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Intrasexual Competition Among Beauty Pageant Contestants

Abstract and Keywords

We analyze beauty pageants from an evolutionary perspective, with the goal of providing a unique insight into a novel cultural practice. Through a detailed review of adult and children beauty pageants, we propose that pageants elicit intrasexually competitive behaviors that would typically be seen within a mating context. In real-world settings, women’s intrasexual competition is often focused on gaining and possessing resources, typically through mate attraction and retention. While there is no mate to “win” in pageants, there is a substantial amount of status and resources to be gained by the winner. Further, the context also highlights individual differences in such mating-relevant attributes as physical attractiveness, talent, and compassion. We propose that beauty competitions feature traits that heterosexual men find attractive in a mate (e.g., indicators of youth, fertility, long-term commitment, virginity, intelligence, and creativity). Finally, we discuss future avenues of evolutionary research in the context of beauty pageants.

Keywords: pageants, beauty competitions, intrasexual competition, evolutionary theory, competitive strategies, self-promotion, competitor derogation, competitor manipulation, fashion

Human nature evolved over a long time, and our nature is reflected in many current contexts. While beauty pageants are novel and relatively modern, the traits that allow one to compete against rivals have a long, evolved history that match those that allow one to be successful in competing for mates. Over the past several decades, evolutionary psychologists have shed light on how such strategies affect so many modern cultural practices. Based on our analysis throughout this chapter, we believe that beauty pageants as a cultural practice are the sine qua non when it comes to explicating the mating psychology of women. We take a primarily evolution-based approach in our analysis for several reasons. Firstly, we use an evolutionary framework to facilitate a relatively deep analysis that cuts across all aspects of the human experience. Equally important, research on beauty pageants that has come from sociocultural, anthropological, and feminist approaches has focused largely on proximate causes for competition among women (e.g., how media have influenced women’s perceptions of themselves) (see Banet-Weiser, 1999; Reischer & Koo, 2004; Yamamiya, Cash, Melnyk, Posavac, & Posavac, 2005). We propose that through the lens of evolutionary theory, we are able to dig deeper in our examination of the ultimate causes of behavior that are relevant in beauty competitions.

Across historical and geographical space, implicit and explicit competitions between women that focus on physical attractiveness and other mating-relevant attributes have been observed (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013). Such explicit competitions can be seen in the somewhat recent phenomenon of beauty pageants—documented as taking place now for hundreds of years (Wolf, 1991). Simply put, a beauty competition involves women competing against each other in various events for the title of “Beauty Queen.” Unlike the pageants and contests of our past (Library of Congress, n.d.), present-day beauty pageants no longer focus strictly on physical attractiveness. As we review, contestants in (p. 618) modern-day pageants invest a significant amount of time, energy, and money into their physical appearance, but they must also show high intelligence, excellent interpersonal skills, and confidence (Miss America, n.d.). While each pageant has its own format, rules, and judging system, the three pageants that will be the focus in this chapter—Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Universe—contain four categories for judgment in: (1) an interview session with judges, (2) a swimsuit event (sometimes known as “lifestyle and fitness”), (3) a formal-wear event, and 4) a final onstage question-and-answer segment. Miss America also includes a “talent” event, where contestants perform a short routine of their choosing while displaying a specific talent (e.g., dancing).

Though the evolutionary themes found within beauty pageants may not be readily apparent, we argue that beauty competitions elicit similar intrasexually competitive behaviors observed in a mating context, such as self-promotion, competitor manipulation, and competitor derogation. That is, we argue that the structure of the pageant, the rules of the competition and the values they evoke, and the interaction between contestants during and after the pageant are all similar to behaviors and actions that would be observed when attracting and retaining a mate. The primping and priming for the competition largely mirror the preparations a woman might take before leaving the house for a night on the town. From an evolutionary perspective, a beauty contest is a novel platform for competition to be exhibited, given that it is unlikely that our early hominid ancestors engaged in such organized activity. The first documented beauty pageants were held in the early twentieth century (Miss America Organization, 2014). By applying evolutionary concepts to this new cultural practice, we are able to observe how women’s mating-relevant competitive instincts can be seen in modern behavior.

For example, we propose that the structure of pageants showcases traits that heterosexual men find attractive in long-term mates. Each category highlights physical attractiveness, intelligence, and conservative sexual values. Additionally, we argue that beauty pageants offer women better access to high-ranking potential mates. Due to the national publicity campaigns that bring pageant winners into contact with high-ranking individuals, as well as potential advancement into fame-making careers in politics, literature, modeling, music, and acting, winners are likely to have a greater chance of partnering with a high-status mate than if they did not win or participate in pageants at all.

In the search for a long-term partner, women tend to emphasize a mate’s status, resources, and long-term income potential, in addition to traits that signal long-term commitment ability such as kindness and honesty (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Resources may be more important to women than men in most mammalian species because women tend to invest more in their children between gestation and postnatal care (Trivers, 1972). The disparity in prenatal investment begins even at the level of gametes, as an ovum plays a selective role in choosing which sperm that makes it up through the vaginal canal (Levitan & Ferrell, 2006; Palumbi, 1999) will fertilize it. Women’s access to additional resources provided by a mate will aid in the survival of future children. If children have more access to resources such as food, shelter, and protection, they will be more likely to survive into reproductive age. Likewise, winners of beauty pageants gain access to numerous resources (e.g., scholarship money, endorsements, and gifts) and high-status positions. While their reign as a beauty queen lasts for only one year, winners are able to make connections for future high-status and lucrative careers in entertainment, politics, literature, and finance. In other words, winning a beauty pageant solidifies a beauty queen’s social standing for years to come.

The rules of beauty pageants can also be seen as a direct reflection of men’s evolved preferences for virginity in a mate (see Buss, 2003). For example, both Miss America and Miss USA have stipulations that prohibit married or divorced women from participating in the pageants. Rules such as this allude to the contestants’ virginity status, which contribute to the wholesome image that the pageants strive to promote. When looking for a long-term partner, men find virginity desirable in a potential mate, especially in areas that have more conservative religious values concerning female sexuality, such as Iran (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). Virginity is significant from an evolutionary perspective because it is thought to be indicative of paternity certainty. If a woman is undoubtedly a virgin, then a man who mates with her can be considerably confident that he is the biological father of her children. Men who prefer women who are chaste, particularly in long-term mating contexts, may be more reproductively successful than men who are impartial to a woman’s reproductive behavior (Buss & Schmitt, 1993).

Based on these evolutionary themes (i.e., the showcasing of attractive traits for a heterosexual man’s gaze, and increased access to quality mates) (p. 619) found within pageants and the inherent structure of beauty competitions, we postulate that women participating in pageants engage in the three intrasexual competitive strategies that are used to attract mates: (1) self-promotion (Buss, 1988), (2) competitor derogation (Buss & Dedden, 1990), and (3) competitor manipulation (Fisher & Cox, 2011). Self-promotion is the display of one’s physical attractiveness (e.g., wearing makeup) to increase one’s mate value (Buss, 1988). This tactic is utilized when trying to appear appealing to a potential mate. Competitor derogation exists when a woman attempts to make a rival woman less appealing in the eyes of the potential mate (Buss & Dedden, 1990). For example, a woman may use her rival’s sexual history as an insult. Competitor manipulation includes the manipulation of one’s opponents, which usually entails distorting the qualities of the prize to be had (Fisher & Cox, 2011). In this scenario, a woman may describe a potential mate as lacking in relevant qualities (e.g., unambitious) to her competition, whereby she convinces her rival that the said mate is not worth pursuing. Additionally, although a physical mate is not a part of the contestant’s winnings, the “prize” of resources and status grant women more access to high-status men, who have the potential of turning into long-term mates. We propose that beauty pageants tap into various processes and qualities that are vital to long-term mate acquisition.

This chapter begins with a detailed review of the adult beauty pageant world, wherein we provide a breakdown of pageant history, structure, rules, and real-life examples. We then delve into evolutionary themes found in the pageant world that are relevant to intrasexual competition in a mating context. We also provide a similarly detailed account of child beauty pageants, along with relevant evolutionary themes found in these pageants. Lastly, we focus on future directions in the application of evolutionary theory and intrasexual competition research in the realm of beauty competitions.

