It’s a familiar image: a young woman, impeccably coiffed, gowned and adorned with a bejeweled crown and flowing cape, moves down a long runway, smiling dazzlingly at her cheering “subjects.” Whether presented on the stage of Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City or in the patio of the Buen Pastor Prison in Bogotá, Colombia, the beauty pageant has become a seemingly indispensable part of contemporary culture, seen by its admirers as a celebration of feminine confidence, charm and physical perfection—and by its detractors as an exploitation of the competing women.

L0049820 Eglinton Tournament: guests in the banqueting hall Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Eglinton Tournament: guests in the banqueting hall and ballroom in Eglinton Castle. Lithograph by H. Wilson after C.A. d'Hardiviller 1839 By: Charles Achille d' Hardivillerafter: Hugh WilsonPublished: [ca. 1839] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
Eglinton Tournament: guests in the banqueting hall and ballroom in Eglinton Castle. Lithograph by H. Wilson after C.A. d’Hardiviller. By: Charles Achille d’ Hardiviller. After: Hugh Wilson. Published: [ca. 1839]. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Although contests extolling the aesthetic appreciation of women date back to ancient Greece and China, the first modern beauty pageant took place in 1839 at the Eglinton Tournament, a Scottish re-enactment of a medieval joust. Georgiana Seymour, the Duchess of Somerset, was crowned “Queen of Beauty” and was awarded the honor of announcing the winner of the tournament. Fifteen years later, showman P. T. Barnum’s attempts to create a live contest for American women were unsuccessful (respectable women of that era did not parade their beauty in public), but a picture contest sponsored by a variety of newspapers was a hit and widely imitated. By 1880, as women donned more visible roles in American society, the first bathing beauty contest had been established, in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, with none other than Thomas Edison as one of the judges. The Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 featured a Congress of Beauty; around the world, beauty competitions began to proliferate as an emblem of growing national pride. A late 19th Century contest in Spa, Belgium, produced the first to woman to be proclaimed a “beauty queen.” In 1921, in an attempt to extend the summer tourist season, a group of Atlantic City businessmen founded what would serve as the model for future such competitions: the Miss America Pageant. Publicized by newsreels and Hollywood films, this pageant was widely imitated around the world, eventually spawning such celebrations of the female form as the Miss World, Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe contests, which are now viewed annually by billions of admirers around the globe.

Although some aspects of the 21st century beauty pageant reflect the evolving effects of the women’s movement—using talent or the advocacy of humanitarian platforms as a basis for judgment, or awarding winners with significant scholarships instead of movie contracts—the thousands of beauty contests staged annually share a few traditional components. Many contests now incorporate a personal statement from each participant, testing her ability to speak spontaneously about issues both global and personal. The talent competition, first required in the Miss America Pageant in 1945, has also spawned similar competitions in many contests, with talents as esoteric as hula dancing and yodeling on display with the more standard ballet routines and operatic performances. But the heart of all beauty pageants is the promenade, or runway walk, in which contestants are asked to present themselves in a variety of garb: sometimes in distinctive clothes from their native towns or regions, often in formal gowns, and nearly always in what is euphemistically known as “bathing attire.” This unabashed display of feminine pulchritude lies at the heart of nearly every beauty pageant, and has been the source of the pageant’s continuing popularity and frequent criticism, especially from those who fear that the women who enter such contests risk their own health in order to conform to seemingly impossible standards of beauty.

Watch clips of the Miss World Muslimah, Miss Plastic Hungary and vintage Miss U.S.A pageants! >>

Despite such disparagement, beauty pageants are now used to promote everything from cereal to citrus fruits, and celebrate even the most special of interest groups. The Miss World Muslimah, launched in 2010 as a protest against the Miss World contest, evaluates contestants on such things as their piety and knowledge of the Quran as well as beauty. Miss Plastic Hungary awards honors to women with the most successful plastic surgery—and also gives prizes to the doctors who performed their surgeries. And the contest at Buen Pastor is not the only such competition for incarcerated women. The Langata Prison in Nairobi, Kenya, offers training in cosmetic application as its contest’s main prize, ostensibly as a career-building exercise to the winner. The contest at the Penal Labour Colony in Panevezys, Lithuania, is now a major televised event featuring not one but two bikini contests (one fur-lined, one leather). Siberia’s UF 91/1 prison offers such titles as “Miss Spring,” “Miss Charm” and “Miss Grace” to contestants who model their own designs for prison uniforms of the future. And such competitions can be found all over Central and South America, perhaps reflecting the slower evolution of women’s roles in Latin American society, where physical beauty still defines “the essence of begin a woman,” in the words of one prison official. From the Bom Pastor Women’s Prison in Brazil to the Women’s Prison of Santa Monica in Lima, Peru, the beauty pageant is alive and indeed thriving in these institutions, offering some measure of affirmation, hope and celebration to women whose lives are devoid of those qualities.