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Beauty Queens: A Playful History

by Candace Savage

Candace Savage’s Beauty Queens: A Playful History follows up on her earlier successes of chronicling the politics of female culture. She has written on similar topics in Bird Brains and Cowgirls. Beauty Queens is book number five, and true to her talents as a thorough researcher who has the ability to present points and counterpoints in snappy prose, Savage effectively deconstructs the “American Dream” of being discovered at the soda fountain.

Beauty pageants, we find out, aren’t simple. They are a tangled web of illusions and disillusions, as fake as the runner-up’s tearful kiss on the winner’s cheek, and as revealing of the American psyche as fad diets. Despite their canned sexploitation, there has never been a shortage of contestants and the audience remains primarily women.

The Miss Universe pageant reigns as one of the highest rated television events. In 1996, 600 million tuned in. Compare that to the 90 million who watched the last episode of Seinfeld, and the power of girls in bathing suits is unquestionably on the winning side. Pageant popularity is also what has made the events (in the multitudes from Little Miss Seven to Miss USA Bodybuilding) a prime target for attack and controversy – especially in the late 1960s when libbers were burning their high heels and false eyelashes to protest the blatant objectification of women. What’s interesting is Savage’s discovery that even early on some queens were critical of the hucksterism. Miss France of 1928 wrote of her experience, “I didn’t belong to myself. I belonged to Parisian commerce.” So, it’s true. Even beauty queens get the blues.

Not surprisingly, pageants have been well documented, and this book takes full advantage of archival material. Gorgeously laid out is page after page of images like a National Donut Week contestant pointing out the “snack” with a hole, and a daguerreotype of buxom Miss Louise Montague, who was one of the first beauty queens of the world, winning the Miss $10,000 Beauty title in 1881. A quick thumb-through this book and the fat and thin of the female body ideal is gloriously exposed.