Miss Universe 2023: win for inclusion or nothing to celebrate?

Beauty pageant included mothers, plus-sized models and trans women – but fails to distract from global conflict

Miss Universe 2023 Sheynnis Palacios poses for a portrait during the 72nd Miss Universe competition
Miss Nicaragua, Sheynnis Palacios, became embroiled in controversy after winning the Miss Universe competition
(Image credit: Hector Vivas/Getty)

It's time to start talking about beauty pageants again, said Tarah-Lynn Saint-Elien. 

After attending the Miss Universe competition, held in El Salvador in November, "I now consider it my calling to explain why we should all be paying attention," wrote Cosmopolitan's fashion editor. 

For the first time in its 72-year history, the contest allowed mothers, married women and trans women to compete. New owner JKN Global Group, the Thai multinational that purchased Miss Universe last year, has a transgender woman as CEO: Anne Jakrajutatip. "We will adopt a new concept, 'One Universe'," Jakrajutatip said last November. "This will be the world's first beauty contest with real gender equality and inclusion."

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This year, "delegates of all sizes" competed, said Saint-Elien, as well as the first entry from Pakistan and the first Black woman representing Spain. Colombia's representative was the first wife and mother, and made it to the top five. Two trans women competed: Rikkie Valerie Kollé as Miss Netherlands and Marina Machete as Miss Portugal, who finished in the top 20. The winner, Sheynnis Palacios, "made history" as the first Nicaraguan and the first Central American to win the event.

'An empowering, inspirational, leadership platform'

The competition marked "a pivotal moment" in the evolution of pageants, said Wion, "pushing the boundaries of tradition and redefining beauty standards". It "shattered stereotypes and embraced inclusivity in unprecedented ways". It "signalled a shift away" from past pageants, which "adhered to stringent physical criteria". Overall, the competition "sparked a conversation about the industry's role in perpetuating unrealistic standards and limiting opportunities for women who don't fit these narrow moulds".

Miss Nepal, Jane Dipika Garrett, went to the competition intending to "represent real-sized beauty", she told Business Insider. She became the first plus-size model to finish in the top 20 of the competition. Competing was "a trailblazing moment for me", she said. "I felt very empowered and like I was changing society's standards." 

Garrett used her platform to discuss her mental health and hormonal issues. She then received "so many messages from people who said they were inspired by me". Miss Universe is not just a beauty pageant any more, she said. "It's an empowering, inspirational, leadership platform."

'Campy extravagance does not hold off spectre of war'

For Rachel Ulatowski, however, it was a case of too little, too late, she wrote on The Mary Sue. How can Miss Universe "feel no embarrassment" that it's drawing attention to the fact that, until last year, it "openly promoted the idea that only women younger than 28 can be beautiful"? she asked.

The organisation "still discriminates against transgender women", as many state pageants continue to bar trans contestants, preventing many from reaching Miss Universe. These pageants are "trying to pretend that they're becoming more progressive", but they have "simply removed a few archaic rules" in a "feeble attempt" to draw attention away from their "continued discrimination".

And this year's competition has felt troubling for reasons "beyond the objections… to scantily clad young women being assessed by so-called experts", said Rhonda Garelick, columnist for The New York Times's style section. No amount of glitter could "distract us from the darker issues", including the climate crisis, human rights abuses, the 2022 suicide of Cheslie Kryst (Miss USA 2019 and a Miss Universe finalist), and Russia's war against Ukraine. All the "campy extravagance" of the costumes could not "hold off the spectre of war".

The choice of location – El Salvador, which is still under emergency rule amid the dictatorial President Nayib Bukele's brutal crackdown on gangs – was also deeply controversial. Critics claimed it was a ploy to distract from ongoing human rights abuses. Even Pakistan's historic first contestant faced a widespread backlash and threats at home.

These competitions "strive for gravitas, interviewing women about world peace or domestic policies", said Garelick. But "it's hard to turn a pageant into a seminar on global politics", or to "turn women into abstract symbols of nationhood".

Just look at the way Nicaragua treated its contestant's victory, said the Los Angeles Times. Its "increasingly isolated and repressive government" thought it had scored "a rare public relations victory" when 23-year-old Palacios won. But the "legitimate pride and joy" that President Daniel Ortega expressed in a statement "quickly turned into angry condemnation" when it emerged that Palacios had seemingly participated in anti-government protests in 2018. 

Nicaraguans, who face severe restrictions on their right to protest, "took advantage of Palacios' win" as "a rare opportunity to celebrate in the streets". But their use of the national flag, rather than Ortega's Sandinista banner, "didn't sit well with the government".  Vice-president and first lady Rosario Murillo "lashed out" at opposition social media sites, many run from exile, that celebrated Palacios's win. Palacios, who spoke during the competition about her history of debilitating anxiety, has not commented.

Ultimately contestants are not there to "represent noble virtues", said Garelick, but to be "sexy eye candy, to create watchable programming that sells products".

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