Dr. Karen Tice talks gender and race in beauty pageants, higher education

By Christa Rodriguez || Campus Life Editor


On Wednesday, Dr. Karen Tice gave a talk titled, “Gender and Race Politics of Beauty Pageants and Student Bodies in Higher Education.” Tice is a professor at the University of Kentucky (UK) for their Gender and Women’s Studies program. This event was co-sponsored by the Alice Drum Women’s Center, SISTERS, the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program, and the Sociology Department. Throughout the talk, Professor Tice referred to her book, Queens of Academe, which discusses the phenomenon of beauty pageants on college campuses and how it affects student’s identities and bodies.

Tice said she never thought she’d write about beauty pageants until she found out about a pageant at UK from her students. For her research, she attended many college beauty pageants at all different types of colleges, looking closely at the differences between pageants at historically white versus historically black universities. She also watched many reality television shows depicting pageants and similar competitions, such as TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras. She said, “I started to have a basket of socks to throw at the TV” when watching pageants.

Tice first explained how prevalent pageants are in today’s society. Tice noted that the beauty industry is incredibly profitable, with more than 2.5 million women competing in pageants every year in the United States. Pageants are used in many different regions across the country to market different products, including chicken, cologne, and even coal.

In order to express the cultural obsession with pageantry in some regions, Tice showed a photo of an official state welcome sign for Bell County, Kentucky, which announced the particular pageant queen that resided there. She gave a few unique examples of different groups of people that put on pageants such as women in prison, people with AIDS, and grandmothers. Even Donald Trump owned the Miss Universe Pageant for a time.

A large portion of pageant contestants are evangelicals and promote faith-based beauty. These “born again beauty queens” make up about 80% of women in pageants. There is even a Christian Fashion week. Tice demonstrated how much beauty influences society when she noted that, “Avon has more sales ladies than people serving in the army.”

Tice mentions that those who defend beauty pageants often claim that these events provide a platform for debates about racism, nationhood, religion, LGBTQ politics, etc. However, upon close inspection Tice found racialized beauty embodied in a place of higher education. To her, these pageant students “sought not only diplomas, but tiaras and titles.” She decided to explore whether campus pageants could be sites of cultural resistances well as other questions.

She stepped back from today’s campus cultures to learn about the genealogy of pageants. Through her research, she actually found a picture of her mother in an old yearbook, and saw that she had been Cotillion Queen.

In the past, people feared that college attendance would take away women’s virtue. So these performances of hyperfemininity acted as a way to offset the masculinity of educated women. Additional expectations for African American women was the “burden of rewiring cultural contexts,” Tice explained. They had to prove that they had nice manners, qualities formerly preserved for white women. This type of thinking valued how women disciplined and displayed their bodies over academics.

Historically, there were only male celebrity judges at pageants, and many pageants contestants had to report their weight, bust size, ankle size, and other measurements. This emphasis on idealized measurements “continues to pop up in more contemporary campus pageants.” There has even been an upsurge in pageants since the year 2000.  This popularity of pageants has also been increasing for men as well races and cultures other than white, middle-class women.

Tice told of the first pageant she attended, the “Belle of the Blue” scholarship pageant at Georgetown College, a Methodist college in Kentucky. There was no swimsuit competition or body proportion requirement. Poise and appearance only accounted for a small portion of the total score for each contestant. She noted that one of the judges was a Catholic priest, which she thought odd. She also noticed that the director of student affairs was missing asa judge.

She later found out that the director of student affairs had been arrested for fourth degree assault of a contestant at a dress rehearsal. The controversy was whether the contestant’s talent was “ladylike” enough. The talent was lassoing a stuffed pig in a cowgirl outfit. Tice said that over 40 U.S. universities continue to conduct pageants for the Miss America Corporation.

Many campus pageants claim they are about achievement, discipline, and charity, and not about objectifying women’s bodies. Tice said how some pageants feel race is important for the “ongoing political significance of black beauty.” Many believe certain pageants help to challenge and address racial inequalities and exclusions.

There is a need to advance racially and culturally specific agendas while promoting historically black colleges. Black beauty contestants in these types of colleges see the pageants as a place to be proud of themselves. Some black female pageant contestants are told to think of their crowns as politicized racial missions.

Racial and ethnic pageants on historically white campuses display pride in culture as well. However, according to Tice, they also eliminate cultural complexities.

Many white contestants use feminism and empowerment to justify their participation in pageants. They see it as a personal choice and see their participation as part of post-feminist discourse. Wearing a tiara and representing a university, to many, gives them a voice and provides a bridge to activism. Tice sees some of the pageants as going too far, as some colleges even reward free tuition and board to their queens.

In Tice’s conclusion, she noted that there are better ways to deal with issues on campus, whether that be racism, sexism, etc. The display and competition of women’s and men’s bodies, according to her, are not the best ways to make social change. She went even further, saying it is not enough to get rid of pageants from universities, because the issues they try to tackle still exist, and pageants are not the only culprit.

Sorority recruitment, for example, deals with gender politics and body behavior. She notes that there is “only one winner in a pageant…and many more losers.” To Tice, pageants are more problematic than they are helpful, and there are better ways to promote change without the marketing of college student’s bodies.

Sophomore Christa Rodriguez is the Campus Life Editor. Her email is crodrigu@fandm.edu.

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