A History and the Structure of Adult Beauty Pageants

The two national adult pageants that will primarily be focused on in this chapter are Miss America and Miss USA, although we will also discuss local town and city pageants. We will also discuss Miss Universe, which is the international division for Miss USA. Miss America and Miss USA are two of the most widely recognized and long-established beauty pageants, and have been the focus of much of the research in this area. The Miss America Pageant began in 1921 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as a “popularity contest” in which contestants submitted their photographs to the competition (Miss America Organization, 2014). Five finalists were selected to attend the Second Annual Atlantic City Pageant, and upon their arrival the contestants were entered into the Inner-City Beauty Pageant. Contestants wore casual attire and were scored by both the judges and the public. Margaret Gorman, from Washington, D.C., was selected as the winner of “Inner-City Beauty, amateur” (Riverol, 1992). At the end of her reign as “Inner-City Beauty,” she was expected to defend the title at the next pageant. However, another woman had been selected for the title of “Miss Washington D.C.” The pageant officials decided that Gorman’s official title would then be “Miss America,” and thus an American tradition for nearly one hundred years was born (Miss America Organization, 2014).

Much has changed since the initial pageant. There are now formal rules for competing, formal categories for each event (such as the formal-wear component, lifestyle and fitness category, or talent category), no public voting, requirements of official duties that the winner must attend to, and a large grand prize that includes scholarship money (Miss America Organization, 2014). In 2014, Miss America reported providing $306,000 worth of scholarships to the women participating in the actual pageant (Miss America, 2014). The winner receives $50,000 of scholarship money plus endorsement deals, travel funds, and other gifts. To be eligible for the Miss America competition, participants must be 17 to 24 years old, must be US citizens, and must “meet residency requirements for competing in a certain town or state, meet character criteria as set forth by the Miss America Organization, be in reasonably good health to meet the job requirements, and be able to meet the time commitment and job responsibilities as set forth by the local program in which [they] compete” (Miss America Organization, 2014).

Currently, the Miss America pageant is conducted in two parts: the preliminary competition and the finals competition. During the preliminary competition, all contestants participate in each event. Out of the 52 (or 53) competitors (one participant from each state; one from Washington, D.C.; one from Puerto Rico; and, in 2015, one competitor from the Virgin Islands), 16 are selected to move on to the finals competition.

(p. 620) The following weightings of the various criteria for the preliminary competition versus the finals competition are taken directly from the Miss America website. The preliminary competition includes lifestyle and fitness in swimsuit evaluation (15%), evening wear (20%), talent (35%), private interview (25%), and onstage question-answering (5%). The finals competition includes, for the top 16 contestants, a composite score (25%) and lifestyle and fitness in swimsuit evaluation (10%); for the top 10 constants, a score for evening wear (15%); and for the top 8 contestants, a score for talent (30%), and onstage question-answering (20%) (Miss America Organization, 2016). There is also a final ballot, where each judge ranks the top 5 contestants in the order he/she believes they should each finish. The outcome of the pageant is based solely on the point totals resulting from the final ballot (Miss America Organization, 2014).

To be qualified for participation in the national and international pageants, participants must first participate in local- and state-level pageants (e.g., the winner of Miss Texas [and Miss New York, Miss California, etc.] automatically qualifies to compete for Miss America). There is no international-level competition associated with Miss America, unlike Miss USA who goes on to compete in Miss Universe.

Miss USA was founded and sponsored by Catalina Swimsuits as an advertising campaign (Miss America Organization, 2016) in 1952 (Miss Universe, n.d.) after a long history of working with Miss America (Catalina, 2015). Since then, it has grown into a larger competition that is on par with the scale of Miss America. It is also part of a larger pageant system, Miss Universe, in which over 85 countries participate (Miss Universe, 2016). Contestants are required to be between the ages of 18 to 27, have won their respective state titles, and have no record of marriage or pregnancy before or during their reign. Fifty-one women (one for each state and Puerto Rico) compete in three categories: swimsuit, evening wear, and a live interview. Miss USA has similar monetary prizes to Miss America, but winners of this competition also receive a year’s worth of salary and living expenses in a luxury New York City apartment, thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing and makeup, a wardrobe stylist, a scholarship to the New York Film Academy, skincare and hair treatments, a modeling portfolio, and the opportunity to be a representative for philanthropic work (Rosenfeld, 2014).

Although all participants participate in the opening ceremony, only 15 competitors are selected to move on to the swimsuit portion, 10 for evening wear, and five for the live interview. The Miss USA pageant recently added public voting to the scoring, labeled as “You be the Judge” (Miss USA, 2016). Audience participants rate the contestant on a scale of one through ten in each of the three categories (swimsuit, evening, and final question-and-answer segment). These scores account for a portion of their overall score. The winner of Miss USA moves on to compete in the Miss Universe Pageant.

Evolutionary Themes in Pageant Segments

As previously discussed, there are four categories that are found in most pageants: an interview with the judges, a swimsuit event, a formal-wear event, and a final onstage question-and-answer segment. Miss America also has a talent category. The categories are intended to display the well-roundedness of the winner; she is personable, intelligent, talented, and beautiful. The private interview with the judges is designed to allow them to learn more intimate details about each contestant. Contestants can be asked about past behaviors; their experiences, credentials, and opinions; and other personal details (Miss America Organization, 2011). The judges are looking to see a woman who “is a leader to all she serves, she is beautiful, well-spoken, talented, able to relate to young people, charismatic, reflective of women her age, and mature enough to handle the job and all of its responsibilities” (Miss America Organization, 2011, p. 28).

Markers of intelligence are implicitly included in beauty pageant criteria and may be understood from an evolutionary perspective. For instance, intelligence is a key quality that is sought in mates and in social partners more generally (see Geher & Kaufman, 2013; Geher, Garcia, Kaufman, Kaufman, & Dawson, 2016). The personal interview and onstage question segments are both used to assess qualities associated with intelligence such as communication, confidence, education, and how to handle pressure (Miss America Organization, 2007). Additionally, poise and attractiveness are relevant for these portions of the competition (Miss America Organization, 2007). On this point, note that intelligence has been found to be positively linked with physical attractiveness—thus suggesting that both intelligence and attractiveness may provide markers of a more general fitness factor (corresponding to the idea of “genetic fitness,” or having positive heritable features). Evidence of a (p. 621) relationship between intelligence and attractiveness comes from Fink, Neave, Manning, and Grammer (2006), who found that people with highly symmetrical faces (i.e., faces that are typically rated as more attractive when they are symmetrical, meaning the left side aligns perfectly with the right side) were perceived by others to be sociable and intelligent compared to people with relatively asymmetrical faces (i.e., relatively less attractive).

The onstage question-and-answer session, which is the last category, truly tests the contestants’ ability to formulate intelligent and logical answers to questions concerning current events. Many questions have a political focus, which means that the contestant must have knowledge of current events, at both global and national levels. While the questions in these pageants are designed to test the contestants’ general intelligence and world knowledge, they also seem to capture the participants’ political stances. However, they do not ask about contestants’ personal politics (e.g., whom they voted for, what party they belong to). The answers to these questions often determine views on the contestants’ success and intelligence. If the contestant does not give a logical and coherent answer, she will likely not win the overall competition. For example, Caitlin Upton, Miss South Carolina, from the 2007 Miss Teen USA pageant, gave a famously disastrous answer to a question asking why one-fifth of Americans cannot locate the United States on a map. Her answer was unintelligible, and while she placed in the top four, she did not go on to win the competition.

The questions may also serve as an indirect way to learn a contestant’s sexual values, with the expectation that contestants are conservative and oriented toward long-term marriage. Contestants such as Vanessa Williams (discussed later) have had to return the crown after nude or suggestive photographs were uncovered, as this type of behavior goes against the conservative image of the pageant. If the answer hints at conservative political values, judges and viewers may think that the contestant is less likely to engage in promiscuous sexual behavior and may subsequently view her more favorably.

