Looking Good, Sister!
A Catholic priest was forced to cancel an online beauty pageant he organized for nuns, MSNBC reported at the end of August. I missed out on this story due to all the riveting political discussions happening over the last few weeks, but there's actually a very good moral to this seemingly perverse story. (Hat tip: Shonda Little of The Cowboy Chronicles.) Father Antonio Rungi's pageant was to feature:
...attributes such as [the nuns'] spirituality, social awareness, charity and other qualities, Rungi said. Nuns would fill out a profile including information about their life and vocation as well as a photograph. It would be up to them to choose whether to pose with the traditional veil or with their heads uncovered.
"We are not going to parade nuns in bathing suits," Rungi said. "But being ugly is not a requirement for becoming a nun. External beauty is gift from God, and we mustn't hide it."
Mock all you want, but honestly, wouldn't it be awesome if more beauty pageants were like this? I know that all the Miss USA, Miss America, Miss Universe, and all those other pageants claim that they are looking for more than external beauty, but I have yet to see someone who looked like me as even a contestant. Last week I saw some horror show on VH1 about the beauty pageant circuit for girls, in which girls as young as six are spray tanned and given fake adult teeth so that they look like mini paragons of 25 year old feminine virtue. Since the beauty train starts so young, it would be nice to see some contestants focusing on other aspects of female life. Plus, is it not a wee bit screwed up that the pageant circuit is one of the largest private sources of scholarship money? Last time I checked, the link between looking super hot in a bathing suit had very little correlation to one's ability to succeed in school. (Please note that this does not mean that stereotypically attractive women are not smart, as many obviously are. I'm just not sure I understand the link between scoring a perfect 10 on looks and one's grades. Usually there are better ways to determine a woman's intelligence than by staring at her breasts or legs. Then again, the US also uses athletic ability to determine scholarships for many young men, so what do I know about the links between non-academic activities and scholarship? But I digress.)
I'm not the only one who found the supposed purpose of the nun pageant to be thought-provoking. Li Ainly-Walker at Random Musings from Li wrote:
...how about a beauty pageant for nuns? It was, according to the news report, an idea that came from nuns themselves. There will be no parading around in a swimsuit. No declaring that 'all I want is to save the puppies' (although as nuns you have to imagine that world peace is something high up on all of the ladies wish lists. And they mean it.). This is purely pictures of these girls posted on a priests blog. They don't have to starve themselves to try to win. They don't have to compromise their health in any way.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting this is a good thing at all...But I do approve of the fact that it made me think about the subject. That it forced me to challenge my belief, not about religion or the state of the modern church, but of these pageants, and the role of women as a whole. And if I'm thinking about it, then maybe other people are too.
I struggle with my self image. I am a woman and I accept that this is a part of being a woman. I hate my wobbly bits, never feel pretty enough, constantly compare myself to other women, focus entirely on the parts of my body I dislike and don't acknowledge the fact that there could be parts I don't mind, always think my boyfriend wishes I looked different and will probably feel this way for the rest of my life... Whether you're a college student, a middle-aged house wife, or a bloody nun, there's no difference. Women are more than just a face and a body, and isn't the saying beauty is in the eye of the beholder a cliche for a reason?
Even though it is great that Father Rungi's misguided idea to recognize the work of nuns did inspire some great analysis of how women are valued in Western societies, the idea that women have to compete to be recognized for good work is also loaded with baggage. Claire Mysko, author of a self-esteem handbook for tween and young teen girls called You're Amazing: A No Pressure Guide to Being Your Best Self and a contributor to the blog Five Resolutions to Transform the Beauty and Fashion Industries, wrote a guest post for SparkPlugging about the pressure that young women face to be perfect at everything. Mysko notes:
Girls today are told they can do anything. Unfortunately, what they’re often hearing is that they have to do everything, please everyone, and look thin and stylish while they’re at it. The increasing pressure in girls’ lives comes from many different sources—the media, parents, teachers, friends—and it’s all adding up to big time stress. According to The Supergirl Dilemma a recent study conducted by Girls Inc., more than half of girls in middle school reported that they often feel stressed. By the time girls get into high school, that number jumps to74%. Perhaps even more disturbing is that one third of all girls in grades 3-12 said they often feel sad and unhappy.
Yes, those of us who live in Western societies live in competitive environments, and yes, it is good to prepare girls to compete and succeed in our world. But do we have to make everything a contest? When even nuns suggest that the best way for their work to be recognized is through an online pageant, we have a problem. Maybe next time Father Rungi can set up a Jell-O wrestling match to bring attention to the good works that nuns do.
Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. She is seeking submissions for a potential anthology about menstruation at Congratulations, You're a Woman Now!. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, is about unusual things to see and do in NYC.