BeYou-Ty Pageant redefining women’s beauty on stories from the brainreels

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Special mini-cast for March! I had the pleasure of talking with Irene Sutton and Britta Geisler, seniors at the University of Portland. They’ve come up with the BeYou-ty Pageant (sounds like “beauty” but spelled like “Be You-t”). It’s an interactive panel event with a handful of women entrepreneurs and butt-kickers to show that beauty pageants don’t have to focus on some ideal of skinny, light-skinned, able-bodiedness and bikini-wearing that few people can reach. In this podcast, we talk about the event, our experiences with media images of female beauty, and some overlap in feminist and disability community empowerment. And I’m so lucky that I get to be one of the panelists at this event.

Britta said something so interesting in the podcast: When she watched TV as a kid, all the female role models she saw looked the same. It’s so true. When do we see shows with women over a size zero unless it’s a fat-shaming reality show like The Biggest Loser? When do we see women in wheelchairs unless it’s, oh never mind. We still don’t have that on non-cable TV. Most of the images of women we see play two roles. The first is to sell a product, whether it’s even related to being a woman or not. The second is to reinforce a cultural ideal that to be a woman is to be white (or dark but only in an “exotic” way), thin, young, straight, cisgender, middle class or higher, sexually appealing but not slutty, and completely non-disabled. Nina G., the world’s only female stuttering stand up comic, laments that, as a stutterer, her child TV role model was a cartoon pig who didn’t wear any pants. Remember Porky Pig? Yikes. She didn’t have a human actress who talked like her to look up to.

We consume these media images. Even if we feel we could never match, so many strive for it anyway. Some people outright reject these messages. Others try to but still feel shame about not measuring up.

Here’s an interesting twist: I know non-disabled feminists who want to end the objectifying, sexualizing, gazing at, and demeaning of women. They assert that we’re not sex objects, breeding machines, housekeepers, or otherwise at the service of men. The twist is that most disabled women don’t even get to fight against this. Many disabled people are desexualized, considered good candidates for forced sterilization, and only worth staring at out of dismay. Sunny Taylor writes about this twist in the media in how, “We have black-power afros on models in ads and the phenomenon of ‘girl power’ as the latest marketization of feminism; it is next to impossible to picture a wheelchair or incontinence becoming the next hip iconography. Of course, the point is that it shouldn’t have to be. If people are sincere in their praise of equality and difference they will have to get over finding some differences ‘cooler’ and more praiseworthy than others.”

And I love the way disability advocate Villisa Thompson writes about why she started her site, Ramp Your Voice, saying “Establishing this poignant niche of intersectionality helped to empower myself in ways I did not foresee.  When I began to connect with other disabled Black women and women of color, a sisterly bond formed.  I finally interacted with women who not only looked like me, but also endured similar struggles because of the identities they held.  Words cannot accurately capture the deep level of understanding and support one feels when you find people who ‘get’ you.”

While the BeYou-ty pageant at UP doesn’t have a race or disability focus per se, it also doesn’t have a competition about who’s cooler, more different, more the same, or more of anything. It’s a conversation and a way for people to gather in community and talk about role models and opportunities. As we explore the many fantastic accomplishments of the women panelists at this event, I hope we also keep the conversation open about the ways that our society limits and silences people with non-conforming bodies, whether in terms of gender identity, sexuality, or disability. And we lower expectations and opportunities for disabled people in general. We can’t only look toward highly accomplished women as role models, because so many disabled women are shut out from opportunities to become accomplished in the traditional, capitalist sense. As long as we tie events like this for female empowerment to movements around disability, LGBTQIA, class, and racial and ethnic empowerment movements, I think we’re gonna be on the right track.

Access info:
This event is held in a wheelchair-accessible facility. The lighting is overhead fluorescent lights.

Event details: BeYou-Ty Pageant website banner with logo, "Beauty is Purpose: A joining of beautiful Portland people" and photos of the panelists.
April 9th, 2015
6:30 pm
Shiley Building, room 301
University of Portland campus
On bus lines #44 and #35

[Image description: BeYou-Ty Pageant website banner with logo, “Beauty is Purpose: A joining of beautiful Portland people” and photos of the panelists.]

Click here for an accessible transcript of podcast episode #032.