Beauty pageant criteria include behavioral markers beyond those that track intelligence. Such pageants also highlight the contestants’ social grace and agreeableness. Interestingly, just as past research has shown that relatively attractive women are seen as relatively intelligent, physical attractiveness also has been linked with perceptions of positive personality attributes. Individuals with symmetrical faces are also rated as being more agreeable when compared to people with more asymmetrical faces (Noor & Evans, 2003). According to Miller (2000), agreeableness “always tops the charts” (p. 330) when people are asked to rate features of the personality of a potential mate. It can therefore be surmised that contestants in beauty pageants who appear to be agreeable, sociable, and intelligent will score higher than their counterparts.

When examining the costs associated with beauty pageants, we can easily see where competition among contestants comes into play. Pageant gowns, pageant trainers (i.e., someone who prepares the contestant for each segment of the pageant), physical trainers, competition fees, and other expenses can be quite overwhelming. To alleviate the cost to compete, contestants are encouraged to seek out sponsors. Their ability to charm and persuade vendors to donate to their cause likely contributes to their success during the overall competition. Contestants who have favorable personality traits would likely elicit more sponsorship than less favorable contestants, and therefore they can invest more money in their pageant training. Similarly, communication and charm are important in a mating context. Women’s verbal proficiency (lexicon, fluency, and grammar) (Lange, Zaretsky, Schwarz, & Euler, 2014) and higher vocal pitch (Collins & Missing, 2003; Karthikeyan & Locke, 2015) are related to perceived attractiveness. We argue that contestants possessing higher vocal pitch in combination with eloquent speech may solicit more sponsors when compared to their lower-pitched, less vocally proficient peers.

In addition to conveying interpersonal skills both in the pageant (with judges and other contestants) and outside the pageant (with potential sponsors and the public at large), potential pageant winners must also display their creativity. Their creativity is showcased during a performance for the talent event. Creativity is considered to be a rather good indicator for intelligence, as the two factors have been found to be positively intercorrelated (Miller, 2000). Pageant contestants must display some kind of performable talent such as singing, dancing, or playing an instrument. The performance itself is left open to the contestants, though it is implied that it must be tasteful and “family-friendly.” The talent portion is really where mastery of a skill (i.e., one’s creativity) can shine through during the competition. The talent portion has such varied acts, and it is important that the contestants display their creative skills (p. 622) as being unique from the other contestants. For the 2014 Miss America pageant, the winner, Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, performed an electrifying Bollywood routine that was not only technically challenging but visually interesting as well. Another highly rated performance in that competition was by Myrrhanda Jones, Miss Florida, who performed a baton-twirling routine after injuring her knee—which demonstrated creativity, body coordination, and technical skill. Further, Jones received praise for performing well despite the injury she sustained during a preliminary rehearsal.

The swimsuit category is the only category where the focus is primarily on physical appearance. While physical appearance may be a secondary contributing factor to how a dress looks during the evening-wear portion of the competition, personality, poise, and confidence are important traits that are also incorporated into the judging for that portion. During the swimwear portion, contestants walk the runway in either a bikini or a one-piece bathing suit, pose in front of the judges for a few seconds, and then walk to the side of the stage. According to Buss (2003), physical attractiveness is one of the most relevant traits heterosexual men take into consideration when searching for a mate. As such, competition between women across various contexts has often focused on physical attributes. In fact, the term beauty itself, which is embedded in the phrase beauty pageant, typically corresponds to physical features such as a beautiful face or a beautiful figure (see Perilloux, Cloud, & Buss, 2013). Evolution-based research into attractiveness has shed much light on the features that are considered relatively beautiful, often demonstrating that markers of beauty (such as an hourglass-like waist-to-hip ratio) are often also markers of fertility (see Singh, 1993). As youth tends to track fertility in women (i.e., older women experience menopause), it makes sense, then, as to why beauty pageants have such strict age-related requirements.

Evolutionarily Relevant and Culturally Normative Physical Attractiveness

Body Mass Index (BMI) is an important indicator of body attractiveness. According to Tovée and colleagues (1999), a woman’s BMI is the “primary determinant of the attractiveness of female bodies” (Tovée, Maisey, Emery, & Cornelissen, 1999, p. 216). It is no secret that all beauty pageant contestants spend a large portion of their pageant preparation exercising and dieting. In 2011, Bree Boyce lost over one hundred pounds over three years and won Miss South Carolina. She then went on to compete in Miss America. During pageant season, Boyce reported exercising between two and three hours each day to become competition-ready (Leifer, 2011). Boyce’s conscientious fitness regimen is an example of the intrasexual competitive tactic of self-promotion. She was exercising and dieting more to become more attractive relative to other women. When a woman uses self-promotion as an intrasexually competitive tactic, she is focusing on self-improvement and being superior relative to her peers. Attractive female bodies and faces tend to prime female competitive drives (see Fisher & Cox, 2009). In light of this feature of female mating psychology, the beauty pageant environment (wherein all contestants are surrounded by many physically attractive women) likely serves as an intensive platform for fostering competition among women.

Ideally attractive features of women’s bodies have changed over time (see Singh, 1993). For instance, according to Singh (1993) and Mazur (1986), the ideal weight has decreased for Miss America contestants since the 1920s. Also, since the late 1960s, the ratio of bust-to-hip measurements has remained the same, but because the average height of contestants has increased and their weight has decreased, the women of the Miss America pageants still have an hourglass figure. However, according to more recent findings by Fisher and Voracek (2006), mainstream media examples of ideal female attractiveness, such as Miss America, Vogue models, and Playboy centerfolds, have shown a decrease in BMI measurements and have less of an hourglass figure over time.

Broadly speaking, the ideal body type for winning Miss America can be seen as a strong marker of physical standards for all American women. Miss America is supposed to be the representative of the perfect “All-American girl,” and hence, she is a role model for physical beauty. Although the contestants are competing against each other for possessing the best body, women across America may potentially compare themselves to the contestants as well. There is evidence that suggests that women use Miss America, and other beauty pageant–style reality shows, to inform their own beauty habits (see Mazur, 1986). In the 1960s, when a slimmer shape became vogue, Miss America contestants also adopted the look. There was an increase in research concerning anorexia, as women began attempting to morph their shape into something unhealthy (Mazur, 1986). In Miss America, the PBS documentary, Margaret Cho, feminist commentator and (p. 623) comedian, explains what it is like to view the bodies of the contestants:

“When you see their bodies, it's so interesting because they seem so not real.

You don't see anything off…. There's no creases or lines, there's no stretch marks or nipples or hair. It's kind of jarring. You think god whose body is like that? And then you think, oh, maybe I'm not the woman. Maybe they're the women, and I'm not the woman. And then you kind of feel like an imposter too.”

(Ferrari, 2002)

Here, it is exemplified that the intrasexual competition that exists between contestants (e.g., the competition for the best body) extends itself to the female viewers. Via these highly publicized pageants, women may see the idolized “American Beauty” and think that they have to look like the contestants to be beautiful and thus desirable by potential mates. Women watching Miss America in the context of broader media (which reflects the same trends Miss America contributes to) may be influenced to conform to these mainstream trends. Fashion advertisements and television have been shown to negatively influence women’s perception of their bodies (Mask & Blanchard, 2011; Want, 2009; Yamamiya et al., 2005), suggesting that the constant inundation of a nearly unattainable body type in various media formats can contribute to bodily dissatisfaction among women.

We argue that Miss America reflects mainstream beauty trends such as thinness and symmetry. Cosmetic use, hairstyle, and dress style tend to reflect mainstream fashion trends (although the gowns veer toward gaudy and outlandish compared to designer gowns in other high-fashion media platforms). There has never been a winner of Miss America, Miss USA, or Miss Universe that could be categorized as “plus size” (i.e., typically a dress size 10 and up), nor has there been a beauty queen from these competitions that has an obvious asymmetrical facial disfigurement (such as from disease or injury). As time goes on and mainstream media (e.g., fashion, television, music, and film) become more diverse, these trends may change.

