Helen Troncoso, 34, began participating in pageants when she was 13-years-old. “It was a wholesome way to bond with girls my age,” she says. “It gave me the opportunity to meet a variety of girls with similar interests.”
She’s been participating in pageants ever since. In 2011 she was crowned Ms. New York Belleza Latina. In 2012 she was 1st runner-up in the Ms. Belleza Latina International competition and won the Ms. New York America crown.
For Troncoso it’s not all about physical beauty. Not only is she a pageant queen, she is a Doctor of Physical Therapy. She says she enjoys the challenge of preparing for a pageant and speaking in front of a large audience. “I see it as a sport,” she says. “It’s like preparing for a job interview times 10.”
For some young women, pageants can be an opportunity to develop their public speaking skills and make valuable connections. Veronica Quintero Sandoval, 21, Miss Hispanic Seafair 2011 and Miss Seafair 2011, says, “competing opened up a new world and networking opportunities. I attended many events and was able to speak to many Latino leaders in the community.”
For some women it may be a chance to increase their confidence. Rosie Mercado, 32, began entering pageants after she got a divorce three years ago. She won Miss Plus America Cover Girl, Miss Plus America Runway Model, and Miss Nevada Plus America. “It was a great opportunity to figure out what my passions were and get to know myself,” she says. “It was empowering to be with other plus-sized models who were able to celebrate who they were.”
Though pageants can be very valuable for young women’s careers, some women really take advantage of these opportunities to give back to their communities. Troncoso, for instance, has used her title to promote a nonprofit where she is a Vice President called Tamika & Friends, which is dedicated to raising awareness of cervical cancer and its link to the human papillomavirus.
Mercado believes that many Latinas choose to participate in pageants because they are raised to contribute and give back. “It’s not just about getting dolled up,” she says.
Pageants are especially popular in Latino culture. Venezuela, for instance, has created more Miss Universe winners than any other country. Colombia holds about 400 beauty pageants each year.
Osmel Sousa, the impresario and head of the Miss Venezuela organization has said that Latinos are such loyal beauty pageant fans because “as Latinos we love beauty, we appreciate beauty. It is something that is part of us, part of our lives, and we identify with it. “
Troncoso also believes that Latinos love pageants for this very reason, “We love to celebrate a woman’s beauty and essence. Many people cheer for their country, so it’s also a source of pride.”
But this preoccupation with beauty can be detrimental for women and Latino culture in general. In Venezuela, for instance, many people go into debt to fund plastic surgery. Eva Ekvall, former Miss Venezuela, criticized Venezuela’s obsession with beauty. In her book about her battle with breast cancer before she died at the age of 28, she writes: “We invest a lot of money [in Venezuela] in looking beautiful and not enough in health care. There’s a huge taboo around breast cancer. But in this country people get their boobs done every day, so I don’t understand how breast cancer can be a problem when everybody’s showing their breasts.”
Not only can this fixation with beauty distract from greater social problems, entering pageants with the wrong mindset may also cause negative consequences for young women. Mercado believes that participating with low self-esteem is a bad idea and that many women may base their self-worth on these contests. “Some people don’t know how to lose,” she says.
These high expectations may be especially harmful for women with poor body image or issues with self-esteem. Though Latino culture often embraces a curvier body type, the reality is that the average weight of models, actresses, and pageant contestants is well below the national norm. Over the years, the Miss America pageant has seen a 12 percent drop in weight and 2 percent increase in height and the majority of winners may be classified as having one of the major symptoms of an eating disorder.
Mercado has used her notoriety to promote body diversity in pageants and modeling. At size 24, she’s been breaking barriers with plus-sized designers. This is promising for young women, but some experts worry the very nature of pageants is exclusionary considering that at age thirteen, 53 percent of American girls are “unhappy with their bodies” and that this grows to 78 percent by the time girls reach seventeen. Standards of beauty will always exists, but if there were a way to transfer our culture’s willingness to accept a curvier body type as well as creating more talent-focused competitions, this would certainly help young women develop a healthier body image and stronger sense of self.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently a book reviewer for Kirkus Reviews and a contributor for The Huffington Post, AlterNet, and Mamiverse. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Pleiades, Witness, Anti-, Hunger Mountain, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. Her nonfiction has appeared in Jezebel, Ms. Magazine, and American Public Media. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, or erikalsanchez.com.