The Current

'I didn't enter a beauty pageant to be judged by men': Contestants bring politics to stage

Twenty-three women went on national TV competing to be crowned Miss Peru last Sunday. But instead of describing their body measurements, contestants flipped the script.

Contestants flipped the script at Peru beauty pageant

Miss World Canada 2015 Anastasia Lin believes a beauty pageant is the right platform for women to raise their voice and be a social activist. She has used beauty contests to speak out about human rights abuses in China. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

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Twenty-three women went on Peru's Frecuencia Latina TV network last Sunday, competing to be crowned Miss Peru. But instead of describing their body measurements, contestants flipped the script.

The women used the moment to highlight facts about violence against women in Peru, an idea the pageant organizers said came to them after learning how many of the contestants had been raped or assaulted.

Using the pageant platform to voice political views has taken centre stage more and more recently. 

In 2015, when Anastasia Lin became Miss World Canada, she used the platform to speak out against China's human rights violations. 

That night, she spoke about the Canadian value of freedom and "to do what we think is right and oppose what we think is wrong" and said she would continue to address human rights in Canada.

"Afterward I went to the American Congress, U.K. Parliament, Taiwanese parliament, Canadian Parliament to testify to advocate for human rights."

Lin said she was inspired by 2003 Miss World Canada winner Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who spoke out about China's human rights abuse.

"At the beginning, I wanted to advocate for human rights in China through beauty pageants. But the moment that really got me to take this seriously was when I had to stand onstage and speak about it," she told The Current's Friday host Piya Chattopadhyay.

Lin said after that moment, providence took over.

"My father was threatened in China because of my chosen platform. And that's the moment when I really had to make a choice: to stick to what I believe in, to continue what I came here for, or to give up."

She didn't stop speaking out.

"Because in the past the Communist Party had used this tactic on many Chinese people and the norm is to keep quiet. I grew up in Canada and I never believed that coercion and compromise to coercion will lead to a good result," Lin told Chattopadhyay.

"I believe that more media attention will provide an extra layer of protection for my father as well. So that's why I decided to do it."

The recent Peru pageant and Lin's campaign is "a spectacular subversion of the pageant process," author Susan Cole told Chattopadhyay.

"It signified a collision of values of women speaking out on stage to express their views and the essence of the pageant itself."

For Cole, the idea of beauty pageants and women "parading in front of judges to be judged" is problematic. 

"Women should certainly be political if they're going to be contestants," Cole said, but would rather see beauty pageants become obsolete than use them as a political platform. 

In the last few decades, Lin said, beauty pageants have evolved. 

"I didn't enter a beauty pageant to be judged by men. I am proud of my self body image but I'm not defined by it." Lin said.

But even if Lin doesn't define pageants as solely based on judging beauty, Cole sees the industry this way.

"It's called a beauty pageant. That's why people are being judged, that's why the expectation of its contestants is that they be compliant and that they be passive in this process. And it's when women are not that way that that it becomes a news story," Cole said.

Beauty pageants have changed their criteria, Lin said. 

"The judges don't just look at a girl's look. Oftentimes they have to look at well-roundedly if the girl is able to be a leader in the future, how independent [are] her thoughts."

But there's a particular standard of beauty that pageants are putting on stage, Cole argued.

"Well that standard doesn't just uniquely exist in beauty pageants, it exists across the entire entertainment industry — that's the image that our society has on who looks more beautiful," Lin said.

Listen to the full conversation above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Ines Colabrese, Amra Pasic and Yamri Taddese.