Currently, Miss America and Miss USA do not physically represent the average American woman. The organizations have often been criticized for their lack of diverse body representation, which more accurately reflects the average body type in the United States (Vagianos, 2015). The average dress size of an American woman is between 16 and 18 (Christel & Dunn, 2016), while the average size of Miss America is approximately 2 to 4 (PBS Online, 1999–2002; Women’s Size Guide, 2016). The Miss America winner is supposed to be “the type which the American Girl might well emulate” (Hickman, as quoted by Miss America Pageant, n. d.). According to the Miss America Organization, “the American public has an expectation that she will be beautiful and physically fit. This is the same expectation they have for all of their celebrities, from music and film to sports, and Miss America is no exception. You must look at her physical beauty as well as her physical fitness” (Miss America Organization, 2012).

Beauty Pageants and the Evolution of Competition among Women

As explicated throughout this chapter, the facets of competition found in beauty pageants mirror the evolved nature of competition among women in general—particularly in long-term mating contexts. In a straightforward sense, these competitions lead to direct and tangible resources. As mentioned previously, the crowned Miss America and Miss USA receive fame and high status that could potentially lead to other career opportunities after their reigns are complete. For example, the 2014 Miss America winner, Nina Davuluri, has become a public speaker and advocate for diversity, civil rights, and the STEM fields (Davuluri, n.d.). Gretchen Carlson, the 1989 Miss America, is a FOX News Channel anchor on the show Fox and Friends. Rachel Smith, Miss USA 2007, is Good Morning America’s entertainment news correspondent and also hosts the entertainment fashion show On the Red Carpet. Such outcomes clearly lead to fiscal and social benefits.

Based on an evolutionary analysis of female mating psychology, competition among women is largely driven by two goals: to attain a mate and to attain status (Buunk & Fisher, 2009). The actual act of competition occurs when the necessary resources to reach these goals, such as a good mate or opportunity to gain status, are in limited supply (Cox & Fisher, 2008). Women strongly desire high-quality mates who have the capacity to offer resources for them and their offspring. Women also desire features in males that are indicative of robust genetic features that can be passed down to offspring (see Geher, 2014; Trivers, 1972). With respect to mates, women engage in intrasexually competitive behavior for various reasons: to attract a mate, to attain (p. 624) a mate, and to retain a mate (Campbell, 1999; Darwin, 1871).

Women are more likely to express their aggression indirectly (e.g., the silent treatment: not speaking to someone as a way to punish that person for perceived poor behavior) rather than directly (e.g., physically) (Cashdan, 1998; Griskevicius et al., 2009). Indirect aggression (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995), relational aggression (Archer & Coyne, 2005), and social aggression (Cairns, Cairns, Neckerman, Ferguson, & Gariépy 1989), are the preferred methods of aggression for women (Björkqvist, 1994). Indirect aggression refers to using “social manipulation, attacking the target in circuitous ways” (Österman et al., 1998, p. 1) and can include self-promotion. An example of indirect aggression would be spreading negative rumors about an individual. The attacker is not directly confronting her target, but using social communication to continue harassment. Relatedly, relational aggression and social aggression refer to styles of aggression that target the victim’s relationships and friendships (Archer & Coyne, 2005). Relational aggression is usually stealthy but does have some more prominent behaviors. Social aggression also attempts to disrupt the victim’s relationships; however, the ultimate end goal of the attacker is to harm the victim’s social standing and social acceptance by a group (Archer & Coyne, 2005). Social aggression has both outward and concealed behaviors, but also includes behaviors such as dirty looks (short-lived facial expressions of anger or disgust that are intended to make the victim uncomfortable or upset while also emphasizing social undesirability), which can occur in both overt and covert contexts (Archer & Coyne, 2005).

Research has suggested that the display of indirect aggression (e.g., rumor spreading) is less costly to a woman than the display of direct aggression (e.g., punching) (Björkqvist, 1994). Indirect aggression allows the aggressor to both remain anonymous and hide her deleterious intentions while causing harm to her intended target. Indirect aggression also reduces the likelihood of the aggressor suffering from physical retaliation. If the victim of the aggression cannot identify her attacker, it is unlikely that the victim would be able to physically challenge that person. Physical aggression may also be avoided even if the attacker is known, as women physically or overtly fighting with each other may be viewed as less attractive to a potential mate (Campbell, 1999). We argue that indirect, relational, and social aggressions are the backbone for how women exhibit intrasexual competition in beauty pageants, and that the behaviors that we document in the following discussion are direct reflections of these less overt displays of aggression.

Self-Promotion, Competitor Derogation, and Competitor Manipulation

Pageant contestants are forced to spend time with one another before, during, and after the competitive event segments. For example, during the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, the women share a hotel room with at least one other contestant. They attend meals, pageant rehearsals, and recreational activities together (Parker, 2000). Contestants have reported that they have formed lifelong friendships with other contestants (Zhang, 2013). While many contestants do form friendships with one another, there are also instances where relationships with other contestants can be used to a contestant’s advantage. Information about one’s opponents in a competitive situation may prove to be useful in the fight to win (Cox & Fisher, 2008). The phrase “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” captures this sentiment. These women likely bond with each other because they are in close quarters and participating in group activities for several hours every day for the course of a week. However, as part of this bonding, they may exchange details about past indiscretions, current or past relationships, or other issues that may appear benign in a real-life context, but may subtly indicate that the contestant does not fit with the ideal “all-American” pageant responsibilities. This information may be then used for the purposes of intrasexual competition.


In mating-relevant contexts, people engage in various competitive strategies. One of these strategies is self-promotion (Buss, 1988), which can be defined as flaunting one’s best assets (e.g., physical appearance, personality) when compared to members of the same sex. This strategy is one of the most commonly researched in the mating literature (Fisher & Cox, 2011), and is at the heart of beauty pageant competitions. One who engages in self-promotion does so to improve one’s capability of competing, relative to potential rivals. This strategy is an obvious approach to take advantage of when competing in a beauty pageant. It could even be suggested that the strategy of self-promotion is the basic tenet of beauty competitions. While contestants are not judged in direct comparison to each other (pre–live competition scores are compared (p. 625) to the live competition scores, wherein “pre-live” refers to the portion of the competition that occurs prior to being televised, or the live competition), it is likely that they influence each other’s scores to some degree. If contestant A scores highly in a specific segment and wows the judges, contestant B may feel like she has to overshadow contestant A’s success in order to have a chance to win.

Self-promotion subthemes (i.e., appearance, body and athleticism, personality advertisement, autonomy, and direct contact) (Fisher & Cox, 2011) are highly relevant in the beauty pageant world. Beauty pageant competition is indicative of dressing in an attractive and sexy way (appearance); showing off one’s body (body and athleticism); displaying a pleasant, funny, smart, and outgoing personality, while being social and acting innocent (personality advertisement); being surrounded with other women to cause jealousy in a potential mate (autonomy); flirting and smiling excessively (direct contact); and of course showing one’s best qualities and talents, being the best, and displaying virginal qualities (other self-promotion categories) (see Fisher & Cox, 2011). Pageant contestants spend a substantial amount of time (and money) training and prepping in all of the aforementioned categories with the sole purpose of outperforming their competitors. Fisher and Cox (2011) suggest that self-promotion may be one of the most widely used intrasexually competitive tactics due to social desirability. Even though beauty pageant contestants are there to compete, it reflects more positively on a contestant to claim she is working on improving herself rather than outright competing with others when she’s striving to outshine her peers. Beauty pageants are the epitome of self-promotion tactics at work.

