In the Eye of the Beholder

Of all the actions, demonstrations, and marches I’ve had a part in organizing, probably the one most associated with me is the first Miss America Pageant Protest in 1968—the one that some people, flatteringly if inaccuruately, call the birth of contemporary feminism.

Since then, every pageant every year, all over the world, has had to face down protestors, including some “stealth” contestants who unroll banners from hiding places in bras, banners reading “Women’s Liberation!” and “Stop Objectifying Women!” One city-pageant-winning contestant ripped off her crown and threw it to the ground. Meanwhile, at least in the United States, sponsors deserted the pageant, attendance dropped, TV viewership plummeted, networks abandoned it, and the Miss America Pageant changed owners every week or so, it seemed. Still, internationally, some pageants are chugging along.

Beauty pageants, as you can imagine, are so not my favorite things. In fact, if nothing else were offensive about Donald Trump, his having owned the Miss Universe contest so that he could have private oglings of contestants would be sufficient for me to doom him to the lowest circle of male supremacist hell.

So you can understand my surprise to hear about one beauty pageant where feminism actually won.

Recently, viewers of the Miss Peru Pageant—a contest en route to the Miss Universe Pageant—were stunned when 23 contestants walked on stage, introduced themselves, began parroting the usual “my measurements are—” but then instead stated facts like these:

* More than 7 percent of all women in Peru suffer street harassment.
* 13,000 Peruvian girls are victims of sexual abuse.
* More than 25 percent of Peruvian girls and teenagers are abused in school.

A hashtag was forged—#MisMedidasSon (my measurements are)—and promptly went viral.

Luciana Olivares, content and strategy manager for Frecuencia Latina, the TV network that broadcasts the competition, told the press, ”We definitely have wanted a different Miss Peru—but it was only during the last weeks when it became obvious we needed a cry against violence on women.”

On the previous Sunday, a volunteer working for the national census had been raped while conducting the poll. Social media exploded with the theme that Peru was a country of rapists. (Lima, the capital, ranks fifth in the list of the most dangerous megacities for women in a newly released poll by the Thomas Reuters Foundation.) Last month the president of the congressional Commission on Women and Family was forced to resign after saying that victims of femicide “unwittingly bring the attacks on themselves.” Prime Minister Mercedes Araoz herself revealed last year that she had been in an abusive relationship. Such cumulative news was affecting Peru’s reputation, and could hardly be ignored in favor of citing breast, waist, and hips measurements.

Olivares came up with the idea of having contestants shout out the statistics. Surprisingly, the idea was endorsed and carried out by the network and by the pageant, which is led by former beauty queen Jessica Newton and Secuoya productions, the company that produces the TV show. Since the program was watched around the world, it had quite an impact. “Instead of debating which contestant was the most beautiful, the topic was violence,” said Olivares, “We shifted the conversation.” They certainly did.

I still hold no brief for beauty pageants, and eventually they will go the way of the dinosaur. But I know that many women from low-income backgrounds enter in hopes of winning a college scholarship—so to those women still involved with the few pageants that haven’t yet staggered into irrelevant extinction, a suggestion: Think about what the Peruvian women did. While these displays still elicit any coverage and attention, it would be good to consider using them to change consciousness, help women, and save lives.

That would be beautiful.