Given my claim to Toddlers & Tiaras before Honey Boo Boo became the subject of every .gif ever, a little part of me squealed when I heard about the plus size beauty pageant documentary There She Is. The concept appealed to two dominant parts of my personality that rarely co-exist, the reality TV lover and the feminist. At first the idea seemed great – a way in which the beauty ideal could be diversified, and a large market of women exposed to the empowerment of pageantry. Contrary to my expectations of a sensationalised narrative with an ending to parallel Miss Congeniality, the documentary implicitly brought to light the sadness of the plus size beauty pageant circuit.
My thoughts on these pageants diversifying beauty ideals were pretty much false. These were the same women from the Miss America pageants, only heavier. That is to say, even if not the size 0 of Miss America, the winner of 2011 “American Beauties Plus Elite” had virtually the same blonde hair, lightly bronzed (although previously pale) skin, and overdone make up. The winning contestant recognised this herself and in the opening scenes of the documentary commented on her inability to go to the grocery store unless completely done up for fear of being labelled a “slob”. It seems that the oppression the beauty ideal mandates does not change in the plus size world, it’s only further compensated for. The contestants have to account for their weight by having even better done hair and even better skin-matched foundation so that every other element of their beauty can be scrutinised to the conventional standard.
The imposition of this beauty ideal through plus size pageants could be legitimate if these women were actually empowered by the process and prizes associated with pageantry. Sadly, they are not.
The script is exactly the same, but the set and ending not as satisfying. The crowned winner walks down the aisle, weeping graciously and gesturing out to all those that have helped her along the way. Difference is that her aisle is a makeshift stage in what seems to be a school hall and instead of being showered in cash prizes and the stepping-stones to a new career, our Plus Size Princess wakes up the next day to rearrange the sales rack in her retail job. The pageant runner-up gets stomach-stapling surgery to ensure engagement to her boyfriend who had previously called her “too tall and too fat to marry”. And that’s about as happy as it gets. In the space of a mere twenty minutes these women go from hopeful – asking their audience, “[skinny women] have opportunities, why don’t we?” – to conceding that their beauty is subordinate. They are dampened by the failure to be recognised as truly societally beautiful, or decide to get surgery so they can give it another go. It’s exactly the same narrative, whether size 4 or 14.
So what lesson do we learn from plus size beauty pageants? They’re as bad as normal beauty pageants. And they’re worse. The contestants are just as oppressed by the beauty ideal, making up for their weight through more stringent standards of facial beauty. The worst part is that their conforming to this oppression leaves them with no reward except an oversized sash.