Competitor Derogation and Pageant Scandals

A second mating-relevant competitive strategy is known as competitor derogation (Buss & Dedden, 1990). This approach is characterized by any behavior that will decrease an opponent’s worth when compared to oneself. Women are most likely to target rivals’ sexual behavior, fidelity, and physical attractiveness when engaging in competitor derogation. In the pageant world, it would not make as much sense to target a contestant’s physical attractiveness, as it is clear that all of the competitors would rate highly in terms of attractiveness. However, rumors concerning sexual behavior and fidelity are harder to defend against because that behavior is not physically apparent (i.e., one cannot guess someone’s sexual history just by looking at her). If a rival was intending to do more damage to a contestant’s reputation, she may communicate to other contestants or the press that the contestant engages in sexual behavior that deviates from the virginal image that the pageants present. A successful derogation strategy may include attacking behaviors that cannot be easily proven false, such as promiscuity.

Most, if not all, scandals that have led to pageant queens’ downfalls and tarnished reputations are sexual in nature. It seems that each year, after each pageant, one of the finalists suffers publicly from leaked photographs, videos, and stories. Several prominent examples include Miss USA 2006, Tara Conner; Miss America 1983, Vanessa Williams; Miss Teen USA 2006, Katie Blair; Miss Nevada USA 2007, Katie Rees; and Miss USA 2010, Rima Fakih. It would be extremely interesting to discover how the person leaking the information is related to the winner, but sadly, this information is rarely disclosed. We predict that the information is leaked by other contestants (or their publicists, handlers, or supporters), or other rivals in the contestant’s life (e.g., former friends), who would benefit from the fall of the title winner.

Deviations from the conservative image of the pageant expose the contestant to potential derogation from other competitors and their peers. When you win a pageant, you automatically become a role model for many women and children. This is perhaps the most important aspect of your reign…. Remember, someone is always watching your actions, no matter where you are or what you are doing” (Parker, 2000, p. 69). Parker warns against being photographed smoking, drinking, or using drugs, as well as being caught gossiping or cursing. She specifically discusses not having a photograph with any drink, even nonalcoholic ones, because “even if it’s water … someone will always assume it’s liquor” (Parker, 2000, p. 69). Parker’s advice is well-rooted; many pageant contestants in competitions, large and small, become caught up in scandals. These women have violated their contract of being a wholesome (almost virginal) representative of the pageant, and hence, their punishment can be drastic, including loss of the title and crown. Table 32.1 lists pageant scandals that made headlines over the past decade. In 10 years, we were able to find 16 noteworthy scandals based on contestant behavior. Nine out of 16 infractions resulted in the loss of the title, and all contestants involved suffered a negative backlash (p. 626) (p. 627) in the media. Even if the title is not lost, contestants must still suffer the consequences of public opinion.

Table 32.1. Beauty Pageant Scandals from 2006–2015.






Title Retention (yes or no)


Miss USA

Tara Conner, SC

Documented pictures and reports of partying

Miss USA


Miss Teen USA

Kate Blair, MT

Documented pictures and reports of partying

Miss Teen USA


Miss Great Britain

Danielle Lloyd

Posing for Playboy and dating a judge

Miss Great Britain



Miss USA

Ashley Harder, NJ




Miss America

Elyse Umemoto, WA

Documented pictures and reports of partying

Miss WA America


Miss America

Amy Polumbo, NJ

Compromising photographs

Miss NJ America



Miss USA

Kate Rees, NV

Compromising photographs



Miss Teen USA

Lindsey Evans, LA

Leaving restaurant without paying, marijuana use

Miss Teen LA


Miss Universe

Dayana Mendoza, Venezuela

Compromising photographs

Miss Universe


Miss Universe

Valerie Begue, France

Compromising photographs

Miss France



Miss USA

Carrie Prejean, CA

Derogatory comments about gay marriage




Miss USA

Rima Fakih, MI

Compromising photographs




Miss San Antonio

Dominique Ramirez

Gaining weight, missing events, attending events with boyfriend

Miss San Antonio



Miss Teen USA

Melissa King, DE

Starring in adult film




Miss Puerto Rico

Destiny Velez, PR

Derogatory comments against Muslims

Miss PR

Suspended indefinitely

Miss Universe

Emily Kahote, Zimbabwe

Compromising photographs

Miss Zimbabwe


(*) The data collected for this chapter sourced several “listicle” articles that reported the top 10–23 scandals that have occurred throughout pageant history. Only events that were attributed to the misbehavior of the contestant were included in the table. The years 2012 and 2014 did not have scandals relevant to the analysis.

One highly publicized example of these types of scandals is the story of Tara Conner, the 2006 Miss USA title winner. Conner almost had her title taken away when she tested positive for cocaine and was seen drinking in incriminating photographs with fellow contestants and past winners. Many criticized Donald Trump’s (the owner of the Miss USA franchise) decision to give Conner a second chance instead of stripping her of the title (Time, 2009).

In 1983, Vanessa Williams was crowned the 1984 Miss America. Her win was groundbreaking, as she was the first African American woman to win the pageant. Unfortunately, her win was short-lived, as nude photographs taken before she had even entered pageants were sent to Penthouse magazine (Hampson, 1984). Williams ultimately had to give up her title to Suzette Charles, the runner-up. Though there is no evidence to suggest that Charles was involved in outing Williams, she greatly benefited from the negative reaction to Willam’s nude photographs. All of the commercial opportunities that Williams received went to Charles, and despite Williams’s successful acting career after winning the crown, the loss of her Miss America title is still remembered as one of the most infamous situations to befall the pageant. Runners-up gain a great deal from winners’ downfalls, as they are the ones to then benefit financially and in terms of increased status.

Competitor Derogation at the Local Level

Contestants are under a microscope when they are competing, and consequently, we predict that they are less likely to openly or publicly derogate other contestants during the competition. However, the anonymity of online posting or leaks to media outlets creates an opportunity for contestants to derogate other contestants (including the winner) without serious consequences such as retaliation from those derogated against, or their families, friends, or pageant officials. If the contestant were to reveal herself as a bully, it would directly conflict with the pageants’ emphasis on the importance of positive role models. Subsequently, any attacks on fellow contestants’ characters need to be indirect and untraceable. Regional pageants often hold considerable prestige for the regions (Greenwood, 2010). Although the contestants do not receive many financial benefits from winning the pageant, they gain social status within their community (Greenwood, 2010). Contestants participating in these pageants are familiar with the VoyForums, a website with various forums, some of which are dedicated to discussing events at various local pageants. Those who win the pageants experience an intense amount of cyberbullying at the hands of other contestants, other contestants’ family and friends, and other pageant attendees. These online forums are also easy ways for rumors to start and spread about contestants (Greenwood, 2010).

While the scope of the local town pageants may be smaller than the national ones, the contestants feel similar pressure to maintain a positive image once they have won. For instance, the 2008 winner of the Frog Queen beauty pageant in Rayne, Louisiana, Chelsea Richard, was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol during her reign (Greenwood, 2010). Her arrest was problematic for several reasons. One of the main issues was that she was underage for legal alcohol consumption, as she was 20 years old when arrested. Also, the pageant board had no real authority to strip her crown as her contract did not specifically indicate an arrest as a suitable reason for the loss of the title. Despite the loophole in the contract, the VoyForums were ablaze with slanderous attacks about Richard’s moral character and indicated that the runner-up should take the title of Frog Queen. In the end, Richard held on to her crown, but her actions influenced her ability to win a larger title crown where all of the local pageant winners compete. Her arrest also forced the Frog Queen pageant and other local pageants to change their contracts. Moreover, Richard had to handle attacks on her character online and in person (Greenwood, 2010).

Competitor Manipulation

Beauty pageant contestants likely also employ the strategy of competitor manipulation, which is the manipulation of one’s rivals (Fisher & Cox, 2011). This third competitive strategy often involves using persuasion to change the value of the prize or goal in the eyes of the opponent. Contestants are judged through a subjective lens (the scores of judges), rather than the usual objective approach used in many competitions (e.g., points earned in a tennis match). Therefore, it may be useful for a contestant to become friendly with the other contestants to observe and examine their qualities in a closer context, and then use this information to form manipulations that may, ultimately, cause the contestant to decrease her performance. From the perspective of a beauty pageant contestant who is employing competitor manipulation, there is presumably no better (p. 628) way to get to know her competition than befriending the other contestants. We predict that the results of employing competitor manipulation as a strategy would likely mimic the results of using competitor derogation. Like the derogator, the manipulator can push the target out of the competition and win the prize for herself. In-depth, qualitative research on the beauty pageant world, which takes the evolution-based approach suggested here, could systematically address the extent to which such strategies do indeed come into play in the beauty pageant environment.

