The psychology of beauty pageants

17:00, Jul 20 2011
Jennifer Hawkins
SUCCESS STORY: Former Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins is now a television personality in her native Australia.

At a time when women are fighting for equal pay and teenagers are looking to alternative role models such as Lady Gaga, why are so many young women still parading like Barbie dolls in beauty pageants?

Well, there's no simple answer but an obsessive drive for fame, an innate quest for perfection and a decent dose of competitiveness appear to be the main motivators.

Sydney-based clinical psychologist Jo Lamble believes when it comes to beauty pageants, the allure to enter such contests comes down to them being viewed as a right of passage to fame. She uses the success of former Miss Universe Jennifer Hawkins and former Miss Universe Australia Rachael Finch as examples for sparking more interest in pageants.

"I think some of these girls and young women see it as a stepping stone: 'I'll go and do a pageant because then I might get a TV career'.

"All they see are the really successful people ... their whole self-worth is wrapped up in success," says Lamble, who is a member of The Australia Psychological Society.

Fellow member, Melbourne-based psychologist Meredith Fuller, agrees. She says some beauty pageant entrants don't have an internal sense of self and need external validation.


She also agrees that some women are motivated to enter because they feel a "sense of entitlement", where they want to be famous quickly and at a young age.

Fuller, who entered the Miss Universe Australia quest in the 1970s at age 17, says for her it was all about curiosity and fun, despite being coerced into competing by the car club she modelled for.

"I thought it was a bit of an hoot," she recalls.

For others, she says, it can be about pushing themselves to develop more confidence, about reacting to political correctness (against the view that pageants are archaic), and trying to please friends and family. Also, she says, being competitive can be a driving force.

"For some it can be something that they've actually harboured for a very long time in their life," Fuller adds.

How pageants effect entrants depends on the individual concerned, says Fuller, who began modelling at the age of five.

"For some females I think it's a very positive experience, for others I think it's really damaging. And the most damaging is if they have body dysmorphia (Body Dysmorphic Disorder)," which she describes as having a distorted sense of your body image and obsessing over a perceived flaw.

"But we really have to appreciate that it will be a different experience for different individuals, so we can't just make a blanket statement."

Lamble believes beauty pageants can have a negative effect on an entrant, because, whether they win or not, entrants are likely already striving for fame. That is, the entrants have already mentally convinced themselves that a pageant is the path to success.

"In that way, to me, it's the same as MasterChef, Australian Idol, Australia's Next Top Model," says Lamble. "It's the same thing; you hear (losers) say 'yeah but I'll get there some other way', and where's 'there'? Well, success, fame, fortune."

The Miss Universe website says delegates who become a part of the organisation, started in the US, compete with the hope of advancing their careers, personal and humanitarian goals, and of improving the lives of others.

Miss Universe Australia 2011 winner Sherri-Lee Biggs says for her the pageant is a stepping stone into a career in modelling and television.

"You meet all the right people; you're out there and you kind of become a personality," the 20-year-old told AAP following her win in Melbourne on July 7.

"I've met some wonderful people already; lots of people that I could easily even just ask for work experience if I had to."

When asked what motivates young women like her to enter such a competition she replied: "I think it just puts you in the right place at the right time. It's a great opportunity."

She later added that some women want to prove themselves as being more than just a glamour: "There's a lot more to it and you definitely can't just be a pretty face in the competition."

Biggs, who described herself as career-driven, said she was keen to follow in the footsteps of Hawkins, who is now a TV personality.

Both Lamble and Fuller are keen to distinguish competitions such as Miss Universe from child beauty pageants, which they say create a completely different societal issue.

Fuller says when it comes to entering adult pageants, it's important contestants are in charge and make informed decisions.

"Control might include being able to say part-way through, 'hang on, this journey is not for me, I'm going to get off the highway'."

And being able to ask yourself: "If I want to go down this path do I understand what the game is, what the rules are, what's the purpose?"