Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Rylee. Rylee Wonders, “Why is there no articles about pageants?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Rylee!

Have you ever seen a beauty pageant? You might see a line of people in fancy clothes, and a judge deciding which is the winner. It can be fun to decide which person you would pick as the winner, and see if they get chosen. But what is a pageant? And why do we do them?

Let’s start with the word “pageant”! A very long time ago, pageant didn’t mean the beauty pageants we know today. A pageant was a large celebration for the public to see. Things like religious holidays might include a pageant. A coronation—when a new king or queen is crowned—is a kind of pageant. Parades, like we do now for Mardi Gras or St. Patrick’s Day, are pageants, too. Some pageants would include a kind of play. These plays were usually religious and ceremonial. If you saw one, it would not look very much like the plays we see on stage today. They were meant for teaching and celebrating. These are called “passion plays.”

The idea of a beauty contest is an old one, too. We think that modern beauty contests date back to medieval Europe. In Britain, for example, “May Day” parties would include choosing a queen. But the first modern beauty pageant was an American invention. P.T. Barnum, who was famous for his circus, got the idea to have a beauty contest. However, women in the 1850s did not like the idea of showing off in public. Barnum got the idea to use photos instead, and this plan was more popular.

As time went on, ideas about what women should do began to change. More and more young women entered pageants that were in person. And in 1921, the first “Miss America” contest was held. The winner, Margaret Gorman, was just sixteen years old.

From there, the “Miss America” pageant grew each year. It was very popular. But not everyone agreed with the idea of beauty pageants. Many people did not think that women should show themselves in public in bathing suits! As time went on, others began to think that the contest was unfair. For example, for many years there was a rule that Miss America must be white.

In fact, the first Black people to be allowed on the Miss America stage were performers playing enslaved people. It was not until 1970 that the first Black contestant was in the pageant. The first Black Miss America was Vanessa Williams, in 1984. It was hard for other ethnic and religious minorities to be a part of the pageant, too. In 1945, the first (and only) Jewish Miss America was chosen. Her name was Bess Myerson. The first Asian American Miss America was crowned in 2001. Today, the Miss America contest has diversity as part of its mission.

Another criticism of beauty pageants is that it is harmful to judge women on their looks. In 1968, a large group of women protested the Miss America pageant. They argued that the pageant had beauty standards that excluded most women. Beauty standards mean one way of looking that is seen as the “best” way to look. Many women felt that the pageant said that there was only one way to look beautiful. That beauty standard left out women who were of a different size, shape, ability, or skin color than the usual winners. Heather McCallum, the first Miss America with a disability, wasn’t crowned until 1994. 

Over time, the Miss America pageant has made changes. In fact, in 2019, the organizers said that Miss America is no longer a pageant! It is now a contest, and by its rules, contestants are not judged by their looks. Instead, they are judged on their talents. 

Miss America was the most famous beauty pageant, but there are many others. There are pageants for contestants around the world. There are pageants just for older people, men, or even young children. Some groups created their own pageants because they were excluded from most beauty contests. There was a Black Miss America pageant. There were also pageants for disabled people, Deaf people, and more.

Many people enjoy watching or participating in pageant contests. Many others think that pageants are harmful to women and society as a whole. Have you ever seen a pageant? What do YOU think?

Standards: CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.8, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.4, CCRA.L.5, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.W.1, CCRA.SL.2, CCRA.SL.3, CCRA.SL.5, CCRA.SL.6, D2.His.4, D2.His.5

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