Moreover, there is a fourth strategy, mate manipulation, that has been discussed within the intrasexual competition research on mating. Mate manipulation involves taking action to remove or diminish the presence of one’s competition, or the removal of oneself from the competition (e.g., displacing a rival, or withdrawing from a beauty competition) (Fisher & Cox, 2011). Within the context of the present chapter, we propose that mate manipulation may take the form of leaking scandalous information on a fellow contestant if one believes this contestant is an imminent threat to one’s success in the competition. Another potential avenue could involve manipulating judges’ attention away from other competitors to increase one’s own likelihood of winning. We do not address mate manipulation in more detail because pageant culture likely dictates that contestants should not make negative statements about interactions with the judges. While we suspect that a form of mate manipulation could take place at pageants, more investigation, such as candid interviews with past pageant contestants, would be needed.

Paternity Certainty and Pageant Rules

One of the most pervasive elements of some of the more famous beauty pageants is that the contestants must fit certain criteria with respect to their reproductive and matrimonial history. For example, the following rule was taken directly from the Miss Universe organization website (, which houses Miss Universe, Miss USA, and Miss Teen USA:

“Can contestants be married? No, contestants may not be married or pregnant. They must not have ever been married, not had a marriage annulled nor given birth to, or parented, a child. The titleholders are also required to remain single throughout their reign” (Miss Universe Organization, n.d.).

It is unlikely that Miss USA and its sister competitions can ask about virginity for legal reasons; however, the ban on married women and mothers circumvents that issue. If a woman is married, it is highly likely that she is no longer a virgin. Additionally, if she has biological children, it would be obvious that she is not a virgin. The importance that is placed on women’s virginity, or more specifically, the appearance of virginity, has a strong evolutionary basis.

In a cross-cultural study that included 37 different cultures, Buss (2007) found that a mate’s chastity holds more importance for men than for women in the majority of cultures examined. Specifically, in the United States, men were found to value virginity in a potential partner more than women. Buss argued that the reason for this sex difference in virginity preference is because men have evolved to seek indicators of paternal certainty and long-term commitment in potential mates. Many men may prefer virginal partners because there is no potential risk of raising a child that is not biologically their own, and hence, no risk of allocating resources and parental effort to an unrelated child.

To have children and not be married was not, and is still not, something that is accepted in many cultures around the world (as Buss [2007] points out). It is not surprising that pageants maintain this view, as beauty queens, after all, “must be of good health and moral character” (Miss New York US, 2014). There are several powerful examples of winners who have lost their crowns for violating these rules. In 2007, Miss New Jersey, Ashley Harder, had to resign because she became pregnant during her reign. Miss USA 1957, Leona Gage, also had her crown taken from her, just one day after winning. Her mother-in-law informed the public that Leona was in fact married with two children. In 2012, Carlina Duran, the former Miss Dominican Republic, lost her crown because she was in the process of annulling her marriage (Macatee, 2012).

The Importance of the Virginal Quality of the Evening Gown

In certain aspects of the competition, contestants who exude a virginal quality may be more likely to win, and therefore compete with one another, to appear “more virginal.” One of the ways virginity could be conveyed is through dress choice (e.g., wearing white or showing less skin). One of the most well-known segments of beauty competitions is the evening gown portion. This element of pageants is framed as a forum for displaying contestants’ personality, class, elegance, and poise. (p. 629) According to Miss USA 1994, the judges are more concerned with how the contestant presents herself in the gown as opposed to the actual gown itself (Parker, 2000). Like the swimsuit event, contestants walk down the runway in an evening gown of their choosing, pose, and then walk offstage. They do not speak directly to the judges during this segment, but sometimes there are prerecorded short statements about what it means to be beautiful and sexy, their fashion role models, and how fashion plays a part in their life. Some statements also include information about their ties to family and religion. In these statements, they may be conveying a more virginal attitude by alluding to the choice of dress as being similar to their future wedding gown preference or alluding to their father’s approval of the gown. They could also express conservative values by choosing a classic fashion icon, such as Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy, over sexy fashion icons like Britney Spears or the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit. Other conservative values, such as having close ties to family and religion, being a homebody, and having a strong desire to be married, are also discussed in these statements. Emphasis on staying at home or a desire to be married may be perceived as virginal as it would suggest that the contestant would not partake in events that may lead to casual sex (e.g., going out to bars and parties). Further, expressing a desire to be married would likely be perceived as a desire to engage in a long-term relationship and may also be related to the idea that she may be “saving herself” for that long-term partner. Future research could analyze the content of these statements to see if women who express more conservative values place higher than those who discuss the sexiness of the gown or sexy role models.

As the pageants want to emphasize a wholesome, virginal image as well as remarkable physical beauty, it is important that the gown design reflect a careful balance between being classy and sexy. If the gown is ill-fitting, it would likely distract from how the contestant presents herself (e.g., her poise), or indicate that she does not fully care about her appearance. If the gown is overly revealing, it would also distract the judges from considering how the contestant carries herself, and instead leave a negative perception; clothing that is too revealing is not virginal. Though the gown itself is not judged, there are some interesting trends between gown color and the winners. After conducting a brief review of the evening gown portion of Miss America competitions between 2006 and 2015, we found that the gown shape most popular with contestants was a trumpet or mermaid style, where the garment is form-fitting all the way down to the knee and then dramatically flares out. This dress style showcases or fakes an hourglass figure, emphasizing the contestant’s waist-to-hip ratio. Further, most dresses had some form of beading, rhinestones, or sequins, and all contestants wore high heels. High heels have been shown to create a more flattering silhouette and gait for the woman wearing them as they help to emphasize the chest and buttocks (Cox, 2004; Semmelhack, 2006), and create a shorter stride (Morris, White, Morrison, & Fisher, 2013). High heels also create the illusion of a more slender ankle and smaller foot (Smith, 1999), which is thought to be an indicator of youth and fertility (Fessler et al., 2005).

Color also appears to be important, and reflects the theme of virginity or innocence. Table 32.2 shows the most popular color among Miss America contestants and the color worn by the winner. Between 2006 and 2015, the most popular color for the evening gowns was white, with 50% of the winners wearing this color. These data were gathered from videos posted to YouTube of each competition, and gown colors of winners were checked with photographs from the competition. The fact that white is the most popular choice for contestants overall may be due to the perception that contestants who wear white are those who will win. Cultural associations (p. 630) of white are linked to purity (Aslam, 2006), which is the running theme in Western beauty pageants. In the same videos mentioned previously, several contestants discussed how putting on a white gown felt like they were going to their wedding, which implicitly signals the wearer has a “virginal quality.” It would be interesting for future researchers to examine this effect cross-culturally. We predict that the color(s) that represent “pureness” or virginity are popular for contestants’ clothing choices cross-culturally. In marked contrast, red gowns, though stunning and attention-grabbing, were not popular among the contestants, and no winning contestant wore a red gown in the ten reviewed competitions. The lack of red gowns is to be expected, given connections that people often make between the color red and sexuality and attention-seeking (see Aslam, 2006; Elliot & Pazda, 2012).

Table 32.2. Popular and Winning Dress Colors in Miss America, 2006–2015.


Popular Color

Winner’s Color


White (4/10)



Black (2/10)



White (4/10)



Silver (3/12)

Black (3/12)



White (4/12)



White (5/12)



White (5/13)



White (4/12)



White (5/12)



White (9/12)


(*) Numbers in parentheses indicate how many participants wore that color during the evening gown segment, with the first number indicating number of wearers, and the second number indicating the total number of contestants.

