"Miss You Can Do It": A Rant On Traditional Beauty Pageants

society and beauty pageants; Removing the Stumbling Block

A documentary called "Miss You Can Do It" is set to air on HBO on Monday, June 24. The premise of the program is to follow girls with intellectual and physical disabilities as they have the opportunity to participate in a pageant. At first glance, those involved with disability advocacy might be pleased to know that such an opportunity exists. 

Miss You Can Do It; Removing the Stumbling Block

After all, experiences like pageants have long been exclusive of individuals with disabilities. Heck, they have been exclusive of anyone who doesn't fit a preconceived notion of "beauty"...but I'll hold my ranting for now.
Despite this obvious attempt to open a previously closed door to girls with disabilities, I have two major issues with the premise of this contest.

First, as an advocate for inclusion, I feel that creating a separate and different opportunity for girls with disabilities perpetuates the notion that the girls are not worthy of participation in a traditional pageant. Interestingly, this pageant was started in 2004 by Abbey Curran, who represented Iowa in the 2008 Miss USA pageant, and who herself has cerebral palsy. Curran, who was able to participate in traditional pageants herself, should be working toward greater inclusive opportunities, not creating segregated ones.

Yet it is the goal of this pageant that causes me even greater concern. Press for the documentary (about the pageant) cites: “The unique event brings together girls with mental and physical disabilities from across the country who are judged on “what is in their heart and not by how their outfits look.”” Ok, this is good, right? Yes and no.

I honestly find it staggering that anyone could publish this statement and not immediately recognize how this highlights inherent flaws in the traditional pageant system. I am less concerned here with the way in which girls with disabilities will be treated and/or "judged" but rather, that the standard to which we hold all our young women, disabled or not, isn’t "what is in their heart instead of how their outfits look". What a sad statement on society when it must be overtly pointed out that this pageant will seek to discover the content of the contestants' character.

It seems so ridiculously simple to me: Why haven't we created a pageant in which all contestants are "judged" on the quality of their character, not their appearance? How about one where we encourage all contestants to speak(or type, or draw...) intelligently on a topic about which they are knowledgeable and passionate as they present themselves with poise, regardless of the "dress" they wear. Better yet, how about we don’t judge anyone at all?

I have a daughter. She doesn’t have disabilities. It's likely obvious by now that I hold no real regard for traditional pageants, but I would love for her to be a part of an experience called "Miss You Can Do It" where she is encouraged to demonstrate "what is in her heart", without being judged. 

If we aren't going to do away with pageants all together, then we owe it to our girls to create a "Miss You Can Do It" for all of them; a truly inclusive pageant without concern for abilities or appearance.

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  1. WOW! Just WOW Lisa! There has been an illusive understanding of inclusion in my mind. I love reading your work because you're helping me define and clarify!
    Why can't others see the double standard- the inconsistency- the ludicrousness of the statement -
    "“The unique event brings together girls with mental and physical disabilities from across the country who are judged on “what is in their heart and not by how their outfits look.”
    I'm feeling my way forward, one step at a time with Bethany- turning 13 in one month has me looking for ways to validate and build her confidence in who she is- Then sometimes, I think- oh forget it all, let's just skip it and go straight to the heart of the matter- Bethany- you have a gift to give the world- let's serve and help people. I want to make sure its not all about her- but that she realizes she was born with a purpose- and that person is to love and serve others with her talents and abilities. You've given me a lot to chew on- and I totally agree with you!!

  2. Thanks, Lisa, for bringing this to my attention! The name of the pageant itself is enough to make my stomach turn! Aside from the condescending tone of the title, I agree that the pageant itself, inherently reinforces the act of segregation for girls as a whole. Thank you for making us think about what we need to do in order to make this a truly inclusive society.

  3. Hi, Lisa - a blog reader directed me to this post and after reading it, then re-reading it again several hours later, I felt compelled to comment. I'm the mother of not one, but two children with special needs - a daughter with cerebral palsy and a son with Down syndrome - and I have to disagree with you, at least in part. While I would love for both of my children to be included 100% in all activities that typical kids enjoy, that's not today's reality. However, I do believe it could be our reality in the not-so-distant future.

    Once upon a time, there was no Special Olympics - in fact, SO was created when people with intellectual disabilities were not even legally entitled to an education, never mind extracurricular activities. But groups like Special Olympics gave those with ID the opportunity to participate in activities that were otherwise closed to them, and in doing so, the typical world realized, "Hey - folks with ID actually want to play sports, too!" Four decades later, it's not uncommon to see kids with disabilities (intellectual or physical) participating in team sports, cheerleading, and other extracurricular activities. I suspect that Miss Curran started this pageant with the same end goal in mind - for it to be the gateway to more inclusive opportunities.

    100% inclusion is the goal, but it's asking too much to expect a world that's conditioned to resist the notion to eat that elephant in one big bite.

    1. Hi Andi, thanks so much for your thoughts. I think we are actually more on the same page than it may seem. I completely agree with your concept of "baby steps", and I would like to think that society is making progress, little by little.

      That said, my issue is more with the traditional pageant system. If ALL pageants were built on the premise of this one, all of our girls would benefit.

      Thanks again for your input.

  4. Thanks for sharing Lisa. I know I tweeted Zap2it's coverage of this, something unusual for me. Personally I try to avoid promoting articles celebrating segregation, albeit a beauty pageant, special needs summer camp, or what not. However, I really liked the Curran quotes Zap2it included, inferring Miss You Can Do It can help the young girls build confidence. This should help them deal with a sometime cruel world. Overall though the goal should be creating more inclusive opportunities so others can learn to change their attitudes about disabilities.

  5. This is very inspiring! My physically disabled daughter established a volleyball team geared for those who are use powerchairs. She gathered up a few of her disabled and non-disabled friends and created a petition at her school. The school board was so impressed with her efforts that they officially instituted the program. I am so proud of her! I will make sure to inform her about this HBO documentary. She will so excited to see it!


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