowing how dark it really is”. She was optimistic that the country can someday reach that place where women of good standing are not afraid to enter, adding that there are such women willing to enter pageants.

We hope that one day pageants can be viewed seriously here and women can step forward and represent Guyana at the level it ought to be represented on the global stage. But more importantly, that we could move away from exploiting young girls and women and ascend to that place where pageants empower, inspire and give hope.

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