Interestingly, the color of the dress may be more important than the amount of skin the dress reveals. For example, in 2006, Jennifer Berry of Oklahoma wore a white halter-neck gown with a deep-plunging neckline, embellishments, and a high slit. Compared to some of the other contestants, her dress would likely be considered very sexy. A fellow contestant, Erica Powell of South Carolina, wore a much more conservative red dress with no exposed cleavage, leg slit, or embellishments. Berry went on to win the competition. We predict that formal analysis would establish that color is used more as an indicator of perceived promiscuity than dress style or cut. One potential avenue for future research would be to examine if variability in explicit sexiness of dress style (e.g., high slits) independently affects attractiveness judgments in light of color of dress (e.g., red vs. white).

In beauty pageants, fashion choices are meant to attract the judges’ attention, flatter the contestants’ bodies, and allow the wearer to feel confident as she models the gown. Even though the judges are not scoring the actual gown, there is still competition to find the perfect gown that exudes the personality of the wearer (Parker, 2000). Some pageant contestants bring multiple gowns to wear something that is completely unique, once they see the other contestant’s gowns. For example, a contestant who was interviewed at a local state pageant stated that she brought dozens of dresses to make sure she would not wear the same color or style as any of the other contestants (Greenwood, 2010). Uniqueness is a signal of creativity, which has been hypothesized to serve as a fitness indicator in both men and women (see Miller, 2000).

In many ways, then, success in a beauty pageant mirrors success in the domain of long-term mating—coming across as attractive but not promiscuous. Research has shown that the implication of a woman’s promiscuity either through nonverbal forms such as dress (Abbey, Cozzarelli, McLaughlin, & Hamish, 1987; Williamson & Hewitt, 1986), or through verbal communication such as rumor (Campbell, 1999; Clayton & Trafimow, 2007) often leads to that woman being negatively perceived by others. In a mating context, it could lead to the potential loss of a long-term mate, while in the pageant context, it may conflict with the wholesome family-friendly values the pageant promotes. The latter scenario would lead to the loss of the competition and therefore the potential loss of high-status mates and prized resources.

A History and the Structure of Child Beauty Pageants

Child beauty pageants, like adult beauty pageants, have had a long and controversial history. Over one hundred years after P.T. Barnum’s adult pageants in the 1850s, the Palisades Park in New Jersey hosted one of the first modern beauty pageants for little girls in 1961. Six thousand girls came each week to compete for the title of “Little Miss America.” Competitors between the ages of 5 and 10 were judged “on the basis of their beauty, charm, poise, and personality” (Gargiulo, 2006, p. 91). This pageant was then followed by the “Our Little Miss” pageant that was started in 1962 by Marge Hannaman, a former model and basketball player (Our Little Miss, n.d.).

Since the 1960s, the pageant business has grown exponentially. Such junior pageants now exist all across America as local, state, and national pageants, and they also exist internationally. The rules and winnings from each pageant may vary, but there are two basic kinds of pageants: those that focus on glitz and those that focus on natural features. Glitz and natural, as they are commonly known, refer to the amount of emphasis placed on enhanced beauty for judging. Natural pageants require that minimal or no cosmetics be worn for girls under 13 years of age, that dresses and swimsuits (some natural pageants do not have a swimsuit event) are age-appropriate, and there is an interview event to emphasize personality (Pageant Center, n.d.).

The Glass Slipper Beauty Pageant System, a natural pageant, is for girls aged newborn to 16 and is held in South Carolina. Competitors partake in two events, beauty and theme wear (Stripe Delight (p. 631) Pageant, 2014). While beauty refers to the natural physical beauty of the contestant, theme wear refers to clothing that is worn based on a specific theme. For the Stripe Delight Pageant, which is a part of Glass Slipper Pageants, the theme is “stripes,” and girls must wear an outfit that has stripes as a part of the costume. In this pageant, girls aged 4 years and older can wear light cosmetics. There are no swimsuit costumes allowed, no bare stomachs, no removal of clothing on stage, and no glitz modeling or talent routines. There are three division categories with three to four titles awarded per category (shown in Table 32.3).

Glitz pageants allow and encourage girls to wear full cosmetics, wear rhinestone-encrusted dresses, and have a pageant coach to create glitz routines (Pageant Center, n.d.). Glitz routines refer to the style of dancing, acting, or other performance during the talent event. The girls, even children as young as 2 years old, wear hairpieces, fake eyelashes, fake or manicured nails, false teeth, and spray tans during the competition. The pageant dresses are covered with light-catching rhinestones and cost hundreds to thousands of dollars.

The Universal Royalty Pageant, owned by Annette Hill, is a high-glitz pageant. Toddlers and Tiaras, a reality television program on the TLC Network that focuses on various national and state pageants across the United States, featured the Universal Royalty Pageant during its first season (Reddy, 2009). The Universal Royalty Pageant is a two-day competition. The pageant is divided into babies, toddlers, teens, and miss/misses (the mothers of the contestants) and consists of three parts: talent, beauty, and swimsuit. Any participant from these categories can take home the Ultimate Grand Supreme title (Reddy, 2009).

Table 32.3. Example of Division Titles and Ages from Stripe Delight Pageant.




Division I

Baby Miss

0–12 months

Tiny Miss

13–23 months

Wee Miss

2 years

Toddler Miss

3 years

Division II

Precious Miss

4–5 years

Petite Miss

6–7 years

Little Miss

8–9 years

Division III

Young Miss

10–11 years

Junior Miss

12–13 years

Teen Miss

14–16 years

(*) Title names and age ranges may vary slightly between competitions.

Both types of pageants have similar awards (see Tables 32.3 and 32.4), with slight variations based on the specific pageant. While both types of pageants are also open to adolescent boys entering the competition, contestants are mostly adolescent girls.

In many children’s pageants, there is no “double crowning”; if one contestant wins the “Grand Supreme Queen” title, she cannot also win a “Division Princess” title or the “Age Beauty Princess” title. There are, however, secondary awards that can be double-crowned. These include “Best Eyes,” “Best Personality,” “Most Beautiful,” and “Photogenic.” Interestingly, in natural pageants, the photograph submitted to the “Photogenic” award must not be retouched. However, in glitz pageants, the photographs that are entered into the competition are heavily retouched to erase blemishes, add teeth, add a tan, and add full cosmetics. To be considered for these secondary titles, contestants must pay an additional fee for each title for which she wants to be nominated. Many pageants, in both the glitz and natural categories, adopt this type of pageant structure.

Glitz pageants have been especially criticized for oversexualizing young girls because of the heavy cosmetics use, revealing costumes, and flirty dancing and modeling (such as wiggling the hips and batting eyelashes). For these reasons, France has banned child beauty pageants for girls younger than 16 years of age (Rubin & de la Baume, 2013).

Evolutionary Themes in Children’s Beauty Pageants

We propose that the pageant structure of many children’s pageants is similar to adult pageants, with a strong emphasis on physical beauty in children’s pageants (especially in glitz pageants). As a result, intrasexually competitive behavior may develop early or more aggressively in pageant participants. As previously discussed, girls are thought to engage in indirect aggression, as opposed to direct aggression (such as physical fighting), because there is less risk to the instigator (Campbell, 1999). Research from Björkqvist and colleagues (1992) has shown that girls are more furtive when directing aggression toward another peer. Even in early childhood, such (p. 632) as by 8 years of age, girls are more likely than boys to engage in gossip, shunning, and becoming friendly with someone else out of a motive of revenge. By age 11, these strategies are more significantly developed (Björkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992). In children’s beauty pageants, younger girls may have to be better at employing these indirect strategies as they are competing for titles not only within their age group but also with other girls who are significantly older than themselves.

Table 32.4. Example of Winning Titles and Descriptions from Stripe Delight Pageant.



Grand Supreme Queen/Ultimate Grand Supreme

Highest-scoring contestant across 3 divisions

Mini Supreme Queen

Second-highest-scoring contestant across 3 divisions

Division Princess

Highest-scoring contestant in each division

Age Beauty Princess

Highest-scoring contestant in each age group

(*) Title names and descriptions may vary slightly between competitions.

