Prison Beauty Pageants- Empowering or Exploitative?

Image Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Fashion Editor Alice Keegan delves deep into the phenomenon of beauty pageants in prisons.

Fashion and beauty hardly interlink with state penitentiaries. However, there is a traceable history of beauty contests taking place in prisons across the globe. This idiosyncratic practice was spotlighted by photographer Zed Nelson’s project ‘Love Me’, which references 'Miss Penitenciaria', an artwork from 2009 on display at the Cult of Beauty Exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. Nelson intended to capture what he considered a narrow Western beauty ideal, something infiltrating different areas worldwide. By examining child pageantry, prison beauty contests and cosmetic surgery, Nelson intended to prompt reflection on a culture that could perpetuate insecurities, low self-esteem and fear of ageing.

With no shortage of cynicism, I marvelled at how in a place where women are made to serve time for crimes, they are still confronted with beauty diktats, competition and insecurities. I then considered my own relationship to these things and turned my attention to my overcrowded vanity table, and how every morning, no matter how late I am running, I make sure to ceremonially apply mascara. Am I a hypocrite because I disapprove of prisoners participating in beauty pageants? Or are they, much like myself, allowing themselves the joy that comes with a little pampering? Does this reflect a love for style and makeup, something which outlasts incarceration or are the image-obsessed aspects of pageantry potentially another punishment for inmates?

Does this reflect a love for style and makeup, something which lasts even imprisonment, or are the image-obsessed aspects of pageantry potentially another punishment for the inmates?

Pageants depend on receiving validation for beauty. Today, they remain a divisive practice and continue to spark feminist debates. I do believe that it is important to question competitions based primarily around women’s physical appearance. Refinery29 conducted an in-depth study on the topic and Brazil’s massive pageant culture, being home to some of its most coveted crowns including Miss World, Miss International, Miss Earth and Miss Universe, alongside its notorious prison influx. Unlike traditional pageants, the contestants competing for the winning title are serving sentences for crimes like drug trafficking, kidnapping, and even homicide. They are judged based on typical pageant criteria: beauty, talent, and charm - and good behaviour records. Crucially, in some prisons a potential reward for participation is early release.

They are judged based on typical pageant criteria: beauty, talent, and charm- and good behaviour records.

Across the globe, women in cell-enclosed salons are watched by guards. This was the subject of the Lithuanian television show, ‘Miss Captivity Pageant’ in the Panevezys Penal Labour Colony. In many prisons, the inmates are given runway training, professional choreography and professional hair and makeup. Incarcerated contestants have expressed how beauty competitions are temporary escapes from the monotony of life behind bars. A prison director observed "It helps them feel human. It shows that they're capable people…they are a part of society."This sentiment was echoed in "Beauty Behind Bars," Piper Kerman's 2010 essay for Allure, where she described such rare moments as some of “the few moments I could forget I was a prisoner and just be a girl." 

Julinho do Carmo is the artistic director of ‘Miss Max’, a beauty pageant in the country’s largest female maximum security prison complex in the city of Sao Paulo, Penitenciária Feminina da Capital. On the relationship between pageantry and the penitentiary he said: “Criminals deserve another chance, and they must rebuild their self esteem so that they eventually exit the prison system and reintegrate into society”. 

This competition has ‘Miss International’, ‘Muse of Maturity’ wherein older women compete, ‘Miss Congeniality’ and ‘Mr Congeniality’- exclusively for openly queer inmates. They rehearse for weeks, and on the day of the competition, it is attended by inmates, their relatives, media representatives and even local celebrities. 

Kenya’s Langata Women’s Prison also offers this unconventional activity as a rare reprieve for inmates, aiming to help them become well adjusted citizens. In the Siberian correctional facility UF 91/9, the ‘Miss Spring’ beauty contest is held. Here, “active participation in the social life of the camp” can lead to early release. However, the competition garnered some attention; local television stations now air the event, leading to conversations among prisoners rights activists, who though acknowledging how it could be inspiring and gives inmates opportunities to pass the time, argue it exploits the participants, dangling dreams of release, subject to their appearance on a stage.

This argument comes back to the central debate surrounding beauty pageants. Awash in hairspray, lip gloss, and perfume, women in these competitions are judged primarily on their appearance- clearly at risk of objectification, sexualisation and intensified insecurities. Two documentaries, ‘Miss Gulag’ and ‘La Corona’ based on prison beauty pageants in Russia and Colombia respectively, evaluate prisons pageants’ validity. They consider the repercussions of reintroducing within the regime the global obsession with women's physical appearance. However, ultimately they conclude that these competitions afford the prisoners opportunities for self-expression, a luxury they are usually stripped of.

In a culture where convicts often come out of jail even more susceptible to corruption than they were initially, this embrace of style and fashion should be celebrated. Pageants can pave a path to recovery, with the rare opportunity for the finalists to feel like winners. Prisoners live out their Cinderella story as they are transformed into sparkling princesses for a few short hours. Many prisoners have spoken of how the pageant reminds them of their worth, having been marginalised by society. These pageants serve as a reminder that they are more than the punishments they are serving - that the road to recovery is real, however treacherous it may appear. 

Prisoners live out their Cinderella story as they are transformed into sparkling princesses for a few short hours.

Director of ‘Prison Beauty Contest’, Sr?an Šarenac reinforced that prisons are not “temporary holding stalls for violent criminals.” Prison Beauty Contest — CineLink Industry Days Pageants provide distraction from prisoners’ long term fate, but there are attributes unrelated to physical appearance which could arguably stand to them to a greater extent when out of prison. More facilities must be put in place to foster the development of incarcerated persons. However, heartwarming stories of how these pageants have been healing show that maybe we shouldn’t completely discount the value of beauty competitions just yet. While pageants remain inherently dismissive of elements outside of physical appearance and traditional femininity, they are a functional way for prisoners to reaffirm agency in their lives. 

As outsiders, we must allow for these particular women and queer people to gain and retain pride from acrylic nails, glittery eyeshadow, and tiaras. 

Let's let them enjoy their victory lap.