Beauty Queens: A Playful History

by Candace Savage

Published by Greystone (Canada)

144 pages, 1998





Beauty Contests for Fun and Profit

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

I guess I've always plunked beauty contests in the same mental box as white veal and ranch mink coats: morally offensive but nothing that's going to get me off my chair to picket. To each his own, for whom the bell tolls and all that good stuff. That is, beauty contests, if I'd ever considered them at all, were the realm of less informed earth denizens than myself.

There are things I hadn't realized. Pieces I hadn't considered. How, for instance, the earliest participants in beauty pageants were actually striking a blow: both for other woman and themselves. When we look at the modern beauty pageant and what it's both become and come to represent, it's difficult to imagine a time when a beauty contest might have stood for ultimate freedom. When a participant might have truly represented the "modern girl".

As Candace Savage writes in Beauty Queens: A Playful History :

The bathing-beauty contest was a perfect opportunity to wave the standard of women's sartorial emancipation. An old-fashioned lady would have blanched at the thought of putting herself on display. But a saucy young flapper enjoyed the thrill of feeding the public gaze. Just standing up there was a cock of the snoot at all the old fogeys who thought that women should be kept under a shroud to protect society from moral rot. Entering a seaside beauty context was a playful way to suggest that women's bodies should be out in the light, where they could be enjoyed and appreciated.

And though, on one level, these early bathing-beauty contests were striking a blow for women's freedom, Savage recognizes and talks about other levels, as well.

If the contestants were squeamish about being ogled by onlookers and scrutinized by male judges, they did not voice a protest. Perhaps no one bothered to ask them how they felt, or perhaps they were so used to being assessed by men that they didn't think to object. At work and at play, the life of a working girl was a round-the-clock beauty contest, in which men did the looking and women did their best to be worth looking at. A beauty pageant took this everyday transaction and turned it into a sport, with the added allure of glittering rewards that real life was unlikely to afford.

These two paragraphs -- that appear in this order and on the same page early in the book -- speak volumes about the tone of Beauty Queens and the virtuosity of this author in creating a work of almost perfect balance. I can't help but think that the A Playful History subtitle was the idea of some well-meaning editor because it doesn't illuminate what actually goes on inside: there's nothing too playful about Beauty Queens. It's certainly an entertaining and often enlightening book, but it's not just for fun. Savage has done a remarkable job of approaching this potentially delicate issue in a completely unbiased way, making Beauty Queens a worthwhile piece of journalism as well as a nice addition to your coffee table library.

Savage takes us through the history of the modern beauty pageant, beginning in the middle part of the last century and through to the present. The book is only 144-pages, however and filled with lots of great photographic illustrations, so there simply isn't room to cover the subject in great depth. What we are given, however, is a great overview of some of the high points -- and the low ones -- of this sometimes questionable North American constitution. | November 1998


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.