Children’s pageants could be prime environments to foster the development of successful intrasexually competitive strategies. Not only are girls competing for status and resources, their mothers are constantly informing their daughters’ competitive behavior. During the competitions, mothers and other helpers like makeup artists, pageant trainers, and other family members gather to support the contestant throughout the competition (Mirabello, 2009–2013). The contestants are constantly surrounded by maternal assistance; even during the onstage activities, mothers will quietly direct their daughters, literally behind the judges’ backs, during the routine (Mirabello, 2009–2013). Any developing competitive behavioral strategies (e.g., the use of indirect aggression, expressing a desire to win the top prize, or extreme disappointment when losing) within the contestant could be reinforced by their mothers. The mothers, in turn, attempt to ensure the success of their daughters in the competition. Since facilitating the success of one’s children is a basic evolutionary goal entrenched in parenting, it is not surprising that pageant mothers heavily assist in the development of their daughter's success. The competitive attitude fostered by the mother will likely be carried into the child’s life outside the pageant, which has the potential to be beneficial in education (e.g., getting the highest grade), sports (e.g., becoming the best player), business (e.g., taking more risks, going after promotions), and eventually in adult romantic relationships (e.g., winning access to the best mates).

Aside from the problematic hypersexualization of young girls, children’s beauty pageants have been shown to have a negative impact on the contestants’ adult lives. Wonderlich, Ackhard, and Henderson (2005) found that participation in child beauty pageants may be linked to higher levels of body dissatisfaction, high levels of distrust of peers, and lower levels of impulse control. These adverse psychological outcomes may well be thought of as the downside of female mating in general—with a large focus on physicality and negative social and psychological repercussions associated with failure on this front. The constant judgment solely on external appearance, pressure from competitive mothers, and indirect and direct aggression from peers could potentially be a major influence on why Wonderlich and colleagues (2005) found these results.

The practice of indirect aggression also carries over into adulthood (Björkqvist, Österman, & Lagerspetz, 1994). If the participants are constantly combative or engaging in indirect aggression, where friends turn out to be enemies and adults are reinforcing and nurturing devious behavior, it follows that past contestants would have higher rates of depression and interpersonal distrust of peers. At the same time, due to their enhanced competitive skills, we propose that winners of children’s pageants may ultimately emerge as more apt at using indirect aggression and be more reproductively successful (i.e., have children that are healthier, who are able to accrue status and mates readily) than other peers who competed and consistently lost top titles. The continuous reinforcement and reward for winning the titles would boost confidence and potentially refine their ability to knock rivals out of the competition. With fewer rivals and greater access to top mates, one could infer that greater reproductive success would be inevitable. Those who repeatedly lose these competitions may negatively value their self-worth, lose confidence, and may not consider themselves to be worthy of high-status mates, thus removing themselves from the competition before working against a rival. This would lead to fewer mating opportunities and thus lower reproductive success. Future research into the social strategies (p. 633) of past childhood beauty pageant contestants (and winners in particular) would yield much insight into these possibilities.

Future Directions

In spite of their longstanding existence and popularity in a variety of modern cultures, there is a substantial lack of experimental psychological research on beauty pageants. Although a promising first step, Singh’s (1993) research that tracked the waist-to-hip ratio measurements of Miss America winners is one of the only studies that applied evolutionary thinking to beauty competitions. Given that evolutionary theory speaks to human nature, as evidenced across all cultures, we hypothesize that empirical research on beauty pageant contestants would uncover a great deal in terms of universals in the social and mating-relevant strategies of women. Specifically, we propose that future researchers may want to examine the following topics among beauty pageant contestants individually and interactively: (a) past and current romantic relationship status, (b) ovulatory status and competition behavior, and (c) use of intrasexual competitive strategies. We now expand on each of these three topics.

The study of romantic relationships is a thriving area of research in psychological and evolutionary studies. While beauty pageant contestants are expected to be single, we believe romantic relationship status would be a fascinating area of study for two reasons. First, many contestants may have undisclosed sexual relationships. Such a pattern would speak to the fact that pageants are perceived as favoring long-term mating and relatively conservative approaches to relationships. Similarly, past romantic relationship data (i.e., relationship status, length of relationship, ratings of contestant’s partners) on pageant contestants may be extremely interesting in shedding light on the actual mating and social strategies of beauty pageant contestants. Do pageant winners climb up the mating ladder, as compared to nonwinners? Are their post-winning partners more attractive and higher-status mates when compared to their pre-winning partners? Concerning current relationship status and competitive strategy use, partnered people have reported that they engage in more frequent competitive strategy use, especially competitor derogation, than those who are not involved in romantic relationships (Fisher & Cox, 2011). Future researchers should aim to empirically examine these trends among beauty pageant contestants and how they relate to actual pageant winnings. Given the nature of beauty competitions, we hypothesize that those contestants who are more skilled in competitive strategies (i.e., engage in competitive strategies more often and with more success than others) would be more likely to have had more romantic relationships and to win the title of “Beauty Queen.” In fact, women who are particularly skilled at displaying prototypical long-term mating strategies may well be best positioned to win the crown.

There is also a large body of research and burgeoning interest in ovulatory status and various behavioral, dispositional, and physical traits. Normally (or naturally) cycling women (i.e., those not taking a hormonal contraceptive) are perceived to be more attractive, have more pleasant body odors, and have more attractive voices when in their fertile than infertile phase (Doty, Ford, Preti, & Huggins, 1975; Kirchengast & Gartner, 2002; Miller & Maner, 2010; Pipitone & Gallup, 2008; Thornhill et al., 2003). Interestingly, naturally cycling women in their fertile phase wear more revealing clothing than women in other phases of the menstrual cycle and are perceived as trying to look sexier (Durante, Li, & Haselton, 2008). These systematic cyclical changes have not been found among women who use hormonal contraceptives, which mimic physiological changes associated with pregnancy (Miller, Tybur, & Jordan, 2007; Seppo et al., 2004; Welling, Puts, Roberts, Little, & Burriss, 2012). Future researchers should test these findings directly among beauty pageant contestants. We hypothesize that contestants who are in their fertile phase would be rated as more attractive across the board (e.g., physical appearance, voice) than contestants who are not in their fertile phase at the time of scoring or those on hormonal contraception.

Although we review intrasexual competition within beauty pageants, there remain numerous directions for further investigation. We propose that many of the mating-relevant behaviors that are exhibited in beauty pageants are inherently competitive. As we discussed, contestants are judged on many qualities that are directly relevant to mating success (e.g., beauty, intelligence, creativity). It is therefore appropriate to examine the competitive tactics used by women in beauty pageants as being similar to competitive strategies used in the pursuit and retention of a mate. We propose that pageant winners increase their status as potential mates by directly competing with other women (p. 634) in categories that are directly representative of what is desired in a mate. We therefore hypothesize that pageant winners gain greater access and exposure to higher-status mates compared to their losing counterparts. Future research can easily test this hypothesis by examining and comparing the romantic partners of pageant contestants versus pageant title-holders.


Throughout this chapter, we have provided an overview of the histories and structures of adult and child beauty pageants in order to present the evolutionary themes found within these contests. We focused on how the structure of a pageant may foster an environment that provokes similar intrasexually competitive behavior from contestants that would be seen in a mating context from an evolutionary lens. We argued that the strategies underlying behaviors that are used in mating competition, such as self-promotion, competitor derogation, and competitor manipulation, are strategies that would also benefit potential competitors in a beauty pageant context. The microenvironment of the pageant is representative of a competition to attract a mate in order to obtain and retain status and resources. The winnings of the competition become the “resources,” while the events (pre-interview, swimsuit, fashion, onstage questions, and [sometimes] talent) showcase the traits that men desire in a partner for a long-term relationship. We proposed that children’s pageant environments may evoke and exacerbate indirect aggression seen in young girls because the pageant events mimic those of adult pageants (minus the pre-interview and onstage questions), place a great amount of emphasis on physical beauty, and have indirect competitive behaviors reinforced by contestants’ mothers’ encouragement. While there is some evidence to support these proposed ideas, more research into the evolutionary themes in pageants is necessary before we can draw any concrete conclusions.


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