The pageants of Colombia provide a distilled environment for examining the nature of beauty and how we cope with adversity. Set against a backdrop of poverty and decades of armed conflict, nowhere are the contests more ubiquitous and revered. In these carefully scripted shows of fantasy, beauty as a concept, commodity and singular goal is stripped to its raw elements. There is no ambiguity or pretense that anything else matters.
The queens are celebrities. Icons of a rigidly defined ideal, the contestants highlight the conflated relationship between beauty and attraction. Many of them seem familiar, stirring recollections of the same perfect features seen elsewhere, along with the identical flirtatious laughter, mock surprise and relentless optimism. In their quest for adoration, they erase all traces of individuality.
While the inherent objectification of the contests and the values they convey to young women often provoke outrage and ridicule elsewhere, in the Colombian context the issue is more complicated. The millions who pack stadiums and follow dozens of national contests on live television often have a vicarious relationship with the queens, clinging to the fantasy of magically transcending poverty. The queens themselves often claim to be working the situation to their advantage, even as they perpetuate a mindset which ultimately limits their opportunities.
The popularity of the pageants ebbs and flows with the level of violence in the country. The contests project an image of normalcy and vitality in the face of social upheaval and fear, a refusal to be defined by the violence or to live as if besieged. In a country rife with conflict, the pageants are a form of both denial and defiance.
I live in Latin America, raised my kids here, have Colombian friends, thought I knew it all but I didn’t know shit. This made me want to cry, laugh, punch somebody, wrap the girls in a coat and take them home, high-five them for their nerve and ambition, tsk-tsk them for being so misguided. Beauty is a rough proposition anywhere, but when girls are raised to be coquetas from the time they are born, when there’s a premium put on feminine perfection, oh God, how far does the pedestal fall when it inevitably does? What about those who don’t meet those impossibly high standards of perfection? What value do those girls have in a country that worships beauty to this extent?
Let me tell you what it’s like being an average girl here, ok? You’re born. You’re dolled up. You’re told to go show off how pretty you are for your Papi, taught how to be a coqueta. How to be courteous above all things. You have to ask your father for permission to breathe. You learn at your mother’s knee how to work your childish feminine charm for pocket change, earrings, a video game. Your mother does your school homework for you. You learn to think that you can’t think without your mother right there beside you. You are discouraged from having an original thought in your head. You are discouraged from having one single dream other than having some guy take care of you because you’re too much of a princesa to actually work for a living. Above all you are discouraged from leaving home. You are filled with fear about the world so that you do not ever leave.
You hit adolescence. Your school notebooks are filled with precisely drawn and colored rainbows, hearts, stars and little animals. You don’t excel at school because the only thing that matters is that you pass. If you get good grades you are ridiculed by your classmates and nobody at home really cares anyway. Your mother is probably single by now and working her fingers to the bone. You don’t see your father much because your mother used you to try to get blood out of a stone and he has long since given up visitation rights, assuming he ever wanted them. Maybe he’s left the country altogether. You wonder about him. Your heart won’t let him go. It’s confusing. But you get prettier and prettier and are urged to try your hand at one of these contests. It’s the only thing that will maybe get you out of the barrio once and for all. Just like soccer might get a boy out. Same dream. Your grades totally suck, especially math. What other choice do you have? Being a coqueta is all you have ever been taught to do well.
Beautiful girls in Latin America who are poor, who have no other resource, are like a comet streaking across the sky. So breathtaking, so exciting, so thrilling, flying so high. And then it’s over, so fast it makes your head spin. You’re pregnant, the guy is who knows where, and as fast as that, the glow is gone. And I do mean gone. So far gone you might wonder if it was ever there to begin with. And then it’s your turn to be a single mom working your fingers to the bone in a patriarchal society. Getting older, probably fatter in a land that worships skinny, young beauty queens.
Are you a flat, one dimensional shallow caricature? Yes, I'm afraid so. Because it’s the only thing you know how to be. Unless you managed to get the hell out. Or maybe you had a mother or father who allowed you to be proud of your intelligence. But if not, and if you were cursed with a well-endowed brain as well as beauty, well more’s the pity. Because you will not only end up broke and working your fingers to the bone, but you’re probably very screwed up in the head as well. There is NO way for a woman to ultimately be the winner in a patriarchal society. Unless she’s very very very lucky. Or she gets out. And many, many Colombians do get out. Men and women alike. I know them. They are resented and mistrusted in other parts of the world. Correctly or not, they bear the burden of their country’s reputation wherever they go.
Who is judging these women? Who’s protecting them from harm? Who’s guiding them, training them, guarding them, ogling them, corrupting them, getting them drunk? The women might have the upper hand for a brief time but unless their hearts are made of steel, which they are not, they will fall and will fall hard at the feet of a society that is run by men. Some say that many women are born with a ticket to success that men don’t have. Well, only some women are born to be beauty queens, wherever that may or may not take them in life. But all women are born inferior to males in a country that endows ALL men with the birthright